My four-year-old daughter, and younger of the two, recently started her official preschool at the child care center. I was informed by one of the teachers that she would now have homework on Mondays and Tuesdays. Mondays will be writing practice with the alphabet, two pages of it, and Tuesdays, “math practice,” or writing of numbers, two pages of them.
My husband and I are both from the South Side of Chicago, which is not renowned for its production of great thinkers, but we now live on the North Side, thanks to our city educations that drew us north, little by little, over the years. Now, I may be coming from a place that was lacking when it came to preparing our youth for the challenges of STEM (the newest cult in education, meant to steer young impressionable minds toward Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics…we don’t need Art to successfully invent any of those ideas!) and for the extreme competitive sport of Getting Into a Good High School in Chicago, but this recent development left me feeling very worried for my girls.
My older daughter, presently eleven years old and in the sixth grade, attends one of the most beneficial magnet schools in Chicago, the first established in Chicago in 1974, in fact. After getting into the school, she tested into the “gifted” track, established for the handful of children each year who are able to score in the 90th percentile on the standardized tests, as well as remain in the 90th percentile in the classroom. She already experiences the kind of stress you can feel in the center of your chest. You might know the kind--that dull pain that feels heavy when you inhale until the situation has passed. I was told by a therapist that it’s actually our primal “fight or flight” instinct at work, but over an extended period of time, versus the way it worked in our Neanderthal days, until the predator had left the area.
Here’s what will keep me awake at night: it isn’t bad enough that we are putting so much pressure on the elementary school kids (My eldest had homework from Kindergarten on) to perform inside the classroom as well as out, and starting them younger and younger, but now that cultish education is seeping more and more into after school time. Now, I can still stay on board when we’re trying to train our kids to be lifelong learners, and when we’re attempting, as curriculum designers, to help kids find useful careers in an uncertain future workplace, but when my kids are home in the evenings, finished with their homework, I expect them to be in this learning environment. This is the learning environment that parents, teachers, and administrators seem to be taking more and more for granted—family, neighbors, friends, boredom, youthful inventiveness. When young students have so much homework, along with all the guided extracurricular activities we’ve become so accustomed to supplying, that they have no time to think for themselves, what are they missing?
I am fully aware of the problems many Chicago families face when it comes to education. Many families are not as fortunate as we, and struggle with poverty, violence, and homelessness. These are very real problems that can and may be alleviated, partially, for our children by keeping them as busy as possible with before and after school programs, free school breakfasts and lunches, and hours of homework. Many kids may benefit from the education system becoming a non-official foster parent or big brother. I have no problem with that, per se (that’s another story altogether). My problem lies in fitting all Chicago Public School children into that goal. It seems very obvious to me that you can’t fit 400,000 kids into the same mold.
The lives our children lead after school vary as much as the colors of our skin here in the Windy City. We are all different, our families are different, our children are different. Having our children immersed in our family culture, whatever it may be, is just as important as having them immersed in quality education. We can make judgements about what we think a “good” family is, but the family is the family, good or bad, for better or worse. Obviously, this can be considered a bad thing in some unfortunate situations, but it isn’t always, and things aren’t always what they seem on the surface.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family on the South East Side. My father had begun to lose his mind when I was eight years old, my mother started working full-time for $4.25 an hour, and I was an only child. I received a key to the house and was required to care for myself until my mother came home from work. While my father was homeless after my mother divorced him, he made an arrangement with me to bring him food from the downstairs pantry while my mother was still at work. My mother and I would make the drive into Indiana where grocery tax was cheaper, to shop at the discount store, where my job was to hold the calculator and add up the cost of each item to ensure we had enough money when we got to the check out. My mother never used food stamps, but we could’ve used them, that’s for sure.
The point is that I benefitted from all of it. I learned very important life skills like how to decide, on my own, how to occupy my own time. I learned how to come up with ideas of my own and what kind of things I chose, on my own, to do with my time, like writing and listening to music (and yes, getting into trouble sometimes). I learned that I could paint rooms and refinish furniture to change an old thing into something new (albeit sometimes hideous). I learned what I was made of, physically and mentally. I learned to ignore harsh criticisms and to deal with pain. I learned how to be alone and how to choose friends. I learned which items were the most important to put in that grocery cart and which weren’t. I admit, I’m very glad my children aren’t living that life after school and I’m glad they aren’t in a neighborhood where they need to walk in groups and watch their backs to and from school where kids get shot and killed. Just like the rest of Chicago parents, I worry for the kids who do. But what we are forgetting, I think, is that these kids are also learning to be strong enough to face the realities of their lives.
Comparing after school life experiences can be polarizing and some are more significantly worrisome than others, of course. What I’m getting at is that if we occupy our kids with so many after-school activities and homework, when do they learn to be strong enough to face the realities in each of their lives, be those realities physical violence or how to successfully occupy their own minds? These after-school experiences with the people in their lives, family, friends, neighbors, are just as much an educational experience as the alphabet and calculus.
Both in Chicago, and the assumed-safer suburbs, parents are often not allowing their children to walk places or to roam freely in their neighborhoods like I did as a child. I loved that freedom. I have chosen to allow my older daughter to ride her bike in the neighborhood and to walk places, within reason and while communicating with me via her cell phone (I am a victim of the media too, but trying to fight it). I want her to learn independence and choice. I want her to study and succeed in her education, of course, but I want her to also have the time, space, and independence to discover what she wants and what she is made of. I hope to give her more and more freedom each year she grows and learns common sense. The more she thinks freely, the better she gets at it—I’ve been watching it happen.
As do most parents, I too worry about her becoming a victim. I see news stories about children being abducted or accidentally shot by a gang member with bad aim, and I feel frightened. I don’t want her to be a victim, but I think there is a fate worse—her making her own self a victim. If she can’t think for herself, if she doesn’t know her strengths and limits, she victimizes herself every day of her life. She is the victim of fear. That is a bigger risk than allowing her to walk to the convenience store or home from school. That is a bigger risk than keeping her so busy that she doesn’t get to know the strange neighbor down the street (that may turn out to be one of the better influences in her life because she is different), or what her instinct will guide her to do when there is nothing to do, or who she will choose for company when the chance arises. These are the kinds of choices in childhood that guide us to later, wisely choose college majors, to differentiate lifelong friends from acquaintances, to deal with pain, disappointment, and failure, to choose a spouse.
No parent can ever know if their choices in raising their children are the right ones at the time. It’s only something that time will tell and there are many factors that a parent cannot ever control. I do hope, however, that my parenting choices will help my daughters to be independent in a world I really can’t prepare them for. I hope they don’t become victims to their own fears. I hope they learn to sift the real from the unimportant. I hope their youthful education includes much, much more than STEM. I hope they are able to find out who they are before everyone else starts to tell them. I hope.