This piece was originally published on the Ma’yan blog.
Talia Cooper outlines seven ways to support kids in having a meaningful and thriving life beyond getting into a “good college.”
So here’s my scoop: 28, female, white, middle class, Jewish, living in Brooklyn with craigslist roommates, no kids, unmarried, serious boyfriend (which means we super dig each other, not that he can’t crack a joke). Sometimes I think about having children.
After attending a lecture by Dr. Lois Weis* on the fanatic drive of middle and owning class parents towards a good college, I started thinking: if I have children, will I too get caught up in this college hysteria? Dr. Weis explains that this craze is understandable because the college a person attends is a big predictor of future class status. But the big college push is not serving healthy youth development. So are there other kinds of success besides class? If success means having a meaningful and thriving life, what tools can I give my kids to support them, besides continuing education?
1. Sustained Creativity
All kids are excited about art. They draw a picture and show it to their parents. They make up a song and sing it to their doll. They discover they can slap out a beat with their hands or a spoon. They make friendship bracelets, jewelry, robots out of boxes, play dress up, and create entire worlds of make believe. But as we get older, the arts get relegated to mere side projects. I don’t want my kids to lose sight of creative possibility. As adults we should look for any opportunity to encourage young people to pursue artistic passions (without jumping to labeling this a career path, unless they take it there first). Art allows us to get in touch with who we are, what we feel, and can even help develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
I want my kids to know that their bodies and emotions are important. That when they work really hard on something, it’s good to rest and reflect. That when they get sick, they need to take time to get better. That a balanced life includes not just work or school but also time with friends, with themselves, and with other interests. That if they’re feeling sad, it’s okay to cry and ask for support. With the drive drive drive to college, many middle class young folks are spending all day at school, all afternoon and evening at sports practices and play rehearsals, and then all night on homework with just a few hours of sleep before starting over again. We are not setting our youth up to know how to take care of their own needs. Some of us adults (read: me) are still working to heal from this past habit-forming trauma. Let’s support youth to rest and explain that it’s okay to say no— a “no” to one thing is actually a “yes” to something else. Self-care has the added bonus of helping us to think more rationally in difficult or potential dangerous situations.
3. Deep connections with all kinds of people
As I said, I am white, Jewish, and have class privilege. Same with my boyfriend. If we have kids, they will likely also have this background. When I was little, I didn’t get a lot of support in how to have relationships with people of color and working class folks. Sure, I was given beautiful images of multiculturalism to aspire to, but without any real information, support or modeling, I ultimately gravitated in large part towards friends who felt like me. I want to give my children the opportunity to be in spaces with people from their own constituencies and from all different races, classes, abilities and religious backgrounds. And I want to give them the space to honestly talk about what that’s like for them– what’s cool, what’s hard, what’s weird, what they need help understanding. The goody bag is this can give an extra grounding in their own identity as well.
4. An understanding of oppression, liberation and complexity
I want my kids to understand that society is unfortunately not treating everyone fairly, that there are certain advantages we have been given because of being white, and there are also certain oppressions we might face for being Jewish. It’s scary to imagine telling kids this—I don’t want to set them up with so much negativity! But explaining these concepts is a way of teaching that we can think about the world complexly. And I want them to know about liberation- how a lot of work has been done and that as Jews we can be proud of and continue our heritage of fighting for justice.
5. A love of learning
I think one of the saddest losses in our education system is the love of learning. I’ve been working with privileged young folks for seven years. Time and again I hear youth say, “I hate school.” Even with some exceptional (and over-worked) teachers, mostly students are stressed, exhausted, and counting down the days until summer. I recently worked with one young person who had been homeschooled his whole life. There are stereotypes that homeschoolers are socially awkward. Not him. He made great friends and he loved to learn. He constantly sought out cooler and more challenging lessons for himself. He hosted big scientific experiments in his garage and invited all his friends to join in. He attended local lectures, wrote essays, and was always thrilled to share his findings. I’m not saying homeschooling is the answer; I am interested in finding a way to keep my kids’ natural curiosity burning inside of them, to learn for the thrill of it rather than the (college) prize at the end of the rainbow. I hope to encourage my kids to ask lots of questions and to meet them with zest. I also want to find a way to let them have power over what they learn, whether that’s in an alternative schooling program, or in afterschool activities, or even just directing family outings.
6. Big dreams
When we make college the singular goal for young people, we risk blocking their ability to have other dreams. Schooling can be an important step in life, but I don’t want college to be the only thing my kids’ entire childhood is focused on.
I remember how when I finally arrived at undergrad, I overheard my roommates talking about needing to get good grades so they could get into a good grad program. All I could think was: “not this again.” I’d just been through four years of that in high school and I refused to do it another time. I want my kids to be able to have all kinds of big dreams. This might include going to college, but it could also mean writing a play, producing a radio show, conducting a science experiment, having a lifelong friendship, putting up an art installation and many other things I can’t imagine. Regularly asking questions encourages dreaming: ‘What excites you?’ ’ ‘What would you like to spend more time on?’ ‘If in ten years you were doing the most awesome thing you could imagine, what would that be?’ ‘Is there anyone alive or dead who you admire? Why?’ ‘If we had no time or financial constraints, what would you do?’ ‘If it were true that everyone in the world existed for some special reason, what do you think yours might be?’ ‘What makes you feel alive?’ Getting answers (or feasible ones) will be less important than getting these questions circling.
7. And finally, loving imperfections
Last year my boyfriend and I met a young boy whose parents had taught him to say, “Yay! A mistake!” when he messed up. We were thrilled to see the resilience this child already exhibited, and found that the phrase was useful in our own lives too.
The most important way I hope to teach these tools is by modeling: taking serious my own creative endeavors, showing that I know how to rest and care for my body, modeling complexity in my own diverse relationships and in my understanding of the world, and talking energetically about my personal big dreams for music and social change. And rather than beating myself up for mistakes (both little and big) or working endlessly to make everything perfect, I want to show that I do my best when possible, apologize for my mistakes and oversights, laugh lovingly at my shortcomings, and grow from experiences. I know that no matter how many blogs I read or write, I will never be the perfect parent of perfect children. But with integrity and love I can model doing my best and being pleased with myself for trying.
From all of this, I’m learning that to me, raising and supporting ‘successful’ and thriving kids will mean that they have and can access the above listed tools. Though the college pressures come from outside the home too, the more of us who can emphasize these tools, the more our youth will prioritize them as well (even if they do go to an Ivy League). These tools won’t totally inoculate us against the college stress (there are some structural things that will have to change first!), but they can help give us and our kids a broader perspective on what really matters in life: our humanness, our connections, and our dreams.
What are the tools you want to give your kids or students? Or what do you wish you had been given? What does “success” mean to you? I wrote this from my own perspective- how does this change for families with different backgrounds?
Talia Cooper is Ma’yan’s Program Director. Talia attended the following schools: The Next Best Step Pre-School, Berkwood Hedge Elementary, Longfellow Middle School, Berkeley High School, The Mountain School, and Oberlin College. She is the former Executive Director of Jewish Youth for Community Action. She can also be found playing music. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Dr. Lois Weis is the author of Driving Towards College Admissions: Class Consolidation in New Times. Coming out soon!