Saturday, January 05, 2013

Teach Your Children Well Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success Why Values and Coping Skills Matter More than Grades, Trophies, or "Fat" Envelopes

Author: Madeline Levine PhD

Publication: Harper Collins, 2012

My Star Rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It

My Summary Statement: Reassuring - Puts Well-Being Above Super High Achievement

I thought by moving to Houston last year I would escape the super high achieving mindset that surrounded me in the Fairfield County, Connecticut, and New York City Metro Area but I was wrong. Over-achievement is everywhere, apparently. Preschoolers are pushed to do formal academic lessons early, elementary grade kids are over-scheduled, middle schoolers are in a rough stage with puberty and a main focus on social stuff, and high schoolers are crammed with AP classes, staying up until midnight, drinking energy drinks to help them through their homework while also doing at least one if not three intense extra-curricular activities. Additionally the teens are tempted to experiment with drinking, drugs, and sex, behaviors that are risky and if things go wrong, can have major negative implications.

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN WELL is an antidote in that it shows the negative side of high achievement and how only a small percentage of kids thrives with extreme rigor and will land at the elite colleges. This book is written for the 85-90% of the other kids who have physical or emotional problems caused by an attempt to over-achieve.

My family chose to homeschool to avoid some of the problems that are caused by one size fits all schooling and the issue of trying to cram square pegs into round holes. As I read the book I felt reassured, first because our family’s parenting style is the same as what Levine recommends (although she never mentions homeschooling in the book). I needed to hear what Levine said because although we homeschool we are still surrounded by high achieving homeschoolers, some who advocate that things must be done this one right way in order to gain admission to those elite colleges and to get scholarships. Also some colleges now require more standardized testing of homeschoolers than they do of schooled kids, and of course they want the high test scores and also high grades in their homeschool courses, so homeschooled kids have pressure from the colleges not just their parents or peers.

In Part One, Levine outlines the problems that modern day kids have when they live over-scheduled and stressed out lives. She defines what many in our society say success is and how this is unrealistic, for every above average child there is a child who is below average and the schools are not helping each child become the best they can be at their unique abilities, the system of grading and ranking is a system in which there are winners and losers. Levine talks about problems such as anxiety and increased rates of depression and behavior such as self-mutilation by cutting.

Then in Part Two, Levine provides long chapters that summarize the elementary, middle, and high school years. Developmental stages are explained and the major challenges of those stages are discussed. Levine shares stories of clients she has worked with in her counseling practice to illustrate her points. The high school section is some of the best writing for parents I have found.

In Part Three Levine focuses on “the resilience factor”. One chapter is about kids finding their own solutions to problems they encounter (vs. relying on a helicopter mom to solve everything). Another chapter is on teaching kids to feel empowered to take action by learning self-control, learning impulse control, and to delay personal gratification.

Part Four focuses more on the parents and their parenting choices. The chapter on family values was not what I thought it would be, it discusses defining the family’s version of success and barely touches on what I think of when I think of “family values”. It focuses more on asking if the parents model the behavior and choices we wish our kids to have. The core value checklist on page 254 lists some strange values that people may have: “popularity, having power over others, making lots of money being a people please, optimism, being self-directed” and more. Well I don’t need Levine to help me define my values, I’m set in that area and I like the book too much to rate it lower than 5 stars.

The last chapter closes with more thoughts for the parents to look inward to ourselves and see what part we may play in this modern parenting “norm” of over-scheduling our kids, having lives that revolve around our children’s academics and enrichment, and how our negative experiences growing up may influence our parenting today.

Regarding schooling, at one point the author encourages parents to put their kids in a school that is a better fit, and cites smaller class size. I can only assume she refers to either pulling them out of public school for a private school or moving from one private school to another. This is not an option for everyone due to cost. As I said earlier she never mentions homeschooling as an option which indeed would save some kids who have suffered in school. I have no clue what her stance on homeschooling is but I’d like her to know that our homeschool family and many I know are living out the beliefs that she recommends thanks to homeschooling. A number of homeschoolers I know chose it because they could not afford private school for more than one child or due to the fact that one formerly professional career woman is now an at-home mother.

My only critique of the book is somehow Levine keeps everything so optimistic when in fact it is harder to take action on some of the vague statements. In the elementary grades for example the advice for homework was not appropriate for kids with learning disabilities. It just is not easy when dealing with a child with and LD – she glosses over this and makes it seem too simple, leading me to believe that she does not empathize enough with LD kids or that she just doesn’t’ “get it”. I understand it is hard to write a general book on parenting and not get bogged down by giving too many ideas for processes and techniques to execute on ideas; her do’s and don’ts sections are helpful but are still limiting in a way. I know she says parenting is challenging but somehow she comes across making doing things “right” seem too easy. I find parenting really, really challenging, requiring lots of energy and creative thinking not to mention perseverance and tenacity. Walking the line between doing too much for our kids and not doing enough is a hard one, such as giving a teen space while not disconnecting emotionally.

This book did not shock me or surprise me with many new ideas but that is okay. Levine wants our kids to be physically and emotionally healthy first and foremost. Second, that the children are allowed to become the best they can be given their unique strengths and talents. She busts the myth that every child can be a top grade student in all the hardest classes plus do a ton of extra-curriculars and win all their competitions and then gain admission to elite colleges with big scholarships. Since I am surrounded by over-achievers I needed to hear this stuff.

I marked up the margins of the book and know I will return to it again and again for reassurance that at least one person (other than my spouse) thinks I’m doing a good enough job raising my kids.

I rate this book 5 stars = I Love It.

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