April 5, 1996 in City

Hey Kids, Life Is Learning And Earning

Leonard Pitts Jr. Knight-Ridder
 
Tags:column

I’m gladdened by a recent decision by the Dade County, Fla. School Board to make things harder for its children. In case you hadn’t heard, the fourth-largest school district in the country has voted, pending final approval next month, to allow elementary schools to flunk kids more readily.

No more so-called “social promotions” where underachievers are passed ahead to spare them the indignity of sitting in class with kids younger and smaller. From now on, if kids want to avoid that embarrassment, there’s only one thing to do: Pass the class.

I’d like to believe this means someone, somewhere has decided it is not the schools’ responsibility to give children esteem. Rather, the schools are there to give children an education, the ACHIEVEMENT of which bestows esteem.

There’s a difference, one that often gets lost amid the loud and unproductive debate over what we owe our children.

I’m reminded of an interview I did about 20 years ago with a singer named Sammy Strain. We got off on a tangent about child-rearing, and Sam told me that despite the fact that he made a comfortable living, he would never give a child of his an automobile the way many wealthy - and not-so-wealthy - people are often do. He would provide food, shelter, love and education, mind you, but the extras, the goodies he wanted his children to go out and earn.

Back then, I was scandalized by his miserliness. Today I’m appreciative of his good sense.

What do we owe our children?

We MUST owe them something. After all, don’t we want our offspring to have it better than we did? Isn’t that a parent’s most natural inclination?

Consider the baby boomers: WE were supremely spoiled by our parents who, having suffered economic privation and global war, made the familiar pledge that their children would never know the hardships they did. Curiously, having suffered nothing worse than suburbia in the ‘50s, many boomers nonetheless made the same promise: My kids will have it better than I did. And therein lies the root of much of our dysfunction.

What do we owe our children?

In the 30 years that baby boomers have been parenting, policy and philosophy have been driven by the notion that we owe them an air-cushioned ride through life. So we taught ourselves to be “non-judgmental” when they screw up. Allowed our schools to pass them through, ignorant and self-satisfied, in the name of self-esteem. Turned the family from a benign dictatorship into an unwieldy democracy. Abolished the notion of shame or personal responsibility.

With the best of intentions, we have made the worst of decisions: We have abdicated our roles as teachers and lawgivers. The politics of expedience aside, this is not truth that belongs to the left or the right. It’s just truth.

To my mind, the Dade County School Board is only doing what Sam Strain did 20 years ago: challenging children to achieve. It might sound radical to modern ears, but parents used to say the same things all the time in maxims that were as predictable as spring but no less true for that:

Anything worth having is worth working for …

You’ve got to earn your way in life …

Nothing beats a failure but a try …

A child accustomed to an air-cushioned ride is likely to fold like a lawn chair at the first bump in the road. Air-cushioned rides turn out wimps and weenies, and life eats them for breakfast.

Because life doesn’t know from good intentions and non-judgmental thinking. Life does what life always has - deals out cuts and contusions, bruises and abrasions with no apparent concern for what is fair or fun. Victory and esteem invariably go not to the child whose parents protected him from that but to the one whose folks tried to PREPARE him for it.

Life is tough. A winner must be tougher.

We owe it to our children to tell them that.

xxxx

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