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The Doctor's Corner

Dr. David Harley B.A.,M.A.,M.A.,Ph.D.

Dr. Harley completed a Master’s degree in Philosophy specializing in analytical philosophy and philosophy of mind as well as a Master’s degree in History specializing in early 20th century intellectual history.  He completed a Ph.D. degree in Education at the University of Toronto specializing in educational theory in general and the educational theory and practice of the noted British philosopher Bertrand Russell in specific.  His thesis research employed the assistance of Bertrand Russell’s daughter to track down ex-teachers and ex-students from his experimental school Beacon Hill.  He was awarded a Canada Council Doctoral Award as well as a Canada Council Post Doctoral Award.  He has over 30 years of direct experience as an educational consultant, principal, school administrator and researcher.

The purpose of his blog is to present various opinions, articles and book reviews related to the current state of education and the changing challenges presented to students, teachers and parents. 

Book Reveiw: He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son To Believe In Himself

He’s Not Lazy:  Empowering Your Son To Believe In Himself   Adam Price, PhD. New York:  Sterling, 2017.  272 pages.

This book was recently brought to my attention by a parent who expressed some concerns as to its messaging.  I decided to place it on my ‘must read’ list.  The exercise proved to be informative and has given rise to the following.

The book He’s Not Lazy contains some interesting insights and some advice which if taken and then applied in an appropriate context can be of benefit.  However, it also provides enough elasticity in the reader’s possible interpretations of what, when, why and how to act that genuine harm could result.  Finally, like many other books in the same vein, it incorporates certain assumptions that though fashionable and widely held are far from being the self evident truths that they purport to be.  It is a book that in other places or at other times might be greeted with disbelief and denial.  It does however seem to fit well into the current context and fashion that frames discussions around the subject of parenting.

It is always a source of fascination to me that so much of what is currently believed is so time, place and culturally specific but externalized and universalized in such a way as to suggest that no other views are or have ever been tenable.  Having spent a significant amount of time living in Singapore and Malaysia,  I continue to be amazed at how in places where schools and parents do everything wrong according to the ‘science’ that prevails here, that they are capable of producing such excellent results.  But perhaps those children are just made of tougher stuff since the stress, competition and over parenting should by all accounts render them incapable of being happy or productive adults.  I have seen little evidence of this anticipated failure and in point of fact just the opposite appears to be the case.

One of the main advantages of living a long life or the studying of intellectual history is the experience of seeing how the assumptions of one generation can be utterly discarded by the next just as that generation abandoned those of their predecessors.  What is true of the distancing of time is also true of geographical distancing and most certainly the combination of the two cannot help but breed a sense of relativism or at the very least substantial doubt.  Each in its turn can have the effect of bringing the fact squarely home that what is held to be true really might not be true or will remain to be perceived as such.

The title of the book and indeed its main argument is that boys are not lazy but rather that their lack of effort stems from emotional confusion and insecurities.  It is therefore presented as a major parenting shortcoming to not understand this fact and to in ignorance misapply the term to an apparent lack of effort.  However, so much of current narrative seems to be in and around issues of political correctness and not stating the obvious and this presents itself as another possible instance.  The substitution of ‘harsh interrogation’ for ‘torture’ does little to change the facts but does if repeated enough tend towards an increased level of tolerance and decreased level of reaction as reality is made to conform to language as opposed to having language conform to reality.  In the same manner that some parties are arguing that the term ‘obese’ should not be used because it may offend those who experience ‘weight challenges’, apparently the use of the term ‘lazy’ is offensive and should not to be used in any connection related to academic performance. I assume therefore that the politically correct description would be lack of effort, effort deficit or perhaps in keeping with George Orwell’s 1984 ‘newspeak’ un-effort or perhaps un-work. 

If in some countries poor academic performance is attributable to either horn of the dialectic —-stupid or lazy, the now current third possibility is that of being emotionally confused.  This emotional confusion has inputs from numerous sources such that the responsibility for sorting out or creating the confusion is impossible to attribute to any given source or individual.   We should be therefore grateful to the plethora of professional experts who have emerged to meet the challenge and provide advice, recipes and mentorship.  It is perhaps not an accident that such books focus on the ‘success’ cases that one assumes have been accurately and truthfully retold and exclude those that met with little or no success.

Apart from the term ‘lazy’ another term that the author takes special attention to is the term ‘potential’. Here we learn that in his childhood significant damage was done to the author by virtue of a teacher indicating that he was not working to his potential.

“As a ten-year-old boy I received some shocking news:  I was not living up to my potential!  At least this was the report delivered to my mother, at the annual parent-teacher conference, by Ms. Beca, my fourth-grade teacher.  Although this feedback was meant to prod me to greater academic heights, it only led to confusion.  I took this to mean I was not smart enough.  Was there some unfulfilled level of accomplishment out there I had yet to reach?  Have I achieved it yet?  Have you?”

And again:

“Potential is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—it’s a term that sounds like its all about growth, but which has really become synonymous with competition.  When parent’s complain that their son is not achieving his potential, what they are really saying is “I believe he’s so smart that if he worked up to his potential 100 percent of the time, he’d be at the top of his class.”

This would seem to indicate that the author was a very sensitive little boy who arguably took great offence where none was probably intended.  It does however seem to be an experience that like the particle of grit in an oyster giving rise to an irritation, requires being acted upon over a long period of time in order to neutralize it. 

If a boy’s marks are well below the class average or of any concern, I can frankly think of no more damning a comment that a teacher could make than saying that he is working to his potential.  But since the latter statement infers the suggestion of inherent limitations whereas the former is emotionally abusive, it seem safer to simply remove this word from our vocabulary together with the word ‘lazy’ along with perhaps ‘fat’ and ‘obese’. 

The author states very clearly what the stated intention and purpose of his book is:

“By the end of this book you will have shifted paradigms to one where your son is not lazy.  Instead, you will realize that his brain is still developing; he is searching for manhood, worried about his future, and in need of great autonomy, more accountability, and the freedom to fail.  You will learn to ask different questions, listen more closely to his answers, and give him the trust he needs, so he can begin to believe in himself.”

I find that the book contains information and advice very much along the same lines as reading astrology predictions in the weekday paper. The reader is presented with a suitable level of ambiguity that facilitates varied interpretations while at the same time being largely devoid of any specific content. This is at once an appeal of the book since as a result it is possible for many parents to read into it what they wish to while at the same time being its most fundamental flaw.  While being capable of evoking different interpretations subject to specific instances, it avoids any ultimate accountability for results.

Let me start with the issue of lazy.  Yes, laziness does exist and it involves a lack of effort, not putting in effort and avoiding things one wishes to not do.  One could develop a psychological explanation for your son not putting away his socks and leaving clothes on the floor and indeed perhaps a pathology could be created around it.  However, in the practical context of everyday life, this is a result of his not doing something that he does not wish to exert himself over and perhaps even involving the expectation that his mother or the resident fairies will do it for him.  Increasingly, among many boys growing up in comfortable and supportive environments, there is an increasing sense that they should not be required to do anything that they do not want to do or that they feel that somebody else will do for them.  Effort, they believe, should only be exerted into things or activities that either they enjoy or that end up meeting their short term desires.  Intelligence, they hold, involves a conservation of energy and certainly given these assumptions the development of a ‘work ethic’ is a departure into the realm of the irrational.

Laziness is related to impulsivity, immaturity and procrastination all of which are features of living wholly in the present, not thinking about the future and often not thinking about others.  Like the aristocracies of previous ages or the ultra rich of today, many activities are perceived as being merely beneath them and should be performed by lessor mortals.  However, the most important shared characteristic is that of a lack of self-reliance, self-direction or self-control.  Each of these terms relate to the same central issue, that being the ability to relate and control present actions towards some future goal or objective. Focusing on the immediate here and now may be a desirable zen practice i.e. the eternal present, however it is neither desirable or productive in terms of maturation.  Even squirrels gather nuts for winter or face starvation.

Music lessons provide interesting examples of varying approaches to parenting.  Your child says that he would like to learn the violin.  You purchase the instrument and arrange for lessons.  After several months, the child in frustration of practicing for some weeks finds that they are not suitably proficient and abandons the instrument in favour of a flute.  You then purchase a flute and arrange for lessons only to find that a similar thing happens and that instrument is abandoned in favour of a piano.  After a number of frustrating starts and finishes and an accumulation of unused musical instruments as well as wasted music lessons, the child abandons all hope of ever being able to play a musical instrument and decides to listen to cds instead.  What is wrong with this picture?   After all, the parent is merely allowing the child to find themselves and of course to explore their individuality?  What is wrong is the magical thinking possessed by many children that they will pick up an instrument and be able to with little effort and investment play it proficiently.  When this doesn’t happen, there is clearly nothing wrong with the premise only something wrong with the choice of instrument. 

Virtually all children learning to play musical instruments go through an initial romance period to a point where it is realized that effort and sustained practice are going to be necessary to reach the level of competency that will allow them to derive satisfaction from the process.  This discipline is something that parents must normally assist in respect of commitment and follow through with a task, project or ambition that transcends the magical thinking stage to that of actual achievement.  It involves coaching, encouragement and commitment.  Whereas it may not be desirable to insist upon hours and hours of practice with a threat of regular beatings if not done, it is equally not desirable to assume that a child will continue to practice and put forth a suitable effort without the direction of a parent, teacher or coach.

Whereas it is true that there is such a thing as over parenting, there is also such a thing as under parenting.  The belief that children flourish provided that adults stay well clear and that problems with children arise only as a direct result of adult interference is one of the great fallacies of the progressive education movement.  It also underlies and supports the assumptions responsible for much if not most of current misguided educational philosophies and approaches.  The abrogation of adult guidance and responsibility fits well within this framework and correspondingly provides the opportunity to transform a defect into a strength.  Statements inferring that a child’s brain grows like a turnip and needs to be left alone to mature not only miss the point that the child’s mind and brain are one and the same thing, but also the point that mental development depends upon experience.  Nobody would seriously contend that if a boy was placed in a coma at 12 years of age, fed intravenously and then taken out of that state when 19 that he would emerge capable of immediately forming ‘mature’ judgements.  However, the argument is often framed as if that were the case by those appealing to the latest discoveries in neurology to support their hands off policies.

To go back to my earlier example of Singaporean parenting, they regard education in much the same manner as many Canadian families regard competitive sports.  If as much rigour and effort was directed towards improving performance in math as there is in playing hockey, there is little doubt that Canada would do much better in international math competitions.  However, for some reason, the principles that are uncontested with regards to the coaching and training philosophies governing sports, are considered too harsh or humiliating to be applicable to academics.  In Asia, these priorities are largely reversed with the corresponding results.

The current fashion is for parents to ‘advocate’ on behalf of their child.  Unfortunately, advocating is a legal process that involves the inherent moral ambiguity enshrined in law that guilt is less important than process.  On this basis, a lawyer knowing his client to be guilty is still justified within the framework of legal morality to do his or her best to see that the client is not convicted and can use any conceivable technicality to achieve this objective.  As a result it could be said that the means justifies the end.  In this regard, current legal proceedings are not that far removed from medieval trial by combat with swords being exchanged for pens. 

Parents employing this strategy of attempting to ensure that their child does not face the consequences of his or her actions or that every method is used to displace responsibility and blame to others feeds into the moral duplicity that will later come back to haunt them.  Parents demanding special consideration or exemptions for their child undermine the principles of meritocracy that are supposed to be an inherent component of educational assessment.  Ironically, the very people who demand special accommodations and considerations for their own child tend to be the very people who make no such considerations when dealing with other members of the human race.

Morality and ethics are based upon the principle of universality which is to say that if it is wrong for you it is wrong for me.  One of the characteristics of immature children is their dual code of conduct.  The same child who will take something from another child believing it to be a justified act will be utterly indignant when another child takes something from them.  One of the fundamental building blocks of moral development is the grasping of the concept that rules that one expects to apply to others should be also binding upon oneself.  This is a fact that is supposed to be grasped early in life but which appears increasingly to be bypassed by many functioning parents.  The two standards of moral conduct combined with the belief that it is only wrong if you get caught have increasingly conspired to bring us to the current sad state of world affairs.

Making a child responsible for his or her own actions starts early in life and must also be reflected as a value in the parents and role models that form the influences in the family,  school environment and society at large.  The problems that many parents experience with children growing up are a result of inconsistencies in the family environment over time compounded by those in the environments outside of their control.  The British philosopher and educator Bertrand Russell once stated that a fundamental rule of early childhood parenting was to allow the child to suffer the natural consequences of his or her actions whenever feasible barring of course situations presenting danger.  To not follow this practice and then support the view that teenagers have a right to make their own decisions seems to fly in the face of logic since they have been essentially unplugged from reality and have therefore been rendered largely dysfunctional.   Then of course, there is the further issue of the scale of decisions relative to their importance and potential impact on a child’s future, tending to increase in long term significance with age at precisely the time when the required levels of maturity and judgment are absent. 

The situation that I am advised of constantly by parents is the fact that they are unable to control the behaviour of their son and that he does not respond to parental authority.  Inherent in this is often a cluster of attitudes and behaviours that leaves parents both shocked and confused largely as a result of not being able to possibly conceive of themselves as having ever behaved in this manner with their own parents.  This dynamic involves not only a refusal to obey rules or follow advice but also a flat denial that the adults are entitled to or have any experience or knowledge putting them in a situation to be able to do so.  The view that adults are not grown ups but rather decayed teenagers seems prevalent.  The distractions  that abound as well as the vast quantities of information available through the internet serve to only provide a confused and distorted view of reality.  Quality of information has given way to quantity of information and with that has developed the inability to distinguish the difference.  Shrinking vocabularies combined with low literacy rates have made both the formulation as well as the expression of thoughts more problematic. The view that truth is indexed by intensity of feeling has further given rise to a lack of tolerance of the opinions of others coupled with a refusal to entertain disquieting facts or counter arguments.

It is interesting to note that many people feel that it is necessary to take a puppy to obedience school in order to learn how to become a responsible owner and how to end up with a creature capable of living within the house without destroying it.  Parenting however is a skill that few feel that they need advice or instruction with until it is often too late.  Prior to this, each parent feels that they are an instant expert based upon the experience of their own upbringing.  The solution is simple.  Duplicate the things that you liked about your upbringing and remove all of the things that you did not like or disagreed with at the time.

Unfortunately, life is not so simple and it is far too often the case that the things in life that have resulted in strengths and resiliency are those very things that we did not like or agree with or that we would have if given the choice avoided.  Character does not emerge from the removal of frustration but rather is developed through it.  The imperfections in life may provide excuses but never justifications.  In the final analysis, it is only by assuming responsibility for our own actions that we are able to gain the freedom to be able to direct them.

Parenting involves guidance and leadership.  Implicit in this is the assumption that parents and children are not equal.  A ‘grown up’ is precisely what the statement implies.  With growth and experience comes or at least should come the development of wisdom.  With wisdom and love comes the good parenting that provides not what a child wants but rather what he or she needs.

In conclusion, it is interesting to speculate about the author of the book in question and his experience of being accused in Grade 4 of not working to his potential. Would he have written the book if that comment had never been made? Would he have become a psychologist? It should give us pause to think about the positive effect some negative experiences as well as the negative effect of some positive experiences. Do we need to create a perfect environment to raise a perfect child or is it in the end character that defines us? Neither comfort or complacency evoke reaction but they can cause a reluctance to engage the world. In many cases what we become hangs upon our response to things that at the time they occured we would have chosen to avoid. The oyster forms a pearl around a piece of grit. Perhaps we have more in common with shellfish than we realized. 

A Call to Action: Academic Skill Deficiencies in Four Ontario Universities

A Call to Action:  Academic Skill Deficiencies in Four Ontario Universities. April 2019 Contributors J. Paul Grayson (York University) James Cote (Western University) Liang Chen (University of Toronto) Robert Kennedy (York University) Sharon Roberts (University of Waterloo)

This study came to my attention as a result of an article appearing in the National Post discussing it and also providing a link to the original study.  It is well worth reading in full but I will provide here an overview of its findings and arguments.

The study arose out of concerns with respect to perceived weakness in undergraduate university students and graduates.  A prior study had already been conducted by Statistics Canada indicating an alarming number of university graduates with low levels of functioning literacy and numeracy skills and the study in question was intended to further explore these results.  Four universities in Ontario were represented which together comprised 41% of all Ontario undergraduate students.  As such, the questionaires and surveys conducted in 2017 and 2018 were based upon a compelling number of participants.

The questions asked in 2017 involved self-assessments focused around abilities in writing, taking tests, analysis, time and group management, giving presentations and elementary numeracy skills.  As a result of the testing 51% scored as “functional” 27% were classified as “at risk” and 22% were categorized as “dysfunctional”.  The same testing conducted at three other universities at the same time the following year yielded 44% as “functional” 41% “at risk” and 16% as “dysfunctional”.  Interestingly, this testing revealed no variation by year of study thereby indicating that students entered and left university without mastering very basic academic skills.

Important conclusions were drawn from this data:

“Although the provincial system has clearly articulated and laudable objectives, these desiderata are not being met to the extent that most people assume.  Our results suggest that large numbers of unprepared graduates of Ontario high schools enter the provinces’ universities.  Moreover, their deficiencies are often not remedied over the course of their studies. As a result it is likely that many employers end up with new employees who are unable to live up to expectations regarding their ability to process more abstract types of information.”

And again:

“What is to be done?  Most importantly, steps need to be taken to ensure that, consistent with provincial objectives, graduates of Ontario’s secondary schools possess the basic academic skills necessary for university success, future employment, and democratic citizenship.  Once these skills are established, they need to be further honed at the university level.”

It is also of interest to note the acknowledged issue of grade inflation which the study maintains is either widely ignored or denied by school administrators.  According to the study 45% or almost half of the students in the study who were designated as dysfunctional achieved an A average or higher in their final high school year.  The study concludes “…it was possible to be dysfunctional as defined here and still pass high school courses with flying colours.”  Of the dysfunctional group 45% had received an A average or above in high school but only 5% were able to achieve a A average at university. With regard to math and science students specifically, among the students that the study identified as functional, 82% received high school grades great than or equal to an A average.  However for the groups identified as at-risk 73% received these grades and  among the group identified as dysfunctional 77% received these grades.

The rest of the study proposes various solutions or partial solutions to address the issues.  These include a standardized entrance test to be conducted at the time of application to university, offering courses at university to teach the skill sets assumed to have been taught at the high school level and revising the current high school system to address the core skill sets required.

However, before addressing the possible solution sets available to address these issues, it is important to make a digression into the material circumstances and assumptions defining the context of that discussion.  For it is abundantly clear that there are perspectives from both sides of this fence involving very different views as to the roles and priorities of each.

Having taught at both the university and high school level, I am personally and acutely aware of the growing gap between a high school and a university education.  Being old enough to have experienced an Ontario 5 year high school programme, the Grade 12 four year diploma was identified as a graduation directed either towards the work force or community college.  The Grade 13 diploma, on the other hand was invariably identified as a year preparatory and preliminary to university. Grade 13 involved the writing of standardized provincial exams that were compiled by the government and marked independently.  This ensured a more or less even playing field in terms of basic levels of competency and knowledge to be factored into the university admission process.  As of 1970, provincial exams were eliminated in Ontario and therefore the retention of standards became primarily the responsibility of individual schools. With time, this philosophy spread to most of the other provinces with only a few retaining independent examinations.

When Grade 13 was eliminated in Ontario and replaced by the 30 credit single diploma fondly referred to by some as Grade 12 ½, the Grade 13 courses were replaced by OAC credits.  These courses incorporated suggestions and input from university professors with a view to transition to university first year courses.  However, by the year 2000 when the new grand strategy to improve education in the province was unveiled, no such pretense or intention was preserved and the concept of education as a hierarchical meritocracy was entirely dropped.  During a presentation given by the Ontario Ministry of Education to private school principals that I attended, a spokesperson defiantly announced that high schools were not “clearing houses for universities” and would never return to that role.  At this point, it would seem, the entire concept of ‘higher’ education was abandoned in terms of high school to university in favour of high school and ‘other’ education with there being nothing necessarily ‘higher’ about it.

Of course in the intervening decades that have since passed, public education has moved on and continues to be viewed internal to its own operation as a story of perpetual improvement.  As such, it is regarded by its own administrative stakeholders as better than anything that has existed before.   Curiously, however, there is no tangible or demonstrable proof of these claims other than in the rhetoric of the objectives that it claims to have achieved.

My point in saying all of this is to point out there is a rift greater than the Grand Canyon between the philosophy and governance of the public educational system and universities.  Apart from not seeing their job as preparing anyone for university, the skill sets assumed by universities as being an integral part of education such as fundamental numeracy and literacy are not valued in the same manner.  Indeed, at virtually every juncture, the substantive mastery of content is sacrificed in favour of the emphasis upon the student’s own perception of their own success and finding different methods of assessment to ensure as much as possible that success.  As such, public education has assumed other priorities central to which is a process of socialization in which ideas and values are stressed and promulgated as integral parts of the educational environment.  The other purpose is to keep children off the streets as a kind of holding tank until such time as they can be either introduced to the work force or passed on to college or universities.

It is also important to note that the traditional curriculum has given way to a vast array of various credit courses that depart from core subjects and core content within those courses. In stressing specific learning objectives as opposed to the development of the requisite skills required to reach independent decisions, the inherent assumption is that it is more important that students reach the right conclusions than it is that they posses the skills to reach those conclusions themselves.  The main point to be made here is that the student centered philosophy of education that came to characterize all levels of junior, intermediate and senior level schooling became increasingly entrenched to the point that mastery of content was of less importance than attempts to make content palatable.  Arguably, the student was not brought to knowledge but rather knowledge was brought to the student.  As university level instruction is subject centered and not student centered, it is clear that as the student centered orientation of education has increased over the years, the gap arising from that difference has broadened and hence the problems with adjustment and adaptation substantially exacerbated.

Even a very preliminary study of the history of education will suffice to prove that the traditionally inherent danger in all publically funded education has been that it has not only served to provide skills required by employers but also that one of its primary functions has been to serve the interests of political orthodoxy.  As such, there has always been a good deal of  stress upon what now could be referred to as political correctness or simply put opinions deemed to be unquestionable truths.  At one point this took the form of unquestioned loyalty to the monarchy and the moral supremacy of one’s own country coupled with a willingness or eagerness to attack and kill those identified as enemies.  However many other norms and attitudes were imbedded within the content and even manner of delivery of state run education.

Examples of these things are easy to identify in the past as a result of the distancing of ourselves in time and space from beliefs and attitudes that have become outmoded.  It is less easy to do this when in this time and space because the assumptions that are now identified as being clearly wrong have now become replaced by other unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions that form our current view of reality.

Universities however, outside of fundamental issues such as loyalty to the country traditionally embraced a substantially more liberal and critical approach to subject content especially beyond the undergraduate level largely based upon three assumptions: 

  1. That a critical approach to what was taught was necessary to academic progress both in the sciences and humanities.
  2. That university educated members of society would form part of the social elite and would require the ability to think outside of the box whereas their political orthodoxy would be largely retained due to self-interest and social status.
  3. That good and bad ideas placed into an intellectual free market context would sort themselves out through natural attrition.

In the 19th century champions of free speech such as John Stuart Mill would state that he could disagree entirely with what someone said but would still defend his right to say it.  Progress, it was maintained, had come about through the questioning and re-examining of beliefs and ideas and would continue to do so.

Political orthodoxy on both ends of the political spectrum has reached new heights in present society by now not only presenting views as unquestionable facts but also increasingly denying the right of individuals to question them to the point of providing sanctions legal and otherwise.   The view that people have a right to free speech is giving way increasingly to the pressure to allow free speech only if we agree with what they are saying.  Whereas there is increasing evidence of the effects of these growing tendencies in universities, the majority have so far resisted them based upon the perceived necessity of allowing for freedom of expression filtered if not culled by reason and evidence.  It is to be understood, however, that the characteristics of a good scholar may not be viewed as the desirable characteristics of a good member of the general public.  Universally and throughout time, governments have promoted uniformity, orthodoxy and obedience to authority. 

It is also important to note that historically all repressive regimes past and present have regarded universities and intellectuals as potential threats to the social order.  People capable of thinking for themselves and used to questioning authority do not sit well with totalitarian practices on either end of the political spectrum.  As such, universities and their professors and students have been the first targets of revolutionary left or right wing repressive political revolutions.  However, even liberal democracies have their limits and despite educational theorists and philosophers stressing the importance of the relation between the ability of citizens to make informed choices and the quality of a democracy, it could be maintained that little has been done in practice to pursue these ends beyond the level of rhetoric.   As such, we are left with democratic ‘forms’ of government in which popular consensus gives way to political expediency and a top down protection of vested interests. 

Education has always been a response to societal needs which determined who, what and what level individuals received.  Throughout European history churches provided much of it and this was done to promote the values and beliefs of the church but also as a means of exercising power, influence and authority over the general population.  To this end, Sunday school was sufficient.  Most education was delivered in terms of apprenticeship programmes for more complicated and demanding professions or simply learning by doing which, as childhood had not yet been discovered, started at a very early age.  As society became industrialized the demands of skills including literacy and numeracy increased requiring higher, longer and more pervasive approaches.  Countries such as England and Germany stressed mathematics and sciences as a preparation for entry into highly developed apprenticeship and trades programmes.  Universities continued to be largely reserved for the upper classes and to a significant extent as a kind of finishing school for gentlemen who would take on commanding roles in society.  Much of this stressed the classics and it was not until the third quarter of the 19th century that sciences gained significant traction and began to eclipse that emphasis through the efforts of reformers such as T.H. Huxley. 

It was in the national interest to make use of bright and creative minds and so scholarships were introduced to help those from modest backgrounds to access university education.  One such student was H.G. Wells whose mother was a domestic and whose father was an out of work cricket player.  Wells escaped his fate as a draper’s assistant and won a scholarship to the University of London where he completed his B.Sc. but who is now known primarily for his science fiction writing such as The Time Machine (1895) The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Words (1898).

Universities increased in size throughout the early 20th century and continued to increase in their emphasis upon science and technology.  However, the vast amount of educational delivery was accomplished through apprenticeship programs with varying degrees of qualification, difficulty and desirability.  Access to universities continued to be primarily a matter of financial means to do so with some allowance for competitive scholarships to provide access to the less privileged.  It is interesting to note that Banting, the inventor of Insulin, first attended the University of Toronto as a business student and upon failing out of the programme was accepted to their medical school.  At present this could obviously never happen.  The point here being that admission to universities and programmes was very much a matter of having the willingness to do so and the financial means to make that possible—a situation that persists in the third world and developing nations and is becoming increasingly true in the developed ones. 

It was after World War II and the resulting baby boom that saw an immense increase in the size and then later number of universities.  First as a result of GI programmes that enabled returning servicemen to access retraining and free or heavily assisted university education and then as a result of their burgeoning progeny who wanted the same access.  However, even at that point, it was not perceived that a university education was a requirement for employment. Elementary teachers, for example, could take a teacher’s certificate right after high school and enter the profession and high school teachers could do the same after attending one year of university.  It was not until the late 60’s to early 70’s that high school teachers were required to go back to school on a part time basis to complete a pass B.A. and this most did very reluctantly.  As such, when I was attending a summer course in Ancient History in 1970 who was in the class with me but my Grade 11 high school teacher who hade taught ancient history having never taken a course in it?

As apprenticeship programmes have increasingly become less prominent and were perceived in part as being replaced by Community Colleges, the expectation of attending university became more prominent.  This resulted in huge increases in university enrollment which has been now further fueled by thousands of international students and the deregulation of universities in and around setting fees and offering programmes for them.  This in turn has given rise increasingly to a ‘corporate’ model of university functioning tending more towards increased size, complexity and a focus on money.  Rather than sharing in this boom, university professors have found themselves with less job security, larger classes and increasingly more scrutinizing of their political and social views.

To return to the conclusions drawn by the study in question, it is important to view possible solutions not in terms of what is logically possible but more in terms of what is practically viable.  Attempts to rein in public secondary schools to ensure master of skill sets required for higher education is not an option without a complete readjustment of the philosophies and assumptions as to priorities that govern them.  This is improbable at best.  Standard entrance exams set by and marked by universities or third party organizations is an option that is useful in the interests of fairness to applicants as well as identifying areas of weakness prior to admission.  Courses offered at the university level to specifically address these skill sets are other practical alternatives.  These in fact have already been adopted by many universities to a lesser or greater extent.  It is perhaps therefore a matter of formalizing them. 

A standard entrance test would provide a comparison of home school results with a diagnostic reference.  The universities would therefore be presented with various options:

  1. To refuse to accept students whose performance on standardized testing indicated dysfunctional skill sets
  2. To accept students conditionally with testing deficiencies but with the insistence on taking additional courses to address these matters either over the summer or even into their first year of attendance.
  3. Maintain the status quo and continue to admit students and graduate them without having ever mastered the fundamental skill sets expected of university graduates.

It remains to be seen which of these alternatives if any will be adopted. 

It should be mentioned in closing that these concerns and problems are not new.  In 1980 I was doing postdoctoral work at university and assisting with the delivery of several courses.  I was used to students submitting essays with poor grammar and spelling, but on one occasion a second year essay was submitted where the student had no idea what a paragraph was, did not know to start a sentence with a capital nor that a sentence should have a subject and a predicate.  I was unsure how to mark the paper as there was a formula given to us in terms of the maximum amount of marks that could be deducted for these issues.  I went to the registrar’s office and was able to find out that the student had attended a public high school in the area and had received a final grade 12 English mark in the low 70’s.  I found it difficult to understand how this was possible and decided to see the department chairman to seek advice.  He knowingly suggested that I examine not only the question as to how this student had passed through to university but also how they had been able to pass through their first year university courses.  The implication of this line of thought was obvious and the essay was passed. 

Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences. Leonard Sax, M.D.,Ph.D., New York: Random House, 2015, 322 pages.

This book begins with several very strong statements regarding the growing crisis facing boys in the 21st century:

“…the number of boys under eighteen arrested for drug abuse offenses has increased by more than 50% in the past ten years; boys under eighteen are still five times more likely to be arrested for drug abuse violations than are girls under eighteen.”

“…today’s boy is much more likely to be struggling in school than his father was.  Boys are increasingly alienated from school.  Recent investigations have shows a dramatic drop over the past twenty years in boys’ academic performance in American schools.  According to the United States Department of Education, the average eleventh-grade American boy now writes at the same level as the average eighth-grade girl. Similar gender gaps have been documented in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  And the percentage of boys going on to college, and graduating from college, is falling.  The U.S. Department of Education now projects that in the year 2011, there will be 140 women graduating from college for every 100 men---very nearly a 60/40 female-to-male ratio”

“The high school dropout rate in the United States is now close to 30%, and the great majority of dropouts are boys.  More and more boys, discouraged by years of failure in elementary school, middle school, and high school, are asking:  “Why should I stick around for any more of this?”

He does not state it here, but it is important to add, that the vast majority of diagnosed learning and behavioral issues are assigned to males with females occupying a comparatively insignificant portion.

What factors explain this and what can be done to address the issues occupies the remainder of the book.

Back in the 1960s the dogma of “social constructivism” was introduced whereby it was argued that there were no inherent differences between boys and girls, males and females that could not be explained exclusively as arising from social expectations and role playing.  As such, boys and girls were regarded as presenting a tabula rasa or blank slate prior to socialization on which gender roles and identity could be written.  Biology was regarded as having no significant role and armed with this belief it was viewed as being unnecessary to make any allowances for different needs, abilities and goals of boys and girls. With the passing of time and the study of genetics, these assumptions have been disproven as having no basis in scientific fact.  Evidence has been compiled that seems to prove beyond reasonable doubt the existence of genetic influences that determine behavioral tendencies in predictable ways.   Boys and girls are indeed different and as such have different needs and require different strategies to cope with and direct behaviors.  They do not always respond in the same way and contrary to fundamental laws of physics, the behavioral laws of education do not include same cause and same effect.

The realization of the fact that these hardwired tendencies result in specific needs and approaches led to the realization that single sex schools might offer a valuable alternative.  This resulted in legislation being introduced and passed in America in 2001 legalizing single-sex education in the American public school system.  Since then, single-sex education has grown significantly in popularity in America as well as in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland.  Studies conducted in the US indicated significant improvement among males in single sex education environments.  Studies with females indicated overall improvement but not on the same scale as males.  Other studies done in Australia and Korea show similar results.  It is worthy of note however, that single sex education had a long history in the private sector before being accepted within the public school system.  It is also important to note that single sex private schools became less popular as a result of the common perception that single sex environments were somehow ‘unnatural’ or old fashioned.  In the march of educational progress, it could be said that the baby was indeed thrown out with the bath water.

In perpetuating the mythology that males and females are the same, the biological differences have been largely ignored.  However, research has shown the existence of anatomic differences in the organization of male and female brains as well as indicating fundamental differences between male and female brain tissue.  One of the more striking findings is that females have much more acute hearing than males such that “If a forty-three-year old man speaks in what he thinks is a “normal tone of voice” to a seventeen –year old, that girl is going to experience his voice as being about ten times louder than what the man is hearing.”  Research has shown that men have a thicker retina that women due to males having more M cells Other research suggest that females generally interpret facial expressions better than men.  There are differences in the brain cells themselves as well as average brain size.   The list goes on.  None of these differences indicate any inherent inequality or differences in ability over time, but they do go towards showing that developmental differences are real and that hard-wired tendencies evolved over the course of human evolution that can determine developmental tendencies, abilities and sequencing.

In studies done among young children, it has been shown that boys draw verbs and girls draw nouns.  Boys draw action using colors such as black, gray silver and blue in keeping with the M cells (receptor cells) in the retina whereas girls draw pictures of people with lots of color in keeping with the P cells (receptor cells) in their retina.  These differences can give rise to frustrations especially in the junior division where 95 per cent of teachers are female and especially if students are being judged in terms of color sensitivity:

“Mathew will soon discover that he’s not very good at trying to copy Anita, that is, trying to draw pictures of people, using lots of colors.  Mathew will quickly decide that he is no good at art.  Only five years old, Mathew has decided that “art is for girls”.  Other experiences he will have …will teach him that he’s no good at anything else that’s going on in a twenty-first-century “gender neutral” kindergarten.  The teacher wants him to sit still and be quiet and listen, while he wants to run around and jump and yell.  After a few weeks he’s not going to see the point of going to school at all.  That’s when the tantrums begin.

And again:

“Today we know that innate differences between girls and boys are profound.  Of course not all girls are alike and not all boys are alike.  But girls and boys do differ from one and another in systematic ways that should be understood and made use of, not covered up or ignored.”

With regard to brain development, other interesting facts are presented.  For example, areas of the brain associated with fine motor skills and language development mature six years earlier in girls than in boys but areas associated with targeting and spatial memory develop in boys four years earlier than in girls.  The fact that boys mature more rapidly than girls in some areas but mature more slowly than girls in others seems to support common sense notions previously denounced as gender bias.

“Sex differences in childhood are larger and more important than sex differences in adulthood.  By thirty years of age, both females and males have reached full maturity of all areas of the brain.  When people over thirty years of age think about their own experience as adults, they may not see enormous sex differences in how women and men learn new material or master new tasks.  So some adults assume that if they are not seeing big differences in how women and men learn to do new things, then there probably aren’t big differences in how six-year-old girls and boys learn.  That assumption is wrong.”

There is far too much of interest in this book to do justice to the wealth of examples provided or the references to scientific studies.  However, sections dealing with the differences in brain function and development are of special relevance in terms of behavior, attitude and academic functioning.  Together, all of the information provided builds a compelling case to indicate that present educational theories and practices assuming gender neutrality have created a system that favors females and promotes their success while creating substantial obstacles for boys.

The Dean of Education at Stanford University is quoted as saying that boys who do not do well in kindergarten tend to develop “negative perceptions of competence” that are very “difficult to reverse as (they) progress through school”.  The lack of ability to do certain things well and the resulting frustration introduces many boys to school in a negative fashion that determines much of their subsequent behavior afterwards. 

“Matthew was inattentive and easily distracted in class.  He was now firmly convinced that school was just one big bore, an annoyance to be endured for a few hours each day until that wonderful moment when school let out and he could go home and do all the fun things he enjoyed.”

So Matthew ended up seeing a psychiatrist and diagnosed with ADHD and Depression and placed on three medications.

“Matthew’s story is all too common today.  A report published in 2003 found that the proportion of young children on anti-depressant medications has more than tripled in the past ten years…I have to wonder how many of these young children, boys especially, are depressed because they are trapped in a school that just is not geared to their needs.  And they have no way out.”

Suffice to say that there are no differences in terms of what boys and girls can potentially learn.  But in order to achieve these results teaching methods must be adjusted to take into account fundamental gender differences.  The early years appear to be where the majority of damage is done in terms of marginalizing boys within schools - damage that of course has disastrous effects going forward.  In simple examples of reading, one expert stated that in their State at least 80% of the books for early readers fell into the category of ‘girls’ fiction.  Given that this in conjunction with the fact that the majority of teachers in kindergarten up to Grade 3 are women, it is easy to see how reading would have little appeal and that this in itself would have far reaching implications.  It is clear that books that would interest boys are very different from those that would interest girls and between attempts that do not recognize this as well as issues of political correctness, small surprise that boys have trouble concentrating and do not develop an interest in or capability to read.  This again is nothing to do with an inability to learn to read or find enjoyment in it but rather a lack of motivation derived from a lack of intrinsic interest in the subject matter.

With respect to learning differences, there are also acute differences in how boys and girls respond to stress, threat and intimidation.  According to studies, stress improves learning in males but impairs learning in females.  In one example given, a boy confronted by a teacher who had lost her temper and shouted at him resulted in a marked improvement in his behavior and an apparent increase in respect demonstrated towards her.  Similar actions directed towards female students evoked completely different responses causing the student to exhibit withdrawal and feelings of ongoing resentment that impaired the relationship.  Again, this seems to support the commonly held position that boys test limits and respect defined boundaries where girls tend to be compliant and seek acceptance from teachers.

In the final analysis, the desire to be all things to all people has been one of the main set backs of mass education.  Attempts to address different learning styles and needs have failed to pass the acid test of transcending rhetoric to demonstrable results.  The inherent tragedy in all of this is the wasted potential of boys turned off by school and education who could have flourished had they been able to shed the negativity and channel their interests and abilities constructively.  The preservation of self-esteem is clearly not achieved by eliminating failure or relaxing standards, but rather by preserving the integrity of success within a meaningful context of appropriate challenges and results.    The irony arises that in an age stressing diversity, there seems to be an inexplicable inability to acknowledge genuine differences.  Perhaps instead of trying to account for the growing number of boys being diagnosed with growing numbers of learning and behavioral disabilities, failure, dropping out of schools and declining post secondary attendance, we should stop looking for the source of these problems in the boys themselves and focus instead on the schools and the governing philosophies of education in which they find themselves.

I strongly recommend this book for the information that it contains as well as the stimulation that it provides to see these issues from a different perspective.  Perhaps it is not so much boys who do not fit as much as it is a system that does not fit boys.

Presentation Introducing the 2019 Graduates at the Robert Land 40th Anniversary Gala held at the National Club, Toronto on Saturday April 6th, 2019 by Dr. David Harley

If as Shakespeare put it that brevity is the soul of wit, I stand before you witless.  Since giving up teaching for administration I rarely have an opportunity to inflict suffering upon an unsuspecting audience and so clearly this is one of those openings that must be taken advantage of.

A few years ago the Ontario Ministry of Education sent out a poster to all high schools.  The poster depicted a diverse group of happy teenagers with the caption “Every Student has the Right to Success”.  The statement was made without argument, qualification or clarification but was rather in the form of an edict.  Suffice to say, whereas most of us would agree that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed, few would want to admit to it as a guarantee in life.  In fact, the very suggestion seems to assume success as something that is given rather than earned.

Today, we celebrate not only the successful operation of Robert Land Academy over 40 years but also the success of our current to be graduates and the realization of their post secondary aspirations.  In both cases, these are stories of success earned and not given.

I first heard of Robert Land Academy 39 years ago when its founder Scott Bowman was in attendance at a class at McMaster University where I had been invited as a guest lecturer.  I later taught Scott in my capacity as an assistant in a course that he subsequently took.  He was rather unforgettable in that he wore a uniform on the campus and as such did not match the regular dress code of the day.  In conversation, he talked about a school that he had recently started up and so it was that I first came to see it in operation in 1981.  Needless to say, it was a very different place than it is today.  It is equally needless to point out that the school and the service it provided would not have survived for 40 years had it not delivered on its promises and had it not been supported in its efforts by many dedicated staff over four decades.   

Scott and I had many conversations about education and I put it to him that I would like to see an academic programme in place at the school equal in rigor and demands to the physical programme then in place.  I had at that time no way of knowing that 24 years ago I would be given the opportunity to put that wish into practice when I was hired to take over the academic functioning of the school.  Scott is not here today but enjoying his retirement and one assumes that he would take H.G. Wells seriously when Wells said “Leaders should lead as far as they can and then vanish.  Their ashes should not choke the fire that they have lit.”  The fire that he lit 40 years ago is still burning and it falls to us to keep it lit.

Bertrand Russell stated that “It is because modern education is so seldom inspired by a great hope that it so seldom achieves great results.”  The great hope that inspired Robert Land Academy was that boys could be given a second chance to turn their lives around, realize their potential and find meaning and happiness in their life.  The strength of Robert Land Academy has been in its ability to grow, develop, respond and improve by remaining sensitive to the changing needs of the boys that it services and the changing challenges in the environments from which they come.  However the central characteristics of the boys we serve remain constant:  Strong Willed, Highly Intelligent, Manipulative and Short Sighted.  The main issue---helping them to develop the self-control and self-direction required to channel their energies and abilities.  The main lesson ---- teaching them that personal freedom does not consist in doing what you want but in being able to control yourself to do what you need to do.  In this way you can realize goals and ambitions and having the knowledge necessary to formulate strategies and alternatives.  A fusion of emotion and intellect provides the under lying framework  and their successful integration forms the mental health necessary for individual fulfillment and happiness.

Those of you who have attempted gardening may have experienced the joys of growing tomatoes.  Tomato plants will grow rapidly and spread all over the ground.  A minority of the tomatoes will ripen and are edible while the majority touch the ground, receive no sunlight and are discarded or rot.  Those who have the wisdom to use a wire support system known as a tomato cage will find that the plant will grow upwards and that the majority of the tomatoes are able to ripen and be edible.  As tomato plants require structure, support and guidance so do young men.  It is the failure of modern educational practice to not realize this and to not acknowledge and direct the specific male gender characteristics that are at once sources of strength as well as sources of inherent weakness.  In short, restrictions--- environmental and otherwise can encourage growth whereas allowing freedom of growth and can result in inhibiting it.

Oscar Wilde stated that “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing worth knowing can be taught.”  The irony in this comment belays the point that Wilde was making that learning and knowledge are not inculcated through a system of the passive acceptance of facts but rather through a dynamic experience involving the integration of emotion and intellect.  During my childhood this was referred to ‘digesting’ material and I think that would you agree that there seems to be chronic indigestion out there today.  Robert Land Academy provides a program that addresses the needs of the entire boy so as to move from a two dimensional education to a three dimensional educational experience.  The irony becomes the fact that what appears to at first restrict freedom and the opportunities for self-fulfillment turns out to be the means whereby they can be ultimately achieved.

The ancient Greeks introduced the notion of the person as a complex entity made up of parts into Western civilization.  An analogy they employed was the chariot, the charioteer and the horse.  A successful balance of the three was made possible by balancing strengths against weaknesses.  A very strong horse with an inexperienced charioteer would spell disaster as would a strong horse, an experienced charioteer and a defective chariot.  The fastest chariot would be the one that matched a skilled charioteer, a strong horse and a sound chariot.

Needless to say, many young men possess strong horses and delude themselves with the feeling that wherever they are pulled by them is the direction that they wanted to go in the first place.  The separation of horse and driver requires at first the realization that they are not one and the same.   The introduction of direction and its pursuit requires the introduction of purpose.

We have before us tonight a group of young men who have their chariot under control, are heading in the right direction and are directed by purpose. 

University and College applications are in and responses with acceptance are appearing on an almost daily basis.  It is too early to claim 100% post-secondary acceptance but we are well on our way and expect this years success to be no less than our previous ten years.  At present all but 4 of our graduates have already received offers of admission.  The happiness that has come with the first offer has now been replaced by anxiety over which university or program to eventually accept.  This is a good problem to have.

Our class of 2019 consists of the following boys and I shall indicate the field of study that they are pursuing after I call their name:

Callum Beer                                     Social Sciences

Kevin DeOrellana                            Engineering

Abraham Doupe                               English

Yige Gan                                          Architecture

David Gao                                        Psychology

Daniel Hudson                                 Social Sciences

Feng Li                                             Engineering

David Neves                                    Fire Fighting

David Solomon                                Computer Science

Aiden Strasser                                 Mathematics

Wenxuan Sun                                  Engineering

Jing Hong Zhang                            Cultural Sciences

I would not want to embarrass anyone specifically here by comparing their marks before coming to Robert Land Academy to their marks now.  But I can say that none were accepted on the basis of what they had done but on the basis of what it was believed that they could do.  While not giving names, let me give you some anonymous examples:

presently with 89% had a 23.6% average upon entry failing 6 courses out of 8

presently with 94% had 64% upon entry

presently 88% with 68.7 upon entry

presently 87% with 69 upon entry

presently 88% with 63% upon entry

presently 92% with 29% upon entry failing 6 of 8 subjects

presently 81% with 54% upon entry

presently 74% with 36% upon entry

I will limit the list to this in order that the guilty can claim innocence.  However, I think that the point is well made that the program works. 

The Robert Land definition of success is not graduating from high school.  Who among you has ever known anyone to frame their high school diploma and hang it on the wall?  Success consists of graduating from high school with choices and with the freedom to pursue your own path.  It is controlling yourself and to that end your destiny.  It is being the captain of your own ship.  That is success.  It is also the key to individual and human happiness.

Gentlemen, your success is your own but we claim some share of having make it possible.  It is up to you to carry through with what you have now started and it is up to you to confront challenges and difficulties with determination and resolve.  Keep control of your chariot and keep your eyes on the road ahead.  We will continue to live up to our challenges by ensuring that the Academy continues to live up to those of other young men like you. 

On a final note, I would ask our graduates to be to think about your parents.  Oscar Wilde said “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”  In each of your cases I can remember that your respective parents were much more enthusiastic about you attending the academy than you were.  I trust that you can now go beyond forgiveness to gratitude.   I further hope that in the future each of you will have at least one son just like yourself and that Robert Land Academy will be here to accept them.

Drop The Worry Ball: How To Parent In the Age Of Entitlement. Alex Russell with Tim Falconer, Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014. 247 pages.

This book was brought to my attention by a parent who told me that they had found the book helpful and had attended a presentation by the author (a practicing psychologist)  in Toronto.  After reading the book, I would agree and would recommend it to any parent either currently struggling with an adolescent son or proactively seeking guidance as to sound parenting practices.  Despite its value, it was also a reminder of the fact that ideas about education are rarely new.  The merits of the book are not so much in its originality but rather as a current restatement of educational ideas of authors no longer in fashion.  It is interesting to note that the author makes references to educational theorists whose names now rarely surface and who even more rarely are read, noteworthy of whom is Jean Jacques Rousseau ---an 18th century French philosopher  often associated with progressive education movements of whom I will have more to say later.

The first chapter argues that one of the main problems in modern parenting is the fact that parents rarely allow children to suffer the natural consequences of their own actions and constantly intervene to protect them from themselves.  The result of this, it is argued, is that children do not learn but displace the responsibility to a parent or supervising adult.  One of the most popular books during the 19th century in England for enlightened liberally minded parents was Herbert Spencer’s On Education in which the same argument was made.  In the 1920’s the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book entitled On Education:  Especially in Early Childhood in which he stated that wherever possible children should be confronted by the natural consequences of their own actions.  Of course both authors limited such actions within the parameters of reason i.e. circumstances that were not life threatening or injurious.  Bertrand Russell gives an example of allowing his son to eat too much ice cream to the point that he was sick as an example of how the natural consequences of an action could reinforce through direct experience guidance provided by adults.  In this case, Russell was also arguing against what he regarded as unnecessary authoritarianism in parenting in favor of promoting independence of thought and action.  For Russell, fostering independence of thought and action in a child necessitated parents stepping back and allowing for the process of learning to take place as opposed to developing growing dependence on adults and external authority.

The book under review makes the same argument.  As a practicing psychologist the author states that:

“I regularly see parents who take their care-giving obligations to lengths that are actually a disservice:  the mother who repeatedly provides alternative food choices and is surprised that her daughter is a stubbornly picky eater; the father who made it his mission to help his son with his homework and can’t understand why the boy now “doesn’t seem to care about school” and expects Dad to deal with the whole business; the mother who, hoping to show how understanding she is, overlooks her son’s bad behavior, language and manners and is dismayed that he’s oblivious to the consequences of his actions”

“They lie awake at night worrying about report cards, university admissions, careers, The Future…

Strikingly, this is exactly what their kids aren’t thinking about.  The more parents take on these concerns, the more their children are oblivious to them.  It’s not always clear which come first --- the obligated parent or the disengaged child --- but they certainly perpetuate one another.”

Within this model, the ability to make mistakes and learn from them assumes that experiencing consequences both good and bad are essential to growth and personal development.  This means that failure as much as success form valued components of the process.  This of course should lead us to seriously question much of the prevailing educational philosophy that denies that failures exists and focuses only on success.  The prevalent current model of “Building on Success” might be more accurately described as “Building on Nothing”.   As both success and failure can be considered as polarities of the same learning curve, the one cannot exist independent of the other.  Therefore success without the possibility of failure is meaningless

The book argues that parents who continually direct, organize, reprimand and prohibit their children become “custodians of reality”.  As such children will let parents do the worrying and focus on appeasing their parents and having fun.  As such “…kids won’t pick up the worry ball unless and until parents put it down.”  So from attempting to intervene to prevent mistakes, the author goes as far as to say that “…we should actually cheer for non-catastrophic, painful failure.”

This dropping of the worry ball imagery is followed by an equally compelling image of sitting on the park bench watching your child play not as a participant but as an engaged spectator.  Again, the author’s message stresses the importance of distancing parenting in such a way as to encourage autonomy and responsibility for one’s own actions.  The author is careful to draw the line between disinterestedness and monitoring from a distance:

“That’s why I encourage parents to err on the side of benign neglect.  Think about how your parents raised you.  How much more freedom did you have than your own children?”

“Don’t hover around your kid all the time….Don’t let your anxiety fire you up so that you’re off that bench showing yourself and the world what a good parent you are.  Just sit on the bench and sip your latte.”

“This will be a hard thing to do and sometimes you will feel like a bad parent.  But you will be doing the right thing for your kids and ensuring that they succeed in the jungle gym of life.”

There follows a very interesting chapter entitled Obligated Parents and Entitled Kids.  An important argument is presented to the effect that the more parents feel obligated to accommodate a child the more the child will feel entitled.  As he puts it, bad parenting can often arise as a result of “being too patient, too reasonable, too available and too accommodating.”

“Obligated, over-involved parents tend to raise entitled, disengaged kids.  It’s an epidemic, with cases ranging from mild to extreme.   The more disengaged or inappropriate a child is, the more active and involved parents tend to become….the more active and involved parents get, the less engaged and responsible children behave.”

The book makes for good and instructive reading and I have ended up quoting directly from the book much more than I typically do in reviews because paraphrasing seems to diminish the impact of the specific examples provided.  However, the overall argument of the book is fairly simple and as I have mentioned has a long tradition within Western intellectual writing going back at least to the 17th century English philosopher John Locke and passing through to the 20th century philosopher Bertrand Russell. The argument being that children learn as a result of direct interactions with reality not mediated by adult interference and that suffering negative results from actions is as constructive an experience as experiencing positive results.  The view that children can mature more effectively through consequences rather than relying only upon adult authority is intimately associated with the growth of liberal democratically oriented societies.  It is interesting to note the fact that this philosophy also underlies Montessori methods and play therapy.

Rousseau is an interesting figure in the history of education given that being associated with writings that fueled the French Revolution he is often represented as a proponent of ‘free’ education.  However, he was far from that.  His seminal work on education was called The Emile and then as now it is sometimes quoted and never read thereby fully qualifying to be a classic.  However, a reading of the book describes how the guardian of Emile focuses his entire life on the upbringing of the perfect male child.  To this end, Emile is placed within a wholly contrived environment in which his range of options are limited not by choice but availability.  Adult authority is therefore implicit in that situations are engineered or contrived to create predetermined outcomes.  As such, adult manipulation is everywhere inherent in an environment devoted to the purpose.  Such an overwhelming task resulted in Rousseau himself disposing of his infant offspring to a foundling institute in Paris not known for promoting longevity among its clients.  Rather than do an imperfect job, it appears that he chose to entirely abrogate the responsibility.  With regard to independence, Rousseau was fortunate to find a noblewoman of substantial means to support him and as such his personal freedom was underwritten by an aristocracy that he attacked.

The problem with the distancing argument as basis of parenting lies in the manner of interpretation and application.  Drop The Worry Ball provides numerous examples of sage advice by the author to clients with positive results.  I would have been interested to hear more accounts of similar advice given that did not have the desired effect but assume that this would be self-defeating.  The problem with many issues involving children is that they are often a long time in the making and as such do not readily respond to any quick fixes or in some cases any fixes at all.  Much of the advice given in this book has more value as a pro-active parenting strategy than a reactive one.  By the time that parenting strategies have been addressed and corrected, the damage is often done. Unlike other areas of human endeavor, most parents regard themselves as educational experts until proven otherwise.  That expertise is based upon examining their own childhood with a view to perpetuating what they liked and removing those elements that they remember distastefully oblivious to the fact their negative experiences may well have resulted in positive reactions.  Rather than improving upon their own experience, they are puzzled, shocked and horrified to find disappointing results.

Much of modern parenting suffers from the same issues that affect much of current society in that there is a great deal more emphasis placed upon feeling rather than thinking.  A general lack of tolerance for opinions other than our own or within an identified group of orthodoxy has as its foundation a feeling that something is true.  The stronger the feeling, the more the conviction that one is right and others wrong.  The appeal to reasoned facts and an understanding of alternative opinions or interpretations is not widely evident.  With the emphasis upon diversity, there seems to be a focus on everything but a respect for a diversity of opinions and an attempt to understand them. 

Parenting is much less a matter of feeling your way through things as it is thinking your way through things.  Our first response to a situation is often to give in to our child to secure happiness or peace in the present.  However, good parenting often consists of thinking rather than reacting and definitely in resisting initial impulses.

Having said that, it must be clarified that parenting should never be presented as an exact science or a science at all, but more as an art where actions are considered within existing contingencies and where the quality of the effort as opposed to the amount of effort determine the outcome.  Much of what passes as informed opinion is grounded in beliefs that arise from things that support our existing beliefs.  Those beliefs are often grounded in self-interest and emerge from what we want to believe as opposed to what we know.  As some contemporary wit stated it “I will see it when I believe it”. It is also more convenient to blame others or portray ourselves as victims than to take responsibility for our own actions and to scrutinize the beliefs giving rise to them.  Parenting also relies upon consistency and given the state of many marriages this is something to be sought rather than merely assumed to be in place.  Many parents agree to disagree and in so doing child rearing becomes a battleground of contesting approaches doomed to have disastrous but predictable outcomes.

The overprotectiveness of children is associated with over mothering.  In 19th century England, upper class boys were removed from protective nannies and mothers and sent off to board schools giving rise to books such as Tom Brown’s School Days.  This was regarded as a necessary measure needed to prepare them for a less than receptive adult world.  Poor families did not need to go to these measures because the work and effort required to subsist spared nobody.  The luxury of a childhood emerged only with wealth and leisure.  With changes in family dynamics and a discrediting of paternalism in all its forms, it would seem that we might have now entered an age of maternalism in which the primary parenting influence has been taken over by the mother.  The result of the expansion of extending this approach to the care of infants and adolescents could be argued to be a consequence of men’s diminished role in parenting, the erosion of the family unit and the lack of positive male role models. 

Be that as it may, the messaging and parenting within the family do not exist in a vacuum and there are many more challenges from without than in previous generations. 

Present educational policies and philosophies undermine consequences by producing an artificial environment that conforms to students and yields to demands for special treatment and exemptions.  Advocacy for children is based upon the same premises as the criminal justice system in that lawyers define guilt and innocence in terms of intricacies within the law.  What was once trial by combat to determine guilt or innocence by brute force is now trial by argument in which one side attempts to outwit the other regardless of the guilt or innocence of their client.   Advocacy for one’s child more than often is motivated by a desire for special treatment or an exclusion from the consequences that apply to others.  Much of the flawed educational practices and philosophies currently in place are not just the result of being poorly thought but also responses to parental pressures of advocacy to bend rules or make exceptions.

Schools used to be based upon a competitive meritocracy to screen students for desirable careers and post-secondary options.  Prior to this, those options were largely determined by those who had money rather than the superior ability or indeed ability at all.  Attempts to eliminate competition from within schools is as ill advised as eliminating it from sports. In the final analysis, it not only destabilizes the activity but also denies the fundamental nature of society and the individuals who make it up.  Competition is not just a want, it is also a need.  Competition does not vanish by suppression.  However, it does benefit from being directed into positive venues.  Competition cannot be successfully repressed but it can be constructively sublimated.

Other families in the immediate community often present challenges.  Instead of providing support they can often provide examples that threaten or undermine positive parenting models.  Whereas families traditionally looked to each other for support, that common ground is no longer apparent or to be taken for granted.  This factor combined with the alternative reality promoted through media in all its forms, makes information more available in quantity while totally bypassing any considerations of quality.   Much of the available messaging can be confusing and destructive to any mind seeking answers amidst confusion.

Parenting is hard work and a huge responsibility but it is also the important bridge between one generation and another.  The shortcomings of our children weaken their prospects for personal happiness and fulfillment but also weaken the society at large and jeopardize its future.  Given the current state of affairs, there is some justification for concern as the challenges ahead of our children continue to grow both personally and collectively.   Again, it is important to stress the quality of that effort and not merely the quantity of it.  The struggle to provide children with what they need as opposed to what they want is both stressful and difficult requiring constant vigilance.

Dropping the Worry Ball is a good introduction to the art of parenting and to the general topic of thinking about how to be a good parent.  It is easy to read and you will find it constructive and worthwhile.