Last summer I read How to Raise an Adult. The author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford University's former freshman dean of students, received a lot of attention for her thoughts on the growing number of young people she found to be unable to function independently in the college environment. As a science educator, middle school director, and mother of three boys, I was particularly taken with Lythcott-Haims reference to children as wildflowers, orchids, and bonsai trees, and her recommendation that we raise our children as wildflowers.
Orchids, as those who've tried to raise them know, are a challenge to grow. They only thrive in carefully controlled environments. Keeping bonsai trees small and perfect requires constant attention. Wildflowers, however, grow freely.
What Lythcott-Haims did not note is that wildflowers are often the pioneer species in ecological succession. They are the first to thrive in previously disturbed areas. They are strong, resilient, and easily adaptable. They are the entrepreneurs of the plant world.
Lythcott-Haims suggests a way of raising and educating children that happens as much as possible without parents or teachers intervening to fix or prepare the road ahead. She urges us strongly to "not do for our kids what they can do for themselves" or even what they can almost do for themselves because this is where the capacity for independence begins.
I have the pleasure of working at a school that understands this. Perhaps it is the 550-acres of woodland that St. Andrew's-Sewanee School sits on that helps to remind us that much is beyond our control and that there is beauty in that. Perhaps it is a climate that shrouds us in fog for days at a time and requires that we sometimes blindly trust that the road ahead is, indeed, ahead.
My colleagues and I believe strongly that children learn best by doing, not having things done for them. We see children not as merely students or learners but as artists and scientists, writers and speakers, mathematicians and performers, readers and musicians. Through this process of doing, our students learn deeply as their curiosity is sparked, and they discover their interests and passions. Students are pushed outside their comfort zone and are asked to take risks. We know from close to 150 years in the business of education and raising children that that is how they grow.
We encourage our parents to join with us as partners in this effort, to let a child test their wings, give them more space, and most importantly, allow them to fail. As a mother I know that this does not mean abandoning our children. We have been deemed a generation of "helicopter parents" because of our very interest in being present. We should be there to pick them up, dust them off, listen impartially when they need a sounding board, and hug them when they are sad, but we should not prevent them from feeling the pricks and pains of growing up.
When our children misplace a backpack at school, leave an important binder in their locker, or forget notecards for an oral presentation, we need to resist the urge to fix the problem. When they get their feelings hurt by a classmate's unkind words or come home sad because they didn't get to start in an athletic contest or get a "big enough" part in the school musical, we need to step back and allow our children to navigate the disappointment.
If our children are to thrive both when conditions are good and bad, we need to meet them where they are and encourage them to move forward on their own.
If your child doesn't understand an assignment, encourage them to write an email to the teacher asking for help instead of writing the email for them. Urge them to seek out the teacher in person to clarify the assignment. Help your child to practice the questions to ask, but set your child free to handle the conversation alone. If your child is confused about what to study for a test, suggest they take the initiative to ask in class for a review sheet or test preparation instructions. When your child comes home perturbed about not playing much in the afternoon's soccer game, encourage them to talk to their coach after practice the next day. Can this be tough to do? Yes. Will they grow from it? Absolutely.
Our children cannot learn from a mistake if we never let them make one.
We need to let our children do the very messy work of growing up. Mistakes will happen -- some of them small and some of them large, but mistakes provide crucial learning experiences. Let's work together, parents and educators, to help our young people, our wildflowers, our pioneers, to learn from their mistakes and grow with strength and a resilience of spirit.