All Jewish parents recognize the importance of education. We agonize over acceptance to the right school. We push for the preferred teacher. We try to pick good friends. We attempt to manage the food eaten, snacks traded and time spent at physical exercise. We encourage extracurricular activities -- sports, dance, art or music -- as well as character-building and enhancing volunteer experiences. Not to mention the efforts allocated to developing our young child's social skills en route to that all-important goal of popularity.
After all, we want our children to be well-rounded, don't we? And it's all in our power, isn't it?
Dr. Mel Levine, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School and the director of the university's Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning, suggest in his book, "A Mind at a Time," that being well-rounded is neither an appropriate nor useful goal. I suggest in addition to this that our ability to shape our children is limited. We can't affect all-round personality change and certainly not neurological change. We can fine tune, we can offer some tools, we can provide (hopefully) a good example, and we can pray.
Being well-rounded is not particularly useful because most careers require specialization (except perhaps parenting itself!). Even family doctors are meant to specialize in the unique dynamics of the family unit. As society moves towards an ever greater degree of specialization, we continue to pressure our children to be well-rounded. Not only does that certainly not have any application career-wise, I'm not sure it does in any area of life -- except perhaps cocktail party chatter (and the aforementioned parenting, particularly the "help your kids with their homework" variety). As far as I'm concerned, being well-rounded academically has about as much use in today's world as cursive writing skills (which reminds me of a note I want to send to my son's teacher!).
But there is a deeper, more troubling issue here. After all, given the time, talent, and energy, one could argue that school is not solely a vocational training ground and that there are intellectual and psychological benefits of a diversified education and broad knowledge. There is some truth to this idea but it flies in the face of the King Solomon's admonition to "Educate each child according to his way" as well as recent psychological and neurological research.
Everyone has learning differences. There is no such thing as the perfect mind. Some of these differences are crippling, some are not. Some can easily be compensated for, some cannot. But regardless of how bright a child is, his mind can't do everything. There are some skills that come easier than others. There are some skills that are extraordinary and there are some that are nonexistent. Some children have terrific, almost photographic memories. Some freeze at the sight of their spelling list. Some children excel at creative writing, their expansive imaginations running wild as they win multiple story contests. This same youngster may need constant tutoring in math just to get a passing grade. Some children have difficulty being motivated (you can't start them!) and some are driven overachievers (you can't stop them!).
The variety is endless, and in the hardwiring. We, as parents, relatives, friends and educators, need to appreciate this. In our crowded and busy classrooms it is frequently difficult for the teacher to follow King Solomon's precept.
In our crowded and busy homes, the reality is often the same. How can teachers or parents provide custom-designed education for each and every child?
I don't believe they can; I know I sure can't. But I think there are a few important things we can do.
1. The first step is awareness. Recognize that our children, like ourselves, are imperfect with tremendous fluctuations in learning skills and abilities. This is not a willful choice but the way the Almighty has created us.
2. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Most of us lead with our strengths and downplay our weaknesses. Yet our school-age children frequently get limited appreciation for their strengths -- 'how many other children got A's?' -- and only pressure to improve their weaknesses -- 'if you would only try harder...' Where the hardwiring is faulty, trying harder makes no difference other than to deepen the sense of failure. Maximize praise and reward your child's strengths.
Don't make moral judgments about particular qualities. To have a good memory doesn't make you a good person.
3. Don't make moral judgments about particular qualities. To have a good memory doesn't make you a good person. As Dr. Levine repeatedly points out, rote memory is all-important in school and almost never needed in adult life. Having a poor memory doesn't diminish your value as a human being (although it is good to try to remember what your wife just told you!) It's not "good" to be athletic and "bad" to be a little clumsy. It's not "good" to be a math whiz and "bad" to stumble over fractions. Our children have been given exactly the qualities the Almighty wants them to have, exactly the tools they need to succeed in life.
4. This doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. It means that change should occur slowly, in small steps, with compassion and understanding about the very real limitations.
We all want the best for our children. But a wise parent recognizes that a preconceived notion of what's best won't fly. It takes real understanding of who this particular human being is – with their specific and complex neurological makeup – to help them figure out how to succeed. And memorizing multiplication tables is not the only measure of success.
We need the schools to work with us, not against us. We need to be our children's advocates and their support. And we need to pray, no beg, that the Almighty should help us.