As part of their 6th grade World Cultures curriculum, Jacob and Michela had a unit on Israel and Judaism. Although much of the information was what they have been learning in religious school (hopefully!), a unique aspect of the class is that the different cultures are compared to one another. One day, they came home and told me that it all made sense to them why Marlon and I were so focused on school being a priority in our household and in doing well. Apparently Judaism was one of the only early cultures that placed a primary emphasis on education for both men and women equally.
This emphasis on education is especially interesting, because it has a two-part meaning. From an early age, both Jewish men and women are encouraged to further their studies of Jewish history, Torah, and prayers. In fact, studying Torah is one of the highest Mitzvot there is. However, in addition to emphasizing a strong desire for Jewish learning, our culture places an extreme importance on the value of doing well in secular school and in higher education. Academic excellence, measured primarily by report card grades, is expected by most Jewish parents, who also have a high regard for sports, leadership, music, performing arts, and other similar activities. In addition, Jewish parents, often more than other cultures, instill in their children the desire for them to become involved in their communities (especially the Jewish community), to maintain high moral values and standards and to do our part to repair the world and better our environment.
Basically, what I’m saying is that Jewish parents hope their kids will be well rounded and, well, perfect! And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that we fall into this category of parents ourselves. (In fact, knowing me as well as you all do, I’m sure that does not come as a surprise to you.) While there is nothing wrong with the philosophy of wanting our children to be the best they can be, we need to make sure that our encouragement does not turn into too much pressure. The academic, extra curricular, and social aspects of middle school and high school can be stressful enough without parents adding unnecessarily to the burden.
No kid is going to excel 100 percent of the time. And even if one did, it could be at the expense of his or her sanity, health, or ability to be the kind of person he or she wants to be.
So, how can we continue to place a high emphasis on education, learning, and excelling at school, sports, music, other activities, and in our communities without putting undue and unhealthy pressure on our kids? As Teyve said in Fiddler on the Roof, “THAT I can tell you in one word…” BALANCE. As parents, it is our job to make sure that our children have a balance in their lives… that they focus as much on being good people as being good students. For starters, we should continually recognize all of their talents, abilities, and good personality traits, not just focus on how “smart” they are or how good their grades are. We should be sure to praise other features, such as their kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, loyalty, strength, perseverance, honesty, curiosity, and good humor. We want them to understand that we value all parts of them, not just the parts that get them good grades.
Today, it is more competitive than ever before, not only to get into college, but to find jobs, to get clients, to be promoted, and so forth. The world, in general, is a competitive place. This is why it is understandable that parents encourage their children to achieve at the highest level possible. Being accepted into a good college now seems to require a higher than 4.0 GPA, a whole repertoire of Advanced Placement classes, and other things to help each student “stand out” from the next. Yet we don’t want to raise overachieving students who have lost their ability to enjoy their lives… again. It’s all about balance. We must encourage our children to care not only about their grades and being the best, but also to care about others and the environment, to focus on relationships with their friends and family, to get exercise and enjoy activities and relaxation, and to be happy.
Sometimes it isn’t external parental pressure that is causing students to become overachievers. In some cases the children put the pressure on themselves. This is an important time that we, as parents, should step in and help our children focus on other things. The best way to teach them to strive for a good balance in their lives is to model or emulate balanced behaviors in our own lives. We, too, as parents, tend to focus on “being the best” and being a high achiever. We stay competitive by working hard, often at the expense of our own mental health, relaxation, and family time. Perhaps if we achieve our own balance in our lives, we will be setting a good example for our children to also lead balanced lives, where we are motivated and focused on doing well, but also understand that there are other things that are equally important.
One thing I find very ironic is that, despite the intrinsic and historical importance placed on education, according to Jewish thought, parents should not expect their children to be anyone other than who they are. A Chasidic teaching says “If your child has a talent to be a baker, don’t tell him to be a doctor.” This implies that if we ignore a child’s intrinsic strengths or talents in an effort to push him towards our own notion of what is the best or most extraordinary achievement, we are undermining God’s plan for our child. This is definitely something to keep in mind as we strive to achieve that very important balance in our lives and help our children navigate the difficult waters of growing into young adults and becoming professionals. Not only will encouraging our children to follow their true passions and talents be following God’s teachings, but it will help them ultimately be happier individuals and, thereby, more successful.
And now, with these “words of wisdom,” about balance and pressure that I have just imparted fresh in my mind, it’s time for Marlon and me to go and talk to Harrison about which honors classes he plans to take when he enrolls at University High School for next fall, to Jacob about whether or not he should accept the offer of admission for 7th grade to the Orange County High School for the Arts, and to Michela about the try-out schedule for softball all stars….