Why Back-to-School Night Made Me Feel Like a Bad Mom

Sure, my younger son’s lack of musical and athletic prowess is much less of a threat to his well-being than the actual physical threat I’d perceived that day on the street. But my reaction to both threats—cold hands, nausea, light-headedness—was identical. Grolnick explains:

Our schools and other institutions, such as organized sports, are set up as hierarchies with evaluation, social comparison, and “weeding out” as part of routine practice. (Labaree, 1997). Indeed, Labaree (1997) argued that the goals of education have moved from obtaining knowledge that will be useful for children in their futures to obtaining credentials that will give them an edge over the competition.

Humans, as opposed to other species—are high-investment parents. Some species lay eggs and walk away, but not us. We spend an enormous amount of energy raising our children to adulthood, and often beyond, and as I found out at parent-teacher night, much of that energy is toxic.

This biological response to my otherwise lovely and nurturing friends and neighbors took me by surprise, but now that I know it exists, I’m opting in for the vaccine. I suggest you do the same, and to that end, I propose a national vaccination program based on the suggestions of Grolnick and psychotherapist Dee Shepherd-Look.

  1. Identify what you fear. I fear my kid will be a failure because he’s not learning team sports or music theory.
  2. Stop the runaway train of fear. Okay, maybe “failure” is too strong a word.
  3. Turn the mountain into a molehill. My younger son is only in fourth grade, and his big brother did not pick up guitar until he was 13. There’s still hope for him.
  4. Look for the silver lining. My son has an incredible imagination, and has the space and time to play, whittle, and be a child.
  5. Things change over time. He’s nine; he has plenty of time to explore, and learn, and try new things.
  6. Concentrate on long-term goals. In the end, I want my son to be a happy, well-rounded and competent human being, and that does not require dry-land training or a working knowledge of harmonics.

When I got home, my younger son had made and eaten his dinner, cleaned up his mess, and put himself to bed. There were some stray wood shavings on the living room floor, and my paring knife needed a good sharpening, but his de-barked wizard staff was propped up against the couch in all its glory. As I walked in to the kitchen, my older son put down his algebra homework and picked up his guitar, eager to show off his now-perfected Blue Oyster Cult riff. This, right here, will be my vaccine against Pressured Parents Phenomenon. The knowledge that my kids are fine will be the daily dose of reality I knock back with my decaf. 

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her website, and is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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