“Raise them to be the best they can be”

A friend said that to me about the main job of parenting. She has infinitely more parenting experience than me, and she’s good at it. 

I told her about this study about the COMT gene I mentioned in an earlier blog post. In the long article about the study, you learn that it’s possible to be trained to manage stress. You endure a stressful but manageable situation, you recover, and you build a skill, a mechanical skill in your brain. “Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.” Depending on whether your brain removes that dopamine slowly or quickly (the speed is determined by a genetic variant in the COMT gene), you’ll be a “warrior” — thriving under stress — or a “worrier” — flailing under stress. You can train your brain to adjust that speed. Amazing.

Couple that with what appears in this week’s New York Times magazine (The Education Issue): “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” The answer: Yes. 

A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier… This was startling news. “Everybody said, Oh, it’s how kids achieve academically that will predict their adult employment, and health, and everything else,” recalls Mark Greenberg, a Penn State University psychologist. “And then it turned out that for both employment and health outcomes, academic achievement actually predicted less than these other factors.” 

My bottom line from all this: Learn to manage stress to your advantage. Build your emotional intelligence. You’ll live a longer, happier, healthier life. You’ll be the best you can be.

***

Our kids are in a great public school, in a wonderful school district–one of the stronger in our state. I went to a parent leadership meeting to hear from the superintendent the other night. Parents chosen to attend these meetings tend to be PTA or SAC (school advisory council) members. Or like me, both. They tend to be highly involved in their student’s education and in the school itself. 

You’d think they’re not the parents who need support in raising their students to be the best they can be–I mean, these are driven, ambitious, parents, each of whom rightly believes that their child deserves the most out of their public school education. Including me. But you catch glimpses, hints, that there’s no parent out there who doesn’t need support. That every parent–no matter how educated, how involved, how “rich” in terms of time–needs a little help.

Said one parent, of other parents at her child’s Title I school (who, I must presume, are low-income, or she wouldn’t have bothered to mention “Title I”): “They just don’t care. They don’t care at all about what their kids are doing in school.” She made this pronouncement (and I’m not exaggerating when I say that she nearly spit with anger as she said it) right after a different parent asked whether the superintendent found that it was harder for parents to be involved if they were working parents. I thought this was a fair question–PTA meetings, meetings with teachers, SAC meetings, homework… all of these things tend to happen during second-shift hours. Spitting parent clearly did not agree with me.

The superintendent answered calmly (my heart was beating out of my chest at spitting parent’s implication): “I don’t think it’s constructive to paint any parent as one who doesn’t care. We all care about our kids. To deny that, it’s not a good starting point in any conversation.”

I wanted desperately to cite a study about the impact of poverty of cognitive function, that the very stress of having little makes it difficult to manage day-to-day things like paying bills on time… that maybe it would be helpful to have a little compassion and empathy, and think of ways to help parents who can’t do more at a given moment in time, rather than condemn them and bemoan the extra burden they place on you. But I held my tongue.

Said another parent, in a mildly accusatory tone, “When will the northern part of the county [our part] get a full-time gifted elementary school? You say that you’re committed to the best and the brightest, but some of these kids [read, her kid, I know him] just languishthey’re our future, they’re the ones who are going to be our state’s scientists and technology wizards.”

Said the superintendent (I’m paraphrasing), “We have gifted programming in every school. We don’t raise the overall success of every student by isolating the gifted. It’s one way to do it, but it’s not the only way.”

I wanted to add, “Might be good to remember that there are some technically non-gifted people who have changed the world for the better. There was this one guy, Steve Jobs…”

But I held my tongue, again. 

What I wanted to do in that meeting, and what the superintendent helped those two parents do far more effectively than I could (he’s an educator, after all), is called “reframing.” It’s where you can look at a situation and consider it from different angles, different perspectives, and realize that maybe your initial take on a situation is incomplete. When you do that, you can actually reduce your own stress. It’s a marker of emotional intelligence. (But I did not speak, as my heart was beating out of my chest with anger at both parents’ tones. Emotional intelligence is being able to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.)

***

Our kids. They’re bright, they do their best. I care about their academic performance a great deal, because it’s currently their “job.” It’s their responsibility to do their best, it’s their share of work in the little society we have called “school.” But I must admit, I care more that they are kind, gentle, and empathetic, that they can rebound and recover from stress and disappointment and injustice. From the ups and downs of life. And after all this research I’m reading, I’m now a bit happier to admit it. 

My friend, the great parent. She said a bit more after her initial statement… something to the effect of:

“Our job is to raise our kids to be the best they can be. It’s not to raise the best a**holes.”

Gets right to the point, huh? I really like this friend.

 

 

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