Education, Fear, and Parenting

Today our children sit for more state tests, a practice that has become steeped in controversy and conflict. Although I often turn off the morning news due to excessive violence, ironically today the bullying being alleged was by our own school district, forcing students to “sit and stare” if they (or their parents) opt out of the test.

As I drove my son to school this morning he asked, “Mom, why do the tests have to be such a big deal. Why can’t kids just take them and be done with it?”

His question drew us into a discussion about fear and how anxiety can lead to negative consequences. I explained that many parents are terrified of anything bad happening to their children and that the notion of academic failure sits pretty high on their lists.

Among other thing, fear of failure can prevent one from taking risks and stretching towards opportunities and goals that may- or may not be- out of reach. Fear also prevents us from learning from our failures, making corrections and modifications that can increase our likelihood for future success. It also prevents us from developing valuable coping mechanisms, being vulnerable when things go wrong, and experiencing the intimacy and growth that can result.

But in addition to a myriad of missed opportunities, fear of failure can promote controlling behaviors associated with anxiety and avoidance, or a need for dominance and superiority- characteristics that are neither pro-social nor conducive to personal growth or fulfillment.

As a parent I see one of my major responsibilities as providing a safe and supportive environment for my children to succeed and fail, and all the variations of outcomes in between.   I want them not only to survive their failures, but also to get close to them, exploring their many facets toward the greatest growth, empathy, and learning.

To be clear, I do expect my children to take school seriously as their performance says something important about them and their journey. It reflects their strengths and weaknesses, their work ethic, their priorities at that particular time in their life. But it doesn’t have to define or limit them.

Clearly there are serious problems with high stakes testing. But these specific issues are symptomatic of much deeper and more pervasive problems that are bigger than any specific set of tests that our children are forced to endure. If we address our broken education system solely from a position of fear of failure, we are inadvertently reinforcing the fundamental problem- subjecting our children -all children- to limited notions of opportunities for success. There has to be a better and more powerful way to frame the  conversation.

I remember when my daughter was applying to a highly competitive high school. In the face of widespread anxiety about the upcoming entrance test, I asked her if she was stressed. After assuring me that she was fine, she explained, “Mom, it’s no big deal if I don’t get in.  All I’m looking for is options.”  

In the end I guess that’s really all we want for our children, and ourselves- options. Perhaps by confronting our own fears of failure, we can remove some of the “high stakes” associations with education and parenting, and focus more fully on our children’s growth and learning.