18 February 2011
14 Adar 1, 5771
Many parents worry about their children’s academic performance, often for good reasons. I spoke recently with a father who was concerned that his child was not working as hard as he should, not taking full advantage of opportunities for support from teachers and others, and simply not exhibiting the drive for academic excellence of which his parents know he is capable. Not surprisingly, the child’s first semester grades reflected his less-than-optimal-drive for academic excellence. What if he has sabotaged his college career? Why pay so much for a high school education if a child is not taking advantage of it? The parent wanted my advice about how to motivate his child. Is it time for an intervention? What can the parents or the school do to help rectify this situation?
After some consideration, I reached out to this parent with suggestions about a plan of action for the student. To my surprise, the parent expressed that he was more confident and happier about the situation and even about his child’s grades. “This is what he needed,” the parent told me, “to learn that he is in high school now and that he needs to take more responsibility for himself. I think he is starting to understand that his grades and his learning will depend on the effort he puts in.” This turnaround in the parent’s stance toward his child’s performance and grades reminded me of one of the most essential and difficult character traits that both parents and teachers (and Heads of School) need to develop in order for our children (and us) to learn and grow.
When we worry that every grade, every test, every homework assignment could affect our children’s future, it is so tempting to respond to underperformance, let alone failure, with urgency and even anxiety. However, this runs counter to what we know about real learning: it takes time. If we want our children to develop into responsible, independent, and motivated learners, we need patience. Yet, it is so hard to be patient when our children are not living up to what we believe is their potential and not necessarily because we are perfectionists who will settle for nothing less. We love them, and we want the best for them. We want them to be successful, we want every option to be available to them in the future, and we believe that this will lead to their happiness and fulfillment. Who they are and how they perform reflect on our own performance and sense of self as parents and educators. The art of knowing when to step in and when to step back, when a child needs support and when a child needs to fail is a challenging and imperfect art form, something that we, ourselves, will always be learning. Our willingness to be patient, to endure the gap between what could be (and what should be!) and what is happening is the only way to create the space in which learning and growth can occur.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, reminds us of the value of patience. It was B’nei Yisrael’s impatience that led them to build the golden calf when they “saw that Moshe took so long coming down from the mountain.” (Exodus 32:1) In response and in a characteristic display of God’s impatience with B’nei Yisrael’s behavior and bad judgment, God threatens to destroy the people. Ultimately, God realizes that, in order for Him to stay in a relationship with His people, it is He who needs to change. He reveals what have come to be known as the 13 Attributes of Mercy (Exodus 34:6-7), nearly all of which hinge on God’s capacity and willingness to be patient with human imperfection. These middot (attributes) form the core of our prayers of penitence, of the Yom Kippur service, and of the teshuva (repentance, change, and self-improvement) process.
Learning, growth, and change are difficult, and they take time, which is why they are so rewarding. We need to find the balance between constructively supporting and intervening and allowing space for our children to experience real struggles and even failure. May we find the patience to resist the urge to “fix” our children and ourselves so we can engage in the challenging and fulfilling work of education.
Rabbi Marc Baker