Monday, September 24, 2007

Running a High School

“Why can’t the high school be more like the middle school”?

This question, often wistfully posed by parents whose children are now in the high school, implies two things: First, it speaks of the high esteem with which our middle school principals, teachers and program are held. Second, it suggests the high school just isn’t measuring up.

The problem, however, is that it would be a dreadful mistake for the high school to emulate the middle school! In best describing why, I believe it's helpful to consider how our parenting changes as our kids move from the pre-teen years to the older teen years. Consider:

When our children are young, we:

--Insist on particular study times, how much study is done and where it’s done
--Keep in frequent communication with teachers, reacting swiftly to poor performance, intervening before there is failure.
--Impose bed times on them to insist they receive the proper amount of sleep
--Structure our children’s activities and tightly monitor all “away from home” events

In contrast, as our children become older teenagers, we:

--Give them say over their homework, until evidence suggests they aren't handling it well.
--Allow them to taste the consequences of poor academic performance so as to learn from it, rather than immediately intervene
--Give them some flexibility in bed times, within reason.
--Set parameters and curfews even while allowing some flexibility in choosing activities.
--Increase our role and impose consequences after the mistake(s) rather than before.

Of course, some of these differences are more matters of degree than substance. Parents of 12 year olds don’t rescue their kids before every mistake any more than parents of older teens allow their kids to totally self-destruct before intervening; indeed, the great challenge of parenting is knowing precisely when to do which! Still, all of us want our children to stand on their own feet upon graduation from high school, and we understand we cannot be there like we once were when our children learned to walk, hands outstretched to catch them from falling each time they wobbled.

Put another way, as our children grow older, our aim is wean them from us. Our modus operandi is to give them increasing amounts of freedom, a snippet at a time, observing them carefully to see how they handle each step, curtailing the freedom for a time when they misuse it, insisting they pay the piper, even while giving them the chance to start over after each mistake. We expect that our children will take missteps, but know that by experiencing the consequences of these missteps our children will mature and move closer to the day they can lead independent lives. We must give them "space."

Good high schools run this way, too. Despite the strong temptation to control daily activities so tightly that students are not allowed to make mistakes without being intercepted by teachers before-hand (because the school would be perceived as more “orderly” and the principal seen as a better “disciplinarian”), doing so would be bad principaling as much as it would be bad parenting. Rather, good high schools give their students room to fail and insist they experience the consequences of their failure, even as they are ready, like parents, to help lift them from their stumbles and get them back on track. Good high school teachers, like good parents, sometimes have to insist on “tough love” by holding students accountable for poor effort or performance, even at the risk of being labeled as “uncaring”-- though like good parents, too, they allow their students to start over and are eager to assist them when approached.

This means, to be frank, that running a high school is often "messier" to the untrained eye. If there is greater freedom, there are also more disciplinary incidents. The obligation of the high school is to insist on proportionate consequences, each and every time, so that the offending student gradually shuns the behavior on his own. Schools can expect that freshmen in particular will struggle with their new found freedom and are thus prudent to allow them more missteps than they would upperclassmen, even while "stinging" them with punishments each time. Similarly, if parents and teachers allow their children greater freedom in making academic decisions about their homework and grades, there are also more "failures", though wise schools, like wise parents, structure these potential failures to be more short term ( a 4 week marking period grade) than final outcomes (a trimester average), thus giving their children a "taste" of the failure while also allowing ample time to recover.

When our children were younger, my wife and I would often lament how parents of older teens raised their children. With our two older children (see pic above) we began to understand! As parents of younger children, we are tempted to believe in our own omnipotence and omniscience, since we have control and responsibility over so many facets of our their lives. But if we want our children to grow to be men and women, we must give up some of this "power" and allow our children more freedom, even while insisting on parameters. One particularly astute parent called it the difference between riding a horse and creating fences within which the horse can roam. When our children are younger, we can ride that horse, directing the horse when to turn, trot or run. If we try and ride teenagers, their natural instinct is to buck us off! Good high schools, like good parents, build fences instead, all the while shaping a landscape that leads the horse to a final destination, with the horse believing it's getting there on its own.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Teens, Parenting and the Internet

This summer, I took my 15 year old son to his pediatrician for a physical before he could play football. She took the time to talk to him about proper diet, exercise and other life-style issues facing teens, which I appreciated. At the end of her talk, she added "And no more than 5 hours of sitting in front of a computer per week".

Per week? During the summer, I suspect my children spent 5 hours of time on the computer per day.

Suffice it to say I've taken a more liberal approach to things than our pediatrician suggests. Perhaps it's because I am a "techno-file" myself: I keep 3 blogs, I host an on-line course in Catholic Doctrine, I read 10-15 web sites daily on topics ranging from curriculum to Notre Dame football, I've played over 5,000 games of "Literi" (Scrabble) over the internet, and over 2000 games of Chess (I don't even want to estimate how much time that is!) and I regularly experiment with all the new Google gadgets. This Christmas, to see if it could be done (it can), I asked my wife if she'd allow me to do ALL the Christmas shopping on line for our kids and relatives, and it was the first time I've ever enjoyed shopping. There's something very satisfying about the packages arriving at your house as opposed to fighting the traffic, wading through malls, and standing in line!

So if 5 hours a week is a reasonable standard for our teens, I confess that I fail that standard miserably as an adult.

But as a father of four teens, I don't believe it's the right standard. One of the mistakes we often make as adults is to equate time on the computer as time in front of the TV. TV requires very little brain activity, whereas time on the computer and over the internet requires much more. My 15 year old is a good example: he creates movies, using our digital camcorder and I-Movie software, he writes songs and mixes music, incorporating his drum/keyboard/guitar playing with Garage Band software, he uses HTML code to design web pages, he uses Adobe software to create art and he uses I-Tunes to download music. And yes, of course, he uses Face-book, AIM and MySpace accounts to communicate with other teens. These are all generally healthy activities, and I want my children to be fluent in using computers and the internet to create and communicate.

On the other hand....

I am not naive. Pornography is rampant on the internet, accounting for over 70% of all internet band-width used, by some estimates. Language in chat rooms is abominable. The temptation to violate copyright laws, especially with a tech-savvy son, is real. And I do agree with our doctor that computers can become all-consuming, to the detriment of exercise, school work and genuine social interaction among peers.

The challenge for us as parents is to find ways to maximize what is good about the internet, while discouraging the negative. Here are some of the things we've tried to implement in our household with my 4 teenage children:

1) Time on the computer is contingent on proper balancing, as with all things in life. Homework must be completed. Household chores must be done and done well first (always a battle!). Exercise must be regular and routine (playing on school teams helps!). They must get enough sleep! When these things are generally balanced, I don't believe in some sort of absolute time limit.

2) The computers must be used in public places around the house. This eliminates a lot of temptation to be on the wrong sites and do the wrong things. Laptops and wireless networks are a problem in this regard, and for this reason we didn't allow our kids to get them until they go to college.

3) Our children are not allowed to erase "histories" in the browsers. This lets us as parents review every where they've been on the internet. Again, this creates a strong disincentive.

4) My children may not download software or music illegally.

5) I do allow my children to use Facebook and My Space accounts, contingent on the following:

--from time to time, unannounced, they must show me their sites. They don't like this, but I see no other way of keeping things honest. If someone posts a crude remark, they are supposed to remove it immediately.

--they may not make their Facebook "private", meaning only invited members may see the sites. As I point out, people make their sites private for a reason.

--they cannot share personal phone numbers

--they must realize they are liable to our school for anything that's on their page, since Facebook enrolls students by the school's name.

That's about it, really. I've tried filtering software that screens certain sites, but not with much success early on. It becomes a kind of game with my sons, especially. They guess my password (ok, I could do better!). They go to proxy sites that allow them to log in to the sites screened out by our software. The filtering programs often block legitimate sites. Maybe I should give these filtering programs a second chance, but to be honest, I haven't used them in years.

I'm not a perfect parent, and my children aren't perfect either. I suspect they've gotten away with some things, partly because of my less-than-perfect supervision, partly because there are areas in all this where my children are simply smarter than I am!

May God give us all the grace and wisdom to be good parents in this "Brave New World"!