Noah, Researcher, Father of 2, CA
Noah* (psuedonym) is a researcher at a university-based research center. He lives with his wife and two daughters in California. He was interviewed by his friend, Erin.
When you think of your daughters, grownup, in their 30s, what is it you want for them?
I want them to have the greatest possible range of opportunities now, so they can be whatever they want to be. Ideally I’d like for them to develop fully as a human and decide their own course for their life.
What does it mean to “develop fully as a human”?
For me it means to have the opportunity to develop all the different facets of being human. On the educational side, that might mean the academic competencies, but also dance, language, creativity, personal reflection - to know themselves, and personal communication - to be able to get along with other people.
Can you say more about what it means to be free of constraints or have lots of opportunity?
I don’t know that I’m aware of all of the potential constraints out there on my children’s development, but in terms of wider societal constraints, I’m suddenly very aware of many.
There’s probably no more passionate, overly sensitive, feminist than the father of girls. You suddenly become aware of all the different societal constraints on the development of possibilities and career opportunities for women – some spoken and some unspoken. We still grapple as a society with what it means to be a successful woman. These are not new issues, especially around balancing career and motherhood.
When I say systemic constraints I’m thinking about systems that perhaps, without it even being articulated, encourage some activities for boys and some for girls. I know as parents we do and encourage certain things and can subconsciously project those on our children, not realizing that our own perspectives were informed by our own upbringing. This is hard to articulate because I’m in the process of uncovering and understanding it myself – so it’sa learning process for me and as I learn about it I can see how it affects my girls.
Interestingly, in some sense, the realizations have almost made me more conservative, which I hate to say. I think I always believed in a free and unfettered popular culture and freedom of expression and for artists. But then I also see how some of the discourse encourages the sexualization of women, and I’ve become more aware of how, for instance, the music industry shapes people’s perspectives on how women and girls should be. So I find myself conflicted between a liberal sense of freedom of expression for artists and a greater awareness of the effect on the possibilities for girls.
I find it interesting what you said about what it means to be a successful women – what are your thoughts about what success would be more generally for them?
I think it comes back to my earlier point that success is whatever they define it to be or want to define it to be. They will ultimately have to come up with their own measure of what they consider a successful life to be. For me, my role as a father is about identifying and trying to remove the constraints for what they can view to be the possibilities in their lives.
It’s funny how that evolves though. Before we became parents we had an ideal about ourselves and ideas about what we would and wouldn’t do…and then there are accommodations that get made as you go along – so it’s an ideal instead of pragmatic approach to parenting.
Can you give me an example of things you thought you wouldn’t do as parents and then changed as you went along?
Yeah, in terms of schooling actually. Our oldest daughter was born in Chile and we spent her first year there. The first year of her life there was a lot of Spanish around and we wanted to give her bilingual schooling. We intentionally set about providing with Spanish and English language competencies so she would be ready to go to a bilingual school, which she was accepted into. Until we realized that the style of education the school provided was a little too traditional and rigid and close the kind of schooling we had experienced. So after five years of preparing her for a bilingual school, we ended up choosing a school we felt was a better reflection of the kind of social-emotional development we cared about.
We essentially decided it was better to have her happy in one language than unhappy in two.
What was it about the bilingual school you didn’t like?
What’s really interesting is how little information we had to make that decision. When we went to the parent night, they gave a presentation that went something like, “we have very high standards at the school”, we said, “great”, and they said, “we do reading in the morning, then math right after that, then lunch, then…”. It sounded like a very traditional school day. So that’s part of it, the traditional aspect.
But there were unspoken cues we saw. My wife noticed that the teachers, as they walked along the corridors, didn’t acknowledge each other very much and if they did acknowledge each other they did it in a short business-like way. There wasn’t much positivity. It’s a very abstract thing to make a schooling decision on. But at the school she’s at, the teachers seemed happy and the kids seemed happy, and there was a lot of strong personal interaction between the teachers.
We even felt this was strange to make a decision. As we were talking at home between ourselves about the schools because we were a little torn because we feel the bilingual upbringing is important to her because it’s part of her history and who she is, but we both felt much more positively about the other school. We thought it was odd that our feelings and perceptions were strong without being able to identify why, exactly, very strongly, but we did choose the school she’s at, which is not bilingual, and I think it was the right decision.
Why do you think the positivity and relationships were important to you?
I think we felt like the most important thing a school can do is keep alive her sense of curiosity and sense of enthusiasm for learning. Which, I think, most kids at that age have. There’s a natural joy to most five and six year olds. They like to play and enjoy engaging in new things. If the school can keep that alive in them and not “school” it out of them, we figured that would be the best possible thing. I think we thought if we saw the teachers weren’t happy with each other they wouldn’t be happy with the children and that would harm that love of learning we think is very important.
When you say it was a more traditional school, what did you mean?
Yeah, when I think of traditional school I think of what I recall of what I experienced in elementary school. It involves that the school is run on a timetable and the timetable is noted by a bell. There are desks, often in straight lines. There is a focus on individual work and that the students are assessed on individual measures of their work. And, although it wasn’t the case in my schooling, I think traditionally there’s a grade – A-F or whatever, with a red pen circling the grade.
I think it’s increasingly less relevant. Work environments are changing. Individual competency is important, I want my daughters to be good writers, strong spellers, and have good arithmetic, but I want them to be able to engage with other students, take an idea and add to it and to give someone else…experience the pleasure of creating something new. I’m thinking of how you would prepare for engaging and changing kinds of work – non-routine kinds of work.
The bell is something the school she’s currently at doesn’t have. Having flexibility around the use of time is more useful. Ideas don’t always come between 10-10:50. Children don’t always grasp a concept in the 50 min of time allotted for it. Sometimes it’s better to cut an activity short if it’s not being helpful or stay with an activity that’s really working – when they’re enjoying it and learning, to have to stop with the bell.
In terms of assessment, I’m more interested in the kind of feedback you can give that will help enhance the curiosity and desire to learn and to steer her to something that will help her grasp the concept rather than, “You didn’t get it so you get an F or you did get it and you get an A”. Something that feeds back into her development rather than comparison with peers’ work.
When you think about the good life you described earlier, of developing fully as a human, what are the roles you would like schooling to play in achieving that?
We hope that we as parents are helping her to be a caring, empathetic human that can reflect upon herself and help her be a better person. We would like her to identify her strengths and weaknesses, and be able to become a better person and for her to be empathetic and be able to get along with other people and see other people's perspectives.
Those are both hugely important for creating stronger societies. We still need to get along with other people. Empathy is also important for her own individual creative development. If she wants to be able to create something new, then she needs the ability to identify a perspective and incorporate it into her thinking. So those will help her be a better person and a better worker. There are all of these different elements we want and we’re trying to incorporate them in how we raise our daughter.
We’d like school to support all of those and it’s probably why we chose the school we did. There was a philosophy of learning that was beyond the subject disciplines themselves and the school is able to articulate their philosophy. They could say, “Here’s what we try to do in our school and here’s what the teachers and school do to try to achieve that, and if you go into a classroom this is what you might see that’s indicative of that.”
What are those kinds of things the school does?
The focus is a developmental one and they focus on social-emotional learning as well as academic learning. One thing structurally is they they have mixed grade classes, and the reason for that is that when you have traditional classes, the kids who are the weakest one year tend to be the weakest the next year and this might dampen their joy for learning. The same is true on the opposite end of the spectrum - the kids at the top tend to stay at the top and perhaps have an inflated sense of their abilities and perhaps don’t have any incentive to push themselves either. With two grades, even if you’re the weakest student one year, the next year you get to have a group of students who are younger than you that you get to share your learning with. And if you’re the strongest student in the class you get a turn at being the younger and not strongest student.
Anything that this conversation brought up that made you think, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that before”?
Something I think is interesting is how there’s something very passionate and strong that I’m trying to articulate but I feel so ill-equipped to articulate it. I think that’s really indicative of something. There’s something really important to me about this subject that I’m not quite able to express – we make these kinds of decisions about what we think we want for our kids but they’re not necessarily ideas that are formulated in a way that are totally cogent or clear. So there’s as much a feeling about them as a rationally developed argument.
And, something that’s grabbed my attention lately as a parent is that there’s a tension between what I think I want for my kids and what I actually do. My oldest daughter is much stronger in academic abilities than in physical ones – like climbing a tree or riding a bike or playing sports, aside from dance which she loves. If I want her to be a fully capable human being, then that’s an area I know that needs more work and I need to provide opportunities to do that. But what I often do when there’s spare time is many of the reading activities and math games that she has from school. And it’s not at the directive of the teacher – the school provides materials for us to use, but the teacher has told us that the kids have long days at school and it’s tiring for them and you should play with your kids – don’t worry about the math or writing. But what I do is use the materials and steer her toward reading more and doing math games. If I think clearly there are areas of her development I should make a greater priority. I’m not sure where I’ve absorbed the discourse that I need to be putting my energy there, but I’m absorbing it from somewhere and that’s how it is.
That’s so interesting. Why do you think that is, is it something that you enjoy more?
I think it’s something that I know how to do as a parent, so there’s that. It’s easy because I can do it and I have the resources to do it because the school makes them available and it can be done without a big journey and leaving the house – needing to get sandals and lunches.
But there’s another element to it as well, and it might be just living in this area, because there's this passive pressure in this area for kids to do well academically and do well early. I think I react to that in a way that I want her to be more capable in skills earlier so there isn’t pressure later. Which is odd because you also run the risk of it becoming a pressured activity. So I think I try to find a balance with that, but it’s interesting to be cognizant and still affected by it.