Over the past few months, there’s been a bit of a trend in my Facebook feed of people sharing articles with titles like “10 Things I Will Teach My Son.” Usually, they’re talking about some set of important values often involving gender or bullying or something like that. Oftentimes, they’re kind of vaguely feminist–talking about how we should teach our daughters to be strong and independent and our sons not to ogle.
I find all of these articles–yes, all of them*–highly annoying.
The reason why isn’t that I think anyone involved in either writing them or sharing them has bad intentions. In fact, I generally agree with most of the values people share in these. That might be because many of them are really just a collection of platitudes and clichés, and are saying little more than something along the lines of “being nice is good”–but I digress.
The real thing I find annoying about these articles is the model of parenting–and, by proxy, of teaching–that they present.
Whenever I read one of these articles, I always find myself imagining the author’s image of themselves as a parent. Their children surround them, say, by a perfectly built fire, and listen diligently as their parents dole out wisdom and advice. “Beauty is a state of mind, my darling girl, not a state of body,” they’ll say, while their daughter quietly nods, trying to process this profound nugget of wisdom.
Anyone who’s actually taught young people should know that it doesn’t work this way. Sure, we adults are older and therefore inevitably wiser, but that doesn’t mean that our kids will see us that way. That doesn’t mean that we can simply share with them the conclusions we’ve come to after years of hard-won experience (conclusions like, “You should set goals for yourself, and then work hard to achieve them”) and expect them to adopt them wholeheartedly.
It’s fairly easy to get a little kid to parrot back the values you want them to share with you, as all young children learn a lot by imitation. They also, for the most part, enjoy pleasing authority figures by telling them what they want to hear.
However, as kids get older, they begin having a multitude of their own experiences and very quickly start drawing their own conclusions about what they mean. Some of the time, the conclusions they draw may be ones that you want them to draw (e.g., “Being kind to other people makes them like me more). At other times, they might not be (e.g., “I can gain acceptance from my peer group by putting down people of lesser social status”). And you can’t really control that.
When I’m happiest with my teaching, I feel like I’m not necessarily “molding” my students, but rather stripping away the crap that keeps them from being who they are. Deep within each of them (sometimes buried very deeply) is a long list of unique ideas, thoughts, and talents. And if I’m successful, I’ll be that teacher who’s able to help them find that thing that makes them special.
Which brings me to what I’d much rather do for my son when it comes time to teach him important values. Living a good life isn’t a lecture, it’s a dialogue. It’s a long series of questions about what it means, exactly, to do good in this world. And the answers I’ve come up with in my too-short time on this planet certainly aren’t going to be any better than the ones he does.
And through all of this, I hope I can maintain with him what I think is the real difference-maker and parenting and teaching: a great relationship. I’m willing to bet that it’s much more likely that he’ll share the values I want him to share if he and I get along really well. And I’m willing to work to make that happen.
*Broad generalizations are OK on the internet.