Almanac

Schools - February 27, 2013

A headmaster offers his parting lesson for parents

by Chris Kenrick

An overemphasis on college preparation is "extinguishing childhood" for too many of today's kids, says Norm Colb, who is nearing completion of his second decade as head of Menlo School in Atherton.

Constant anxiety over grades and performance is a losing strategy for nurturing the self-confident, resilient, morally centered young adults who will succeed in the world, he believes.

More than anything, today's teens need "less worry and more enjoyment" from their parents — and opportunities for autonomy, the avuncular headmaster told a major gathering of Menlo parents and alumni on Saturday, Feb. 9.

Mr. Colb — who leaves Menlo this summer after nearly 50 years in public and private education — gently but firmly implored parents to resist the impulse to micromanage their children's lives.

Parental anxiety — which is contagious to kids — and "the pernicious quest for grades won't lead us to where we want to go with our children," he said.

He illustrated his hour-long talk with a series of New Yorker cartoons, including his favorite: a clearly distraught teenager sitting on her bed with her mother at the door saying, "Try and tell me what's bothering you — and use your SAT words."

He outlined four well-meaning parental behaviors that he warned have the perverse effect of undermining competence and self-confidence in teens: micromanagement of kids' lives; overemphasis on grades and college admission; the "subcontracting of parenting" to others, including schools and the media; and worrying.

"When parents correct the grammar, the spelling, the punctuation, the paragraphs, the student never learns those things. They get better grades, but they don't do the learning," he said.

Cash incentives or other bribes for good grades as well as the increasing use of "study drugs" such as Adderall promote superficial, short-term learning and are "very worrisome," he said. Grade obsession has led to a plethora of cheating scandals at top schools such as the hypercompetitive Stuyvesant High School in New York City and Harvard University, he noted.

"When I say the pursuit of grades is a toxin, this is what I mean," he said. "It extinguishes engagement, can promote a barter economy in the family and does not promote the genuine learning I think we all want for our kids."

Pushing a child just enough so that she "gets into that next tier" of colleges also can backfire, he warned.

"So I've spent four years of high school pressing my kid to get higher and higher grades so they can go to a university where they feel below average.

"I'd much prefer a slightly less competitive college where the student ends up feeling powerful. I think kids would be much better served thinking of themselves as powerful than as marginal."

Mr. Colb said the "subcontracting of parenting" to schools is an honor for the schools, but parenting really needs to happen at home. And substituting television and other media for in-person parental attention is especially dangerous, he said.

"Kids learn their values, their sense of self, at your breakfast table," he told parents.

He said his personal specialty as a parent — his kids are now adults — was worrying, "morning and night."

"The pressure is communicated very readily to kids," he said.

"These behaviors don't launch our kids into lives of great purpose. They just don't.

"If you worry about them incessantly, they'll worry about themselves. If you're calm and competent about them, you give them a gift that lasts a lifetime.

"What kids need from us is authentic, patient, loving, unloaded, unworried time."

Mr. Colb, who announced more than a year ago he would leave Menlo this summer, originally planned to retire but has changed plans. He will become head of school at Sage Ridge School, a 15-year-old independent school in Reno, Nevada.

Before joining Menlo in 1993, he spent nearly 30 years in public education, first as an English teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts, and later as superintendent of schools in Mamaroneck, New York, where he dealt with seven separate employee unions.

He said he switched to private education "to get closer to kids."

The teaching profession doesn't have the status that it should, he believes.

"The way I read the news, it's progressively more debased, and I think that's a tragedy.

"Every profession has its marginal employees, but the press and political establishment seems to delight in focusing on (failed teachers) as opposed to the gifted teacher who works so hard day in and day out to raise up the next generation.

"It's really remarkable that the profession doesn't enjoy that status, and I think we will pay a price for that."

Teachers should be viewed as an asset, not as labor, and need certain conditions to thrive: to be respected; to be paid well enough to live in the local economy; to be involved in decision-making; to have a certain degree of job security and professional renewal.

"If you put these ingredients together, you could start to move the needle," he said.

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