That’s not all I heard. Just like me, a nurse also came up to work while her three kids attended camp, including one very shy 8-year-old boy. She was supposed to be working at his camp, but was sent instead to the teenage one on the other side of the lake. Her son didn’t fare very well in her absence. The 19-year-old section head and 18-year-old counselor were sure they knew why. “In our experience,” they said, “these kids do much better if the parents are completely offsite.”
Now these teenagers were lovely people and experienced campers, having spent eight weeks at camp for each of the last three years. But that mom was an expert, too. She could have said, “I know you’ve spent 168 days at camp, but I have 3,000 days of experience with this particular boy, and he would have been fine had I worked here.” It was not to be. She took their criticism lying down.
This incident stayed with me, I think, because it’s not an anomaly. Everywhere we turn, someone else is telling us how to raise our kids (including me!). Even the spanking debate which I sparked a while ago (why do I do these things?) is symptomatic of this need for others to tell us, despite divided research data, how to parent our children.
One of my friends recently had an unfortunate run-in with a teacher, who was upset that this mom helped her fourth grade daughter to understand math. “She has to learn it the way we teach it, not the way you explain it,” the teacher stressed, failing to see the irony that if the teacher had actually taught the child, she wouldn’t have needed her mother’s help in the first place. The mother said little. I think a simple, “my child, my house, my time,” would have sufficed, followed by, in a Shrek accent, “bye-bye. See you later.” But my friend was more polite.
Instead of feeling upset when someone criticizes what we do with our kids, we tend to feel intimidated. When Rebecca took swimming lessons at the age of 4, the swimming instructor dunked her. I knew this wouldn’t work, but I didn’t speak up, and to this day I wonder why I was so cowed by a 17-year-old. It took me two years to undo the damage, during which my daughter would scream if I mentioned lessons. I took her swimming for fun, and she slowly began to like the water again. She swims like a fish now! (update: nine years after writing this column, Rebecca is a lifeguard who teaches swimming. And she never forces kids underwater). Yet she wasn’t like most kids when it comes to learning to swim. She’s easily spooked, and I should have stepped in earlier.
We live in an expert-driven society. No longer does common sense or life experience qualify you for anything. Yet though experts may know general knowledge, such as what happens with most children, you are the only one who knows the specifics, or what happens with your child.
I say this knowing what it is like to be on the other side. Doctors often deal with parents who refuse to believe that nothing is wrong with their child. We could all benefit from two or three honest and wise friends who could act as our personal “reality checks”, telling us when we, or our kids, are out of line. But I still can’t help feeling that erring on the side of too much involvement is better than erring on the side of too little. Studies show consistently that kids need involved parents. Good teachers and principals know this and welcome it; insecure ones don’t.