The opt-out movement and the coddling epidemic

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In the 1970s, environmental psychologist Roger Hart began observing 86 children between ages 3 and 12 in a small Vermont town. He asked them to show him “the places that are dangerous” in their town, “the places that are scary.” And they did. He found that kids as young as 4 were out playing on their own, and by the time they were 10, they knew the entire town. Yet when Hart returned to the same town over 35 years later, he noted that kids were no longer allowed to roam free. In fact, the very children he had observed were now parents, and although they recollected their childhoods and the great amount of freedom they had with extreme fondness, they refused to allow their own children even a modicum of the same freedom. Whereas the children he observed in the 1970s were able to show him many places they played alone, the children there now aren’t permitted beyond their own backyards without adult supervision.

{mosads}This overprotective tendency has extended beyond not allowing children to roam free and play on their own. It often means that kids never get to experience any real sense of independence, nor learn self-reliance. Parents do homework with kids who should be doing it by themselves, make friends for them, shield them from opposing or unconventional views, handle disputes for them, and try to keep any possible stress or harm from entering their lives.

The effects can be extremely damaging. “If your mother has been micromanaging your homework since you were 6,” Anna Quindlen once wrote, “it’s hard to feel any pride of ownership when you do well. You can’t learn from mistakes and disappointments if your childhood is engineered.”

We are now seeing these effects firsthand in the form of the misguided, misinformed opt-out movement.

Jeanette Deutermann, who heads the opt-out movement on Long Island, N.Y., has stated that “parents have a right and responsibility to protect their children from flawed tests.”

And she’s not alone in her belief that parents need to “protect” kids from tests — as if a kid’s going to open up a test booklet and a terrorist will pop out.

This is how helicopter parenting hurts children. To helicopter parents, the very notion that their child could be measured or judged in some way by a test is absolute agony. “A test can’t judge my child!” they’ll tell you. Or, “My child is more than a test!” Some even claim that the Common Core amounts to “academic child abuse.”

This is not to say that there may not be legitimate concerns about tests or standards. In fact, it’s a good idea to have a constant review process to make certain that both are meeting children’s needs.

But it is absolutely ludicrous that while less than one in three New York state kids in grades three through eight are proficient in reading and writing, and barely over one in three in math (and only about 22 percent of eighth graders), Deutermann and other parents like her are more worried about their kids’ feelings being hurt than their education being hurt. The United States has been steadily sinking in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) educational rankings, yet any effort to improve our standards must be undone because, as former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once put it, it upsets “white suburban moms” when they find out that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought.”

Much of this comes from the wrongheaded, baseless self-esteem movement. Many parents, perhaps suffering from harsh memories of their own, attempt to shield their children from any sort of confrontation or criticism.

“Self-esteem,” wrote William Deresiewicz in his book “Excellent Sheep,” “is a balloon that must be kept inflated by the hot air of approval … and it collapses at the first contact with reality.” He adds: “Kids who have been raised under a regimen of positive reinforcement, and whose self-esteem depends on perfection, are not well equipped to handle criticism.”

We are in the midst of a coddling epidemic that is doing real damage. Overprotective, overbearing parents have to learn that it’s OK if their kid doesn’t get a trophy sometimes, OK if they hear a little bit of criticism every now and again, and OK if they, once in a while, do something without you. Stop making all their plans for them, stop arranging their lives so that you can experience vicarious achievement and stop interfering with their education. They don’t need you to “protect” them from tests. What they need is for you to take off that false cloak of self-righteousness, adjust to reality and (occasionally) tell them the truth.

Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.

Tags Arne Duncan Common Core opt-out opt-out movement Test testing

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