Not long ago, psychologist Madeline Levine gave a lecture at a Jewish day school near her home in Marin County. The topic: “Your Average Child.”
Nobody showed up.
“I guess there wasn’t a single average kid at the school,” Levine quips.
“By definition, the vast majority of our children are average,” she clarifies.
It’s a notion that is difficult for parents to accept, especially as many of us grew up hearing that we were anything but average — we were special. If our kids are average, does that mean that ultimately we are (gasp!) average, too?
In an effort to keep such thoughts at bay, we enforce the typical trajectory: Starting with preschool (if not before), expose children to as many enrichment activities as possible. Arrange playdates (assuming they have “free” time). Sign them up for sports, music lessons, art classes, etc.
Once they hit elementary or middle school, have the kids load up on classes and activities. Make sure they get good grades and garner trophies. And so it continues, through high school. This will land them at a top-tier college where, the story goes, they will graduate and embark upon a well-paid career.
But Levine, author of the new book “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” says that despite today’s high-stakes environment, which combines an uncertain economic future with increasingly fierce competition for spots at top schools, parents are paying attention to the wrong things.
“If you spend all this time going over their homework, correcting it, bringing in a tutor, you’ve lost all this time to build other things: character, persistence, generosity — all the things that people now are saying are going to be mandatory” for future jobs, she said.
In the book, Levine writes: “Every measure of child and adolescent mental health has deteriorated since we’ve decided that children are best served by being relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested. Our current version of success is a failure.”
It’s a trap in which much of the Jewish community finds itself ensnared, Levine says, given the historical emphasis of Jews on the value of education.
“There’s always this sense that education is the way to go; it always has been,” she said. “If your 15-year-old says I don’t want to clear the dishes today, I have my AP chemistry test [to study for], most [Jewish] parents say don’t worry about it, go study.”
“That’s a big mistake. There’s more to be learned about the issue of sharing responsibility and community that goes along with three minutes of clearing the table.”
While many Jewish schools emphasize community and values, she says, parents too often worry about a botched test.
“We know everything about their grades and not enough about where they go and what they do,” she writes. “We monitor their performance, but not their character.”
Levine reminds parents of their ultimate goal: “We want to turn out good people who find good partners, find work they like, and contribute to their communities.”
“Teach Your Children Well” is, in part, a response to Levine’s previous book, the 2006 surprise best-seller “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” (“Nobody expected it to end up on The New York Times” best-sellers list, she said. “It did.”)
“The Price of Privilege” touched a nerve. Although its scope was limited to upper-income families, it identified problems prevalent among all income strata.
Her new book, Levine said, provides a broader perspective along with some solutions. (One example: “Question aggressively a system that seems to sanction excessive homework, competition over collaboration, sleep deprivation, and choosing activities based solely on their resume-enhancing potential.”)
As for her own background, Levine, 62, embodies the notion that “average” can turn exemplary. She grew up in New York City, in the Flushing section of Queens; her father was a police officer who died young, her mother was a social worker.
“We had no money, no insurance, nothing,” Levine recalled. A scholarship enabled her to study at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
“I had the best parents,” Levine said. “I was just fine the way I was, whether that was excelling in English or floundering at math. They were more interested in the kind of person I was.”
Levine began her career as a teacher in the South Bronx, a downtrodden, violence-plagued section of New York, in the 1970s. (“I was a terrible teacher,” she said. “I was so bad in the classroom, so good at the one on one.”)
She moved to California to pursue a doctorate in psychology. She has a private clinical practice — on the back burner at the moment, she says — and is a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-based organization that works with schools and families to promote better balanced, more fulfilled lives for children.
She and her husband, Lee Schwartz, have three sons, ages 32, 27 and 21. Having adult children, she says, gives her the opportunity to look back and consider what she would do differently. One thing Levine says she’d change: She would have participated more in her children’s Jewish education.
Busy with her family and career, “I remember all the times I dropped them off at Hebrew school, went home and went to bed,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘You have to go to Mitzvah Day.’ Well, if mom’s not going … actions speak louder than words.”
Levine’s youngest son, Jeremy, helped guide her career toward combating the pressure-cooker environment that so many kids encounter at school. While her older sons, good students, “were served by the system,” her youngest (“a perfectly average student,” as she describes him in her book) was falling between the cracks.
“There was very little to feel good about, starting in about sixth grade,” she said. “Nobody was interested in the parts of him that were super good.”
“Every kid has a super power,” she said. “For one kid, it may be calculus. For another it’s an incredible sensitivity toward people.” A parent’s task, Levine says, is valuing these strengths equally.
“Life hands people all kinds of losses, disappointments, tragedies,” she said. “Why do we want to have kids night after night sobbing over their homework at 2 a.m. because they can’t get it done? It’s something we created that has become an enormous stressor.”
“I feel like adults have a secret: There are a bunch of things you’re good at, a bunch of things you’re average at, a bunch of things you really suck at,” Levine said. “This idea of straight-A students is a perfect mythology to me. Most of us are pretty average in most ways.”
“Teach Your Children Well” by Madeline Levine (352 pages, HarperCollins, $25.99)