Fit for Life

Posted by Anthony E. Steele II on 11/14/2018

Fit for Life

Serving as the Assistant Superintendent-Director/Principal of BVT is never a dull job, in part, because the educational landscape is always changing. I need to keep a keen eye and ear out for arising challenges to our mission, and as a school we must stay nimble in our responses. Ensuring that our students are career and college ready also means that they are fit — FIT FOR LIFE.

Over the past few months I have been paying particular attention to one such challenge to our mission. It stems from an observed paradox in our culture, and I’ve concluded that it is not isolated to BVT, but more accurately to raising Generation Z across America. Invariably, adults pride themselves on their particular struggles growing up. Said struggles forged them into who they are. Yet, we seem determined as parents and educators to deny our youngsters those very experiences.

We’ve all heard the cliché from an elder, “When I was a kid, I walked to school, uphill… both ways… in the snow.” You’ve probably heard yourself proclaim some form of this sentiment to the young people in your life to bring about an awareness of just how good they have it. I remember hearing it as a kid, and I have countlessly echoed these sentiments, proudly, as an adult. It is universal. But why? Is it partly because we cherish the wisdom we gained from the proverbial school of hard knocks? Or are we proud of the fact that we go above and beyond to ensure that our kids have the best opportunities to be happy and successful? Regardless, the school of hard knocks provided us with resiliency, grit, determination, adaptability, independence, self-reliance, and the strength to overcome obstacles. Yet, we are becoming increasingly efficient at eliminating anything of the sort for our youngsters. Our determination to shelter, protect, and provide for them—our fundamental duty as adults—is paradoxically shortchanging our youth.

The evidence of this is falling like snow, as are the unintended consequences. Speaking of snow, many school districts across the country, including BVT, are examining the use of technology and distance learning so that students and staff can work from home in inclement weather. That could be a great alternative to an inherently risky commute; however, when I began working at BVT 22 years ago, the District prided itself on almost never closing for weather because it was authentic to the practices of business and industry. Over time, schools, including BVT, shifted the philosophy on snow day cancellations to stay in alignment with cultural norms and parent expectations. I can say without doubt that schools have a safer standard today regarding cancellations than they did 20 years ago, but whether it be closing school or working from one’s home computer, no one will be walking to school both ways, uphill, in the snow! I, like you, will always advocate for, and err on the side of safety. Nonetheless, an old adage comes to mind: “The safest place for a ship is in dry dock, and the safest place for an airplane is in the hangar; however, neither will fulfill its purpose in their safe places.” Grist for the mill.

Technology has provided some unintended consequences and a paradox of its own. It is commonplace that students have cell phones and use them to text their parents throughout the day. Some students enable GPS tracking so parents can keep a watchful, protective eye on them. Why not? The technology exists. After all, good parenting includes doing everything possible to ensure your son or daughter’s safety. My parents did everything possible, but my experience as a latchkey kid in the early 1980’s yielded me a vastly different experience than kids today. From the 4th grade on, I had to lock up the house and get myself to the bus stop in the morning, and I was usually the first one home at the end of the day. No cell phones, texting, GPS. Just grandma’s phone number if I really got myself into a fix…and guess what, I liked it!

At the beginning of the new school year, we had a freshman come into the Main Office in a complete panic. He couldn’t access the wi-fi, and for the first time in his life, he was out of constant text and voice communication with his parents. We remedied the problem quickly, but it was eye-opening when I contrasted his current level of independence against the notion of getting him career and life ready in four short years. Likewise, our servers deliver hundreds of e-mails between parents and teachers daily ensuring that students are staying on task and doing their assignments. That is a wonderful capability we have at our fingertips, so we use it, but inherently the adults are shouldering a valuable responsibility that used to rest solely on the student. Examples are plentiful around parental involvement with their child’s social lives as well, especially when it involves conflict. Right or wrong, I can factually say that it didn’t used to be this way. There is a new norm. As a trend, Generation Z is exhibiting weakness in some areas that used to be the exception, not the norm. There is a definitive cultural shift with this generation, and we all need to respond.

USA Today recently published an article, “Meet the ‘lawnmower parent,’ the new helicopter parents of 2018” covering a viral internet op-ed piece coining the new phrase. The author asserts that, “…lawnmower parents mow down all of children’s challenges, discomforts and struggles.” Similar to my observations and concerns prior to the article, the author states, “In raising children who have experienced minimal struggle, we are not creating a happier generation of kids. We are creating a generation that has no idea what to do when they actually encounter struggle.” Clearly, this is an observable cultural shift in our country, and we have all been guilty at one time or another as educators and parents of perhaps going too far to help our youth. There is much to gain from simple awareness that a balance must be achieved between assistance and the value of struggle. Students across the country are critically lacking in: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. That is not my opinion, rather those are the five cornerstones of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). SEL started as a conceptual response to student needs several years ago. Today it is a national priority in education that has become an important core component of one of the MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s five strategic priorities. Schools are actively teaching these skills because a lack of them is a barrier to all other learning and subsequently a hindrance to the pursuit of a successful and happy life. Again, awareness and focus on these educational priorities goes a long way to remedy the problem.

Ironically, the focus on SEL and the emergence of terms like “lawnmower parent” are born out of the dedication and care to do the best we can for our children. The thematic weaknesses of Generation Z, was never out of neglect or lack of effort, rather an unintended consequence from the contrary—salted by a heavy dose of technology. We want our children to be strong, resilient, responsible, self-reliant, respectful, and someday be good parents themselves. If that is true, we as parents and educators must shift our efforts and allow our children to experience life’s challenges, give them opportunities and guidance to self-advocate and resolve conflicts on their own.

In terms of fitness, no one would hire a personal trainer to demonstrate how to lift weights and never touch them himself. A good personal trainer wouldn’t allow it. We need to be great personal trainers and teach our children to lift properly during evey struggle— to feel the burn and gradually build their strength. We need to help them become fit for life. Feed your child a healthy balance of struggle and personal responsibility, and I promise you, not only will they be stronger and happier, but also proudly say, “When I was a kid, I…and I liked it!”