My father was not a man of many words. One of his classic lines was, “A book is your only friend.” Like many Korean immigrants, he moved to the United States searching for greatness, and as he and my mother raised their seven children in a Boston suburb, it was clear that they expected academic results. Instead of toys, we had a large plastic multiplication table board — I remember cringing when I issued my uncertain answers and awaited the verdict as my father slid the tabs to reveal answers. Instead of art supplies, we had thick decks of SAT-prep vocabulary cards — I can still feel the burn; each incorrect response meant you had to drop and do 10 push-ups.
Sadly, I achieved neither excellent SAT scores nor stellar upper body strength. Instead, for a variety of developmental and emotional reasons that became clear to me in adulthood, I was, by conventional standards, a terrible middle and high school student: mostly Cs, some Ds, and As only in music, the one graded subject that brought me joy during those challenging years.
Whenever I relate these facts, people are shocked. Why? Because academically speaking, I ended up becoming a highly functional adult, culminating with a doctorate in the brain, behavior, and cognitive science track from Queen’s University and a triple appointment postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard Medical School. Prestigious grants from the National Institutes of Health paid for my degree and fellowship.
The juxtaposition of this history — as first a mediocre student and then a really good one — has led me to approach my kids’ educational experiences with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have a fairly simple educational belief structure. I believe in public schools. I want equitable opportunities and resources for all kids, whether that’s related to technology or a meal in the belly. I want my kids to try their hardest. I believe that teachers should earn all the money. But I bristle against modern — notably, privileged — parenting norms. I don’t believe all homework is good homework, especially when it requires significant parental involvement. I think parents should be less helicopter-ish and let their kids struggle a little more to develop resilience. And I’m actually kind of proud that I don’t know how to log into the school portal to monitor academic activity.
Add a pandemic and remote learning to these mixed feelings and I am left with two seemingly opposing conclusions: My empathy and appreciation for educators and administrators has soared to new heights, while my expectations about academic achievement have completely bottomed out.
Yes, you read that correctly. This child of Korean immigrants who used to pore over flashcards and multiplication tables, and who collected academic accolades like precious gemstones, has zero expectations this year when it comes to grades and standardized tests. Let me be clear, this is not a reflection on my kids’ teachers or school administrations; their efforts have been herculean. Instead, I believe that our kids’ current experience is so far afield from normal that carrying on with academic evaluation and standardized tests per usual feels ridiculous.
I recently interviewed Jaynay Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist whose practice (teentherapytalk.com) focuses on teens, about teen mental health on the AMAZE.org podcast. When Johnson said, “We want our teenagers to still excel and thrive at the level they were pre-pandemic, and that really is unrealistic,” I silently fist pumped the air. What has nagged me through this pandemic school year was best summarized by her comment, “The expectations should not stay the same if the circumstances have not stayed the same.”
Certainly, the challenges are not the same across the board; besides the issues that face kids who learn differently, many factors — socioeconomic, parental employment and marital status, adversities such as domestic violence and mental illness — impact a family’s ability to meet, or even consider, academic assignments and milestones.
Do I still want my kids to put forward their best effort and be active, respectful students? Yes, but I don’t care about the metrics. Instead, I’m focused on how my kids can become stronger through their non-school life. I look for small moments where they can level up their life skills. I support their pursuit of what lights them up and where they find self-direction. I try to help them develop a deeper understanding of what is happening in the world despite our inability to actually move much in it. And I’m not alone.
I connect with thousands of people every week through social media on my blog BostonMamas.com, podcasts (Edit Your Life and Hello Relationships), and other professional endeavors. I took this opportunity to ask parents on Facebook and Instagram where their kids are finding self-direction and joy during the pandemic. I received an incredible range of responses. Like me, many acknowledged that our worlds are tremendously limited right now — yet that has led many kids to find joy and independence in at-home activities such as baking, woodworking, gardening, mastering home haircuts, and even car repair and restoration. These life skills should not be trivialized; they will help kids become functional, creative, independent adults.
Many kids are exploring classic games, like chess, and crafts — crochet, embroidery, drawing — some of which are proving therapeutic. A parent from Newton shared: “What started as a curious interest [hand lettering] has turned into an evening outlet on stressful school days.” Some projects require supply costs, but others — like the building of marble runs from household materials — do not.
The pandemic has shown us that not everything is going to turn out the way our kids want, and while painful, those limitations and disappointments can be learning experiences, too. A couple of years ago, I worked on a project with the Centers for Disease Control Injury Center and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and learned from Dr. Andrew Garner that joy — and finding things you are passionate about — is a crucial lever to mitigating stress and preventing toxic levels of stress hormones that can lead to negative changes in genes and brain form and function.
Back when I was struggling in middle and high school, my lever was music — it was one of the things that saved me from completely disappearing. Kids are finding valuable joy levers to manage their limitations and disappointments through the pandemic, too. A parent from Alberta, Canada, shared that her young dancer set a goal to stretch and practice splits 45 minutes per day and can now do full left, right, and middle splits. A painful breakup led a teen in New York to compose over a dozen original songs.
As for the glowing, pulsing elephant in the room, while the usual directives are to limit screen time, there is no doubtthat those of us with technology access are, on balance, lucky to have it. Not all screen time is created equal. Julianna Miner, author of Raising a Screen-Smart Kid: Embrace the Good and Avoid the Bad in the Digital Age, likens mindful versus mindless scrolling to nutrition. “Time online can be like broccoli or junk food,” she explains. “As long as there’s enough digital broccoli in my kids’ lives, I’m not sweating the junk food the way I did pre-COVID.”
Indeed, parents say their kids are leveraging technology for digital art, animation, stop-motion videos, and language and music instruction. A California parent posted on Facebook that her son became passionate about origami and found an international origami community online, complete with virtual conferences. An Andover parent shared that her son has become passionate about fishing and is up before sunrise every day of the week prepping, fishing, or creating content for his fishing blog.
As kids explore new hobbies and interests, it’s OK for you to not be the expert; support their self-direction as an interested bystander and remember that any quick touchpoint during the week — whether you’re working at home or have a job that requires you onsite — is valuable. Sometimes when my kids talk to me about something they’re excited about, it’s like trying to decipher Martian speak. I have embraced not understanding everything and I simply listen because I figure that especially right now, when social contact is so limited, kids periodically need an audience. A Brooklyn parent similarly reported that her teen taught himself a programming language used for artificial intelligence and “wakes up with math and coding and orbital mechanics on his mind.” She doesn’t understand it, but listens while he eagerly shares his progress.
Because I’m an entrepreneur, my kids and I often talk about what it takes to build a business, and as a parent who believes that basic financial literacy skills should be taught early, I loved hearing about how the pandemic has inspired kids to make and manage their own money. A Chicago parent shared that after watching online tutorials and researching supply costs, her tween started a balloon banner business. Other teens provide tutoring services and musical instruction online. A parent from Santa Clarita, California, shared that her teen learned Adobe Creative Suite on his own and started a video editing business for YouTube gamers.
Especially when our worlds are so small, it’s important to think big with your kids — about the world generally and to help them cultivate empathy. At a basic level, my family talks a lot about daily news headlines. Parents shared that their kids have expanded their connection to other humans around the globe by challenging themselves to learn the names and locations of all the countries, becoming versed in the stock market, joining the Civil Air Patrol Youth Cadet Program, and launching Etsy shops to sell items and raise money for charitable causes.
There’s no doubt this pandemic has resulted in the need for next-level support from parents. So if a role reversal opportunity arises, relish it. Let your kid be the teacher! Jim Lin, a Boston native now residing in Texas, shared that his son Marcus got his motorcycle license. “He started riding with our local Harley Owners Group chapter and loved it so much that he prompted me to get my own bucket list item checked off, so I got licensed and bought a Harley. We now have a new activity we can enjoy together.” During a recent ride, Marcus said, “Hey Dad, you taught me how to ride a bike and now I’m teaching you to ride a bike!”
While life as we know it is on hold, now is a time when we have a little more space to encourage our kids to figure out how to be humans beyond grades or standardized test scores. It doesn’t mean you give up on education; it simply means you level-set your quantitative expectations based on the current circumstances. And that you encourage your kids to process the losses of the year by learning how to be functional human beings who are tuned into passion, creativity, and the world beyond their doorstep.