A New “Normal”

I recently spent time with some friends who are sending their 6thgrade son to farm school. Their son is a bright, engaged student and young person. He isn’t going to farm school because he can’t do “real” school. His parents aren’t conspiracy theorists, or off-the-grid enthusiasts, or Luddites. When I asked, as one does, “Why farm school?” his mom said, “We’re supporting him to see alternative pathways to succeed. There isn’t just one way.” He is going to farm school because it is interesting and well aligned with the developmental needs of a growing middle school student. At farm school, I learned, he will care for animals, grow food, cook for his peers, do lots of chores, develop products for the local farmers market, market and sell those products – and practice all of the varied academic, critical thinking, collaborative, and creative skills associated with all of those tasks. While I had never thought of sending my own son to farm school, once exposed to the idea – I wish I had considered it.

Another friend’s son (I’ll call him Alex) attends an elite high school in Silicon Valley. My friend was concerned about Alex’s academic motivation (he is a B student), and wondered why, if he could get a B, couldn’t he work just a little harder and get the A-? Alex explained to his mom that he was learning what he wanted to learn, liked school, and by being okay with a B, had time for friends, sports, and sleep. My friend left the conversation frustrated. Then she thought about it. She realized Alex was a healthy, balanced kid. That was the point. Not the “A.”

Then there was the mom I met who told me that her high school daughter came home one day and said, “I’m done with the stress and competition of my school. I need a new environment.” The mom initially responded with a firm “no.” She felt her daughter needed to work through her issues and stay at her school – it was part way through her junior year, after all, and her school was considered a model of innovative and accelerated learning. Her daughter proceeded to do research on other schools, send inquiries, and finally, to identify a school she felt was a better fit. Her committed efforts convinced her parents, who ultimately let her transfer. The mom said that her daughter is happy at the new school, feels engaged, and is thriving.

These three moms also told me that they felt they had to have courage and take a risk to let their kids do something that “went against the grain” of their community’s social norms. They were worried about what other parents would say, and concerned about how their kids’ choices might impact future opportunities. They all grappled with an internal conflict: a desire for their kids’ well-being and engagement vs. a desire to have their kid on a “normal” academic pathway. Fortunately, they were more worried about their kids’ well-being. By “going against the grain” these parents enabled educational choices that were developmentally appropriate, met their children’s unique interests and needs, and engaged them in their learning. And yet, this did not feel like the “normal” or socially acceptable choice to make.

I’ve been reflecting on these stories and the important themes these three moms raise. What can we do as parents to make sure we are truly focused on our kids’ well-being and engagement? How do we address the internal and external barriers that get in the way?

Some thoughts:

  • Listen to our kids when they say something isn’t working (or think something else might work better). Importantly, the two high school students in these stories were clear about what they needed. The adults – after some initial resistance–took them seriously. And for the kids who aren’t as clear, we need to “listen” carefully to their actions and behaviors: if they aren’t sleeping, seem anxious, or are dreading school, we need to pay attention.
  • Examine our own motivations and be clear (or try to be) about what is about their learning, growth, and well-being – and what is about us as parents, including our fears, our propensity to compare ourselves and our kids to others, and (perhaps) our own sense of worth or status.
  • Pay attention to and honor all of the ways our kids can be successful in the world. Avoid getting stuck in the idea that there is “one best way” to have a worthy life. As the farm-school mom made clear – there is more than one way to succeed. We need to make sure our kids know this is true, and then give them space to shape and develop meaning and their own definitions of a successful life.

Sometimes we think our kid has found the “right” school or is on the “right path,” and then something happens that challenges our hopes and expectations for them. They burn out, or lose interest, or don’t prioritize straight A’s, or fail a class (or two), or have the “wrong” friends, or decide to work at the ice cream shop rather than take the tech internship, or struggle with a mental health issue, or discover a passion that takes them in a completely new direction. How can we embrace these redirections and challenges alongside our children – as opportunities to examine and express our core values, and to have family conversations that help us all discover more about our children’s goals and needs? How can we reframe our kids’ surprising or challenging experiences as important parts of life’s journey, rather than detours taking them “off the path?” How can we demonstrate courage when the “normal” path is not the healthy path? How might our courage give other parents permission to do the same?

Ultimately, I work for Challenge Success because I think we need a new normal that prioritizes well-being and real learning over performance. I think most of us would agree that kindness, purpose, contribution, connection, ability to make and achieve goals, mental and physical health, and ability to support oneself are some of the core markers of a good, successful life. I know a young person can achieve success as a teacher, a wilderness guide, an engineer, a designer, a mechanic, event planner, scholar, doctor, electrician, chef, CEO, or farmer. Our kids are likely to have multiple careers and do interesting things we can’t even imagine. Let’s hope so. And let’s hope, too, that they (like us) have the courage, joy, and commitment to work for their dreams and values – whether or not they are “normal.”

Mary Hofstedt, Ed.M., is the Community Education Director for Challenge Success. She oversees parent education and provides interactive presentations and workshops to share research-based resources and practices for parents to support the well-being of their children. Mary has held roles in education, curriculum and program development, and non-profit leadership for over 20 years.