How not to waste a life. The real responsibility of parents and schools.

This week we decided where my daughter will go to school – potentially for the next 15 years. I have spent a lot of time thinking about what criteria are important in selecting a school and this blog is a summary of 3-4 months of that reflection.

To Prepare One for Living

How do you best waste a life?  Quite possibly the worst thing in the world is “what could have been” – the waste of human talent.  How do parents or schools contribute to allowing a child to waste their potential, to live a stressed life, to be unable to connect to others, to constantly feel that there is “something missing” in their life?

I believe that we are the first generation that really doesn’t face any risks to our survival (other than the “run over by bus” end).  We have endless choice and the perception of a classless, meritocratic society.  There is a widespread assumption that financial, relationship, social success is because of the innate goodness of one or the innate poorness of another.

In a world where survival is pretty much guaranteed, what is required in order to thrive as a human being?  In this blog post I want to think through the aspects that are most difficult to change later in life that are key to a fulfilling life – and argue that the role of parents and schools is to develop these habits during the 18+ years of early development and school.

What is the purpose of school?  I will use some thoughtful answers from teachers at The Fischbowl “The purpose of education is to appropriately prepare our children for their future.” or “The purpose of education is to make the world a better place” and A teacher writes “to prepare one for a living”. One of my favourite bloggers, Seth Godin has a list of 27 objectives for school.  My father says “its from the Latin, educare: to lead out”

I feel that these definitions leave out some important aspects – a better place for whom? For each child?  For parents?  For the wealthy patrons of government, banks and corporate?  We can categorize thinking 5 levels to which schools could purport to be making the world a better place:

5 Levels of Purpose for School

  1. To keep children off the street (conversely, to provide employment to teachers; or to give a few hours of peace to parents)
  2. To prepare children to enter the workforce (to provide fodder for the robber barons, to create a legion of obedient wage earners)
  3. To prepare children to be good citizens (to understand and follow the norms of civilized society, to not rob, cheat or otherwise make the world worse for others)
  4. To assist human unfolding emotionally, socially, intellectually and physically
  5. To develop the unique strengths of each individual and prepare them to thrive and have a fulfilling life

I think there are clearly examples of all five levels in place at all levels of formal education.  We have university professors that see their role as a teacher taking them away from more valuable research time;  Secondary school teachers who spend more time thinking about strikes and the unfairness of the unequal rises in private sector pay over the last quarter century.  Exam systems that serve to divide children into passes (successes) and fails (destined to McDonalds) without looking to help each child get an ‘A’ in their own personal exam. Schools which develop students that are fantastic at following the 23 steps to get an ‘A’, but completely collapse when they come out into the real world where there is no clear set of steps to develop a career, life, relationship or social life.

I have seen some interesting stuff on how parents and schools can weaken their children’s ability to thrive by inappropriate praise over at NY Magazine, “How not to talk to your kids” (definitely worth a read for parents).  Praise and coaching should be directed at aspects that a child has control over (hard work, solving problems, patience, working in a team, overcoming frustration) and not at things outside the child’s control (their looks “you are beautiful”, their intelligence “you are the smartest”).

The Habits of a Good Life

I think there are habits for a fulfilling life and personal competencies that are very difficult to change, and some that are much easier to change.

Easy to Change Harder to Change Hardest to change
  • Education
  • Communications
  • First impression
  • Goal setting
  • Self Discipline (hard work, completing projects)
  • Judgement (decisiveness, understanding consequences)
  • Excellence standards
  • Resourcefulness
  • Likability
  • Persuasiveness
  • Stress management
  • Integrity
  • Energy
  • Passion
  • Ambition
  • Tenacity
  • Intelligence
  • Physical aspects (height, build, looks)

My answer is that school should serve to develop the human competencies that will be hard to change later on in life – and parents and teachers need to praise, coach and help children develop these disciplines.  I will outline three that I now believe are key to the purpose of school:

Develop the discipline of hard work.

“The real happiness comes from the work you’ve put into winning. If it’s too easy, it means nothing to you.” Rafa Nadal

Nothing feels worthwhile without real hard work. Not what looks like hard work to others, but what you personally know is long-term, disciplined, difficult, challenging hard work.

Finish what you start (completer/finisher).  Only start what you mean to finish (judgement).

Nothing is worse than a life lived with 100 half-finished projects. The hardest part of a project is the last bit – finishing it. Saying “this is it”, “this is me” is tough – but if I don’t get my projects finished I will continually be the guy who could have been.

Passion and Tenacity.

Jim Rohn has a speech called “The Ant philosophy” – ants will never quit – you put an obstacle in their way and they will search for another route… for as long as it takes.  This is a great philosophy not just for ants, but for people as well.

We need it from our parents and our early school. It is incredibly difficult to change integrity, passion, energy, ambition and tenacity if we don’t have it nurtured during our early years (Aristotle viewed age 12 as the limit for really incorporating ethics and values).

We decided upon Betania Patmos for my daughter’s (potentially) next 15 years of schooling.  I think I have said “you are beautiful”, “my princess”, and “you are so smart” at least 1000 times to my daughter in 2 and a half years…  I hope my newfound wisdom and the support of the teachers at Betania Patmos can help my daughter overcome the challenge of having me as a father! (but she is beautiful, smart and my favourite princess!)

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