Madeline Levine has 360-degree perspective on child rearing. Not only has she raised three sons, she’s spent years in the classroom as an elementary and middle school teacher in the South Bronx. She’s worked as a recreational therapist, a social worker and a practicing psychologist, and became a New York Times bestselling author with the release of her first book, The Price of Privilege.
In her latest, Teach Your Children Well, Levine challenges long-held definitions of success and offers a new—and oft times unconventional—blueprint for helping children reach their full potential.
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In the intro you talk about embracing a radically different definition of success. Can you offer some examples of things that would be radically different from current trends?
I’ll give a personal example. My youngest kid was totally a hands-on learner. Our high school created an engineering track for a whole bunch of boys who were like this, who couldn’t sit still, who needed to use their hands. And they learned things like CAD [computer-aided design]; they built structures on the school, they studied architecture, etc.
But did the school ever bother to get it certified for California state credits? Never. So to me, a radically different point of view is that it is absolutely every bit as valuable to learn how to construct a building as it is to learn calculus. These kids needed calculus to do what they were doing, but it wasn’t the sit-at-your-seat kind of calculus. It was a much more active way of learning.
Short of revamping the educational system, what can parents of nontraditional learners do to help them succeed?
I always say that every kid has a superpower. The dilemma is what happens when your kid’s superpower is outside of that narrow range [of what’s considered successful]. I want to be clear about something: I’m not in any way saying that content doesn’t matter. [People will say] “Doesn’t everyone have to learn that two plus two equals four?” Yes, of course. It’s a given that a certain amount of content needs to be taught, though I’d argue that it could be taught differently and much more effectively than it is now.
What is hyper-parenting?
It’s parenting when you don’t need to be involved. Your toddler takes a few steps and falls down on her butt. You clap your hands and say, “Great! Now get up and do it again.” If you got hysterical every time your toddler fell down she’d be more cautious about walking, and she wouldn’t learn without a lot of anxiety.
We would never think of saying to the falling-down toddler, “If you keep falling down you’re going to end up working at McDonald’s for the rest of your life!” But we do that often with [older] kids who come home with a “C.”
How does wanting our kids to be “higher” and “better” damage rather than help them?
The history of the notion of “specialness” is really interesting. Part of it came out of the complete misunderstanding of what the concept of self-esteem is. It was as though you could confer self-esteem on kids by telling them how terrific they were and how good they were and how special they were.
Self-esteem is, in fact, very important but it can never be conferred. You have to do something or master something internally that makes you more confident, which [results in] self-esteem.
One year I gave a talk entitled, “The Average Child,” and absolutely nobody showed up for it. I recently had 500 to 600 people attend [one of my talks] in Aspen and that’s pretty typical. But there was an entire empty auditorium for the one on the average child. You can draw one of two conclusions. One, that in Marin County there’s not a single average child, or two, that there’s something that’s absolutely anathema about thinking that your child is average.
You liken kids that are driven to perform at unrealistically high levels to trauma victims. Can you elaborate?
Yes, you see these kids and they exhibit some of the things you see in Post-traumatic stress disorder, things like recurrent nightmares, trouble sleeping, preoccupation. I was a good student, but if I had gotten a “B” on a test it was no big deal.
Today, I see kids who, even a week later, are obsessing on what they did wrong, or how they should’ve answered [a test question] differently. This is the kind of thing you see in trauma, which is an inability to come to terms with whatever the trauma was. You end up having to face it, relive it and put it to rest. And these kids can’t put it to rest, because they mistakenly believe that their futures are riding on this kind of stuff.