He was gregarious and friendly as he circled the classroom that first day, making a point to introduce himself and his daughter to all the parents there. I assumed he was trying to help his daughter make new friends in her new school. I was mistaken. When he got to us, before he had retracted his hand from the clichéd handshake, he launched into an inventory of “My daughter can …” statements. For the next 30 seconds he regaled me with his daughter’s academic abilities and accomplishments. She, meanwhile, was peeling the paper wrapper off a crayon. As quickly as he had materialized before me, he moved on to the next parent.
Part way through his checklist of achievements I realized that I knew this father-daughter pair. A year earlier, when he was convinced that the pre-K class was not “challenging or stimulating enough” for his daughter, he had found a better school for her. Then, as now, he had never missed a chance to detail for the other parents his own daughter’s feats of intellectual and academic derring-do. Those parents reckless enough to respond by praising their own children’s accomplishments found themselves locked in a fight-to-the-death game of one-upmanship, tossing ever escalating and increasingly hyperbolic accolades, honors, and exploits back and forth like some verbal time bomb set to explode at the first sign of hesitation.
This father’s compulsion to market and position his daughter is precisely what we should expect. You could easily argue, his obsession reflects his profound love and care for his daughter. He, I have no reason to doubt, only wants the best for her. As he understands, in our society school is a zero-sum game in which his daughter’s successes are measured against those of the children around her. There will be winners and there will be losers. And to the winners go the spoils of good college, good job, big house, expensive car, luxury vacations, in short, a good life.
The mistake is equating education with achieving mastery over certain prescribed tasks. Such mastery confuses a particular skill with knowledge. It rewards a particular intellectual achievement at the expense of cultivating habits of mind, of encouraging curiosity, of nurturing enquiry, of fostering independence, and of promoting perseverance.
When I ran into this father this morning, he reminded me of his daughter’s incomparable brilliance. At the appropriate moment, I expressed my wonder and awe at her latest feat. In reply, I smiled and said “#2 can almost reach The Third Monkey Bar.”