Saturday, May 9, 2009

Parents as Teachers

I just finished teaching Romeo and Juliet to my freshmen. One student asked me, "So what was the moral of the story?"

I urged him not to think of literature as having a single moral or lesson, a simple take-home point like at the end of an Aesop fable. I suggested that one of the values of literature is that it presents us with characters and moments that seem lifelike, moments whose truth we recognize, and that might make us think about our own lives in new or sharper ways, ways which can change over time.

For instance, this time around, I've been thinking a lot about Friar Laurence, and how he fails as a mentor/surrogate parent to Romeo. He doesn't practice what he preaches, for one thing (he tells Romeo "Wisely and slow, they stumble that run fast," yet he himself rushes and stumbles throughout the play). He acts against his own better judgment, it seems, because he can't summon up the nerve to tell his "young waverer" no, because he wants too much to be Romeo's friend.

I thought of Friar Laurence just now when I read in the New Yorker this Briefly Noted review of The Parents We Mean to Be, by Richard Weissbourd:

In this ardent and persuasive inquiry, Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist, warns that “happiness-besotted” parents do children a disservice by emphasizing personal fulfillment over empathy. (A high-school English teacher laments the difficulty of teaching “King Lear” to students who “can’t engage suffering in any way.”) Parents worry about their children’s confidence, but constant, preĆ«mptive praise can turn kids into cynics; studies show that playground bullies (and, later in life, criminals) exhibit high self-esteem. Drawing on extensive field research, Weissbourd makes the case that parents, as models of behavior, must be vigilant about their own moral choices. If we’re afraid to risk our kids’ ire by criticizing them, how can we expect them to resist peer pressure? Of special concern are parents who try too hard to be their kids’ friends. Weissbourd explains, “Children have no incentive to become like us, because the message we’re giving is that they already are.”

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