Parents Do Not Know Best

I sat in the bow of the 16 foot aluminum boat as we bounced across the Minnesotan lake. The spray hit my face with a refreshing chill that gave instant relief from both the bugs and the heat. My cousin sat behind me and in the rear, manning the Evinrude, was Lt. Bob Green, a close family friend. Bob was single but loved kids and all of us thought of him as a super fun uncle. My overprotective mother even trusted him to take my cousin and me on an excursion across the lake far from her sight. Only after securing me in an adult life jacket that was almost as big as my seven-year-old body, of course. The boat was a rental from the Air Force rec center. And the lake sat on the doorstep of Bob’s cottage. Actually it was more of a shack. The toilet tank served as the beer cooler. But the cookouts and fish frys were great fun.

Bob turned off the engine and we glided to a stop. I could hear the buzz of cicadas on the island that hid us from our families. At first I worried that the engine had broken, but Bob assured me that everything was okay. He said he wanted to show me something. I looked around but saw nothing of interest in the green/gray water. Bob instructed my cousin to switch places with him and then sat down next to me.

“You know how you are so scared of the water?” he asked.

I shook my head in reply. When I was three, my mother and grandmother had taking me to the Atlantic shore near New Haven, Connecticut where we lived at the time. My mother went swimming while Nana watched me. Only she got so involved in looking for seashells that she ignored me. I got bored and decided to walk into the water. I could see my mother and thought I could just walk out to her. Of course the waves kept knocking me down. And since I was unfamiliar with large bodies of water, I kept breathing in salt water and choking. Fortunately, a couple, who was passing by, plucked me out of danger and held me until first Nana and then my mother came to comfort me. I had been afraid of water ever since. I insisted on showering or sponge baths instead of using the tub. If forced to use it, I would not allow more than an inch of water.

“Well, Jerome,” Bob said. “It’s time for you to get over that fear.”

I could feel the panic set in. What was he going to do? He quickly answered my question by picking me up by the life jacket.

“I’m going to throw you in the water and you are going to be all right,” he said calmly.

“No!” I screamed. I started kicking but it was useless. Bob was a big and powerful man. He held me away from his body so I couldn’t do any damage. My cousin started laughing and hollering words of encouragement to Bob. I swore I would get even with Mike if I survived. Bob swung me over the gunwale and I flew through the air, arms flailing. Fortunately, I remembered to close my mouth before I hit the water. I went under and could see the water closing in over my head. And then I popped up like a ping pong ball with such force that I almost came out of the water again. As I sputtered indignantly, my cousin jumped in the water as well. For the first time in years, my entire body was in water. And it felt good. Mike started splashing me and soon we were having great fun. I’m sure we looked like two orange beach balls bobbing around in our life jackets. The water felt great in the summer heat.

All too soon, Bob hauled us out of the water and gave us each a towel he had stashed in the boat.

“Jerome, it’s ok to be afraid,” he said as he dried my hair. “But you can’t let fear run your life.”

Bob was right of course. When we returned to the cookout, my mother freaked when she found out what Bob had done. But between my father, Mike, and me, we got her to calm down. The clincher was that I told her I enjoyed it. Years later I came to realize that it wasn’t the almost drowning that had made me afraid of the water. It was my mother’s constant retelling of the story and her own fear that drove my hydrophobia. My mother loved me more than life itself. She always wanted the best for me. But she didn’t always do what was best for me.

There are a lot of parents like her today. Most people agree that education in this country needs a serious overhaul. But no one who can actually do anything about it will stand up to parents. The media and experts report on the harm parents do through helicopter parenting and micromanaging their children’s lives. The data is there but no politician is willing to force parents to collaborate with schools and other institutions in raising children. Schools, after all, are the most democratic of our institutions. School board members are elected by a small groups of parents who get involved in the local school system. And even in states like Texas, where one board controls all of the schools, it is small groups of activists who sway each election.

When a sports team performs poorly, the coaches and managers get fired. When schools perform poorly, maybe the principal and some teachers get removed. There might even be a recall to change the board and administration. But America’s school systems are increasingly controlled by state legislatures, judges, lawyers, and special interest groups. Parents play a huge role in all of these. The more they harangue, push personal agendas, and sue, the worse our schools get. Exhibit A is the growing teacher shortage. Over half of all teachers quit in the first five years of their careers. And these numbers have been getting worse. You don’t have to be an education expert to understand that if most people don’t want to be teachers, then there is something seriously wrong with the system.

Imagine if a teacher had done to me what Bob did? It would be national news and the teacher would be fired. But Bob not only did the right thing, he probably saved my life since I never would have learned to swim without his intervention. In spite of Republican propaganda, the truth is that parents do not always know or do what is best for their children. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need child protection services. The fact that most of these agencies are stretched to the breaking point bolsters my argument.

Look, I know that teachers, principals, and schools make plenty of mistakes. But so do parents, lawyers, and politicians. We all know that schools worked better when teachers and administrators had a free hand to run the schools and parents were supportive. We also know that very few people believe that being educated means doing well on a test. And yet as a society, we keep pushing tests and one-size-fits-all reforms and programs. How about keeping it simple? Return control of the schools to actual educators. Let parents have a role, but not the final say like they have now. Bar them from suing every time the school doesn’t do what they want. Get politicians out of the education business. Heck, how about getting business out of the education business? Let teachers do what they do best: loving children and pushing them to succeed. Teachers leave the classroom almost universally because of tyrannical parents and an ever increasing bureaucracy. Low pay is only icing on the cake. Don’t take my word for it. Look it up on your phone.

In the meantime, wherever you are Bob … thank you.