Back to School Night? Let's talk about your child's wedding

At Back to School Night, I'm going to ask parents to use a different lens to view their children's education. Instead of looking ahead to college or a job, I'll ask them to look back from their child's wedding. What qualities should their children express then? How do we shape those now?

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/file
A young boy splashes another boy with water while playing in a playground during a hot summer day in New York City July 17. Contributor Todd R. Nelson, an elementary school principal, writes: 'What today’s kids will need in an inchoate future are the lessons from the sandbox: honest and accurate communications, sharing, humor, fairness, and joy.'

Just outside my principal’s window, the faces of the future are at play. There is fresh sand in the sandbox, and new sandbox players wriggle in their bright sneakers. I cherish all the hopeful possibilities of their giggles, and the learning from their squabbles. The life of the sandbox seems halcyon and the future far off. But it’s the far-off that can best help parents manage and evaluate the earliest years of their children’s education.

I don’t mean looking ahead to the usual goals of college or job, a view that causes parents to begin marching their young ones toward the perfect resumé before they can even walk. Instead, I suggest looking back, and from a different vantage-point – your child’s wedding, or even their first try at parenthood. Such a lens brings values and behavior sharply into focus. And it takes us right back to the pails and trucks at work outside my window.

At Back to School Night this year, I’ll ask the parents of these sandbox players to adopt this special lens to examine the young school year. From my pulpit, I’ll start: “Dearly beloved. Imagine that we are gathered at a celebration of love, joy, and families uniting with their two young people who have decided to get hitched.” I’ll go on: “Imagine yourself standing at your child’s wedding. The occasion is the grand commitment of one person to another: partnering, marrying.”

Now we are looking out from the future.

Here is a benchmark beyond the customary entry to middle school, high school, or college; beyond career explorations. Your child is finding a soul mate. Is your sandbox now in fresh, sharp focus?

“Soul Mate 101” is not in the core curriculum of any states, and certainly not a common Back to School Night topic. Yet there are very concrete hopes and achievements embedded in life events such as marriage and parenthood. How shall we meet the needs of these children as we look back from their future; from our future? What would you like to be able to say about your child’s character, ability to lovingly bond with a partner, or their competence and joy as a young parent presenting you with, say, a grandchild? What kind of parent will you have raised when a new generation arrives in your family?

Wasn’t it just this morning that your biggest worry was, “Does my little Imogene have a best friend in kindergarten?” But parenting quickly advances to careerism: “How will Max fare in the transition to middle school? Egad: math placement tests! Ability grouping! Then SATs, recommendations, and applications to college. Resumé building! Graduation! Job interviews!” Relax.

Marriage and child rearing are what we parents and educators have been tacitly preparing for, but rarely discussing. They are pushed to the background. But herein dwell vital signs of life success and succession, accomplishment and fulfilling relationships. They require different skills from the intellectual ones posited by education reform, a myriad of proliferating school choices, and data-driven teaching. We’ve grown accustomed to thinking ahead only in terms of the technical, so-called 21st-century skills to be required of our children in careers “that have yet to be invented.”

The ultimate goal is to lead fulfilling lives, to renew wonderful families, communities, and perpetuate the joys of parenting. Though they seem remote, we can invite marriage and parenting into our core curriculum by living in a kind of simultaneity with the present and future possibilities of children. What happens in the sandbox, doesn’t stay in the sandbox.

Fortunately, we need not invent the desirable qualities of character and values. We already know the kind of families, communities, and societies we’d like to inhabit. What we hope for our children’s lives is the same as what we’re trying to achieve now in our own. But given America’s penchant for measuring intelligence by data, achievement by rank, wealth or celebrity, and fulfillment by material possessions, we’re in trouble. Our behavior is not the curriculum that will yield our core desires – the ones taking place spontaneously back in that sandbox.

Sponsoring a healthy sandbox will have more to do with each child’s success than obsession over placement tests or entrance exams. According to research, the sandbox has more to do with the qualities that predict effectiveness in future workplaces where teamwork and group decisionmaking are emphasized over the discrete intellectual prowess of individuals.

What today’s kids will need in an inchoate future are the lessons from the sandbox: honest and accurate communications, sharing, humor, fairness, and joy. A healthy sandbox includes a culture of play that sponsors everyone’s ideas and success; takes pleasure in everyone’s strengths and respect for their challenges. In other words, many of the crucial skills both for fulfilling lives and career success are the same simple ones. They’re not on the standardized tests measuring “adequate yearly progress.” But they are on the distant test of marriage and parenting. Let’s teach to that test.

I hope today’s negotiations for space, sharing the dump truck, or imagining the bridge- and tunnel-building partnership between young Imogene and Max will be the most enriched, powerful, and far-reaching learning possible – achievements we’ll expect to celebrate in future rituals. The hypothetical wedding is a good vantage point, if only in our imagination. But that’s where the future starts. Suffice to say, good marriages begin in the sandbox, as does good parenting.
Todd R. Nelson is head of school at The School in Rose Valley, preschool through 6th grade, in Pennsylvania.

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