Some of Us Don't Want to Martha Stewart Our Way Through the Pandemic

Build a Marble Run? Master Home Haircuts? Stop Caring about Homework? No, no, no!

Moms are all different. Dads too. And I must keep that in mind — and be respectful of it—when my head explodes reading a “Pandemic Parenting” feature in the Boston Globe. I must also be cognizant of the fact that I am not crafty —I didn’t even know what a glue gun was until my mid-40’s. So maybe it’s my own insecurity bubbling to the surface. I don’t know. But I am certainly not about to start making bird houses with my kids to find out if that is where our “joy levers” have been hiding all this time. And more importantly, I am not going to let academic expectations slide so I can pivot to some pandemic version of Marie Kondo in which I tell my kids “school doesn’t matter” and then ask them “but, does building this marble run bring you joy?”

Christine Koh doesn’t see it my way. But before I dig into where we differ, I’ll highlight our common ground.

Much of it is found in this passage:

But I bristle against modern — notably, privileged — parenting norms. I don’t believe all homework is good homework, especially when it requires significant parental involvement. I think parents should be less helicopter-ish and let their kids struggle a little more to develop resilience. And I’m actually kind of proud that I don’t know how to log into the school portal to monitor academic activity.

I mostly agree with all of this. I admittedly struggle to figure out how to download my kids’ report cards because the parent portal is not where I spend any of my time —I have even written about how these portals can make parents a little nutty because I’ve seen it happen. I think helicopter parenting cripples children’s development and that resilience is important.

But then Koh goes on to say that “our kids’ current experience is so far afield from normal that carrying on with academic evaluation and standardized tests per usual feels ridiculous.”

I disagree. Vehemently.

There is no doubt that pressure has been coming from a lot of directions to “write this school year off.” I find that to be a pernicious message and good on the Biden administration for coming out in favor of assessing students this year to gauge where they are. The writer lives in the Boston area where schools have been largely shuttered so perhaps she doesn’t realize that a majority of students in the country are back in school, some five days a week. They are hardly writing off this school year.

Koh also shares that she grew up with a high pressure dad when it came to academics both at school and in the home—she ended up earning mostly Cs and Ds (except in music) but went on to a life of high achievement and accolades.

…academically speaking, I ended up becoming a highly functional adult, culminating with a doctorate in the brain, behavior, and cognitive science track from Queen’s University and a triple appointment postdoctoral fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard Medical School. Prestigious grants from the National Institutes of Health paid for my degree and fellowship.

Perhaps if she allows her own children to write this year off they will be just fine. But that is not the case for many—if not most—children in America. And with due respect, she says she “bristles at modern, mostly privileged, parenting norms” but doesn’t she sit squarely in that category herself? She may not be an obsessive checker of the parent portal or a fan of standardized tests but only a privileged person suggests that other people should write off this school year and encourage their children to “find joy and independence in at-home activities such as baking, woodworking, gardening, mastering home haircuts, and even car repair and restoration.”

Only one third of students in America meet grade level benchmarks in reading. That number is even worse in math. So while turning the pandemic into a “year of wonders” like Sir Isaac Newton did during the Bubonic Plague sounds nice and all, it is not in the cards for most parents or the best interest of most students.

Why?

  • Parents are working to keep a roof over their family’s head during an economic collapse.

  • They don’t have the resources or materials needed to do the activities Koh suggests: “sure, let’s set up a workshop to learn auto repair in the parking lot of our apartment building! Those oil stains? No biggie. Oh wait—we don’t even have a car.”

  • They have zero capacity, aptitude or inclination to do any of those things.

  • They know that their children need to be getting as much out of school as they can and that “writing off the year” is a terrible idea.

  • Their child has a special or unique learning need that can’t be ignored for a year.

Koh wants children to find their “levers of joy” instead of worry about school. It is a beautiful sentiment that ignores the millions of students who were neither literate nor numerate before the pandemic. Funny that she doesn’t mention them in her piece.

Don’t get me wrong. Kids and parents have absolutely spent time doing new and different things since the world basically shut down 11 months ago. And that’s awesome. Mine learned to make my aunt’s whoopie pie recipe and competed over who makes the best cookies. My oldest makes cheesy pasta at least once a week. My husband picked up the guitar again after many years of it collecting dust in the corner of the living room. I made soup from scratch for the first time.

And a million episodes of the The Office and Friends have been watched in our house. And lots of YouTube. And Xbox too.

I know people whose children learned to sew masks, got really into making cake pops, and took up surfing. All great stuff that can be done without telling other parents that school doesn’t matter this year.

So if you’re looking for a Pinterest worthy pandemic camp for your kids, definitely don’t come to my house. My kids will be doing school.