The problem with treating children as investments
Recently, my wife discovered a playgroup in our neighborhood for children my daughter’s age (10 months yesterday), so she has been taking Maddie to these gatherings for the past few weeks. After the first visit, she told me that Maddie had a great time, but at the group, all the other babies (including a couple of babies that share her exact birthday) were crawling around and many had teeth. Suddenly, I felt this clinch in my stomach—my daughter…is…behind. Can I get her a crawling tutor? Should we invest tooth acceleration hormone injections? Here it was laid bare—my progressive teaching philosophy shot to pieces by my own offspring. Luckily, my wife helped me to regain my senses and remind me just how much I love the fact that Maddie isn’t fully mobile yet—she stays in place, and how unprepared I am for the fun that is sure to be infant teething.
All this got me thinking of how parents get information about the progress of their children, and how our society is making this information more and more accessible, and whether that actually is a good thing. The very first thing I get at every doctor’s visit is a precise percentile measurement of my daughter’s head, height and weight referenced to all the other babies her age. It seems like this is just the first of many statistics I’m supposed to care about as a parent. When we were touring daycare facilities, many of them bragged about how I’d be able to login to a website and watch continuous camera coverage of my daughter. One of the iphone apps we just had to have as a new parent was Total Baby, which allows me to track every bodily function of my infant with unprecedented precision. Of course, I could only sustain this effort a few days before realizing its utter pointelessness, but somehow, at the time it seemed like I should be tracking every little bit of data my child produced, even the smelly bits of data I don’t care to remember.
I mention all this because it reminded me of some conversations I had with colleagues at other schools who discussed how they have online gradebooks like powerschool that give parents continuous access to how their child’s grades. Because parents check the gradebooks frequently, teachers feel the need to enter grades on an almost daily basis so that parents can have an up-to-the-minute measure of their child’s progress.
Of course, these “innovations” aren’t limited to world of education. Just look a the world of finance. It used to be ok for the average person invested in the market to check his/her portfolio once a day by looking at the stock pages of the news paper. Later, 30 second delayed stock updates were necessary, and soon thereafter, we couldn’t be happy with anything less than real time updates from the stock exchanges. I have little doubt that soon enough, the average investor will be clamoring for the same level of access that big banks get now with their servers co-located mere feet from the NYSE exchange servers so that they can win at the battle of high frequency trading.
While at first glance this might seem to be necessary for something like a stock whose value can fluctuate wildly minute by minute, I think the recent financial crisis makes a compelling case that all this up-to-the minute information was fairly worthless and possibly even distracted investors from doing the real work of assessing the underlying value of these toxic assets that seemed to be doing so well, because they were getting meaningless updated 60 times every minute.
Even outside the financial crisis, I’ve read stories of many companies that have been done in by going public; suddenly they can no longer maintain their focus on a long term future since they are are now beholden to stockholders, and doing all they can to increase the share price, and occasionally this focus on short term thinking lead to the overall demise of the corporation.
This craving for data, even when we have little understanding of its meaning, is universal. It’s natural to for parents to want more frequent updates about their most valuable “investment”—their child. Semester grades are good, so quarter grades would be better. Why not grades every 5 weeks? Heck, why don’t you just put everything out there in an online gradebook?
Here’s my problem with this approach. Children aren’t investments. They are the most il-liquid of assets, and this is a good thing. It’s almost impossible for me to tell if today is the day my daughter is going crawl, or if it is tomorrow, or next week. Getting constant feedback from the crawl book of her every wobble, or even worse, the crawlings of all her peers, can often only serve to heighten my anxiety.
Instead, I want my students to think deeply about their progress and develop their own ability to self reflect. When they miss a core concept on the first try early in the year, the worst thing they can do is to think they’ve failed. Instead, I want them to treat this just like they would their first attempt at almost anything else worth doing—you’re going to fail the first time, and that is both expected and useful, you’ll learn more from messing up and making corrections than doing it right with only a partial understanding. Just like when they first started to crawl, and must failed hundreds of times before taking that first momentum move forward.
This is a tall order. It requires my students to recognize that like a fine unfinished paining from a promising artist that you can’t slap a price on it every day, your understanding is something that you can’t grade continuously.I think this realization would be much easier to make and accept if we as adults could first step back and eliminate our need for instant and ubiquitous updates on our children’s ‘progress.’