Encourage kids, don't browbeat them

2011-02-17T00:00:00Z Encourage kids, don't browbeat themOpinion by Barbara Russek Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

One of my favorite parables concerns a certain Mrs. Jones, who had three boys.

Two were model citizens, a credit to themselves, their family and the community.

The third marched to his own drummer, and sometimes the rhythms were a little out of sync: a few hubcaps stolen here, some graffiti there.

Finally, Mrs. Jones was summoned before the judge. Tearfully, she explained, "I don't know why my third son keeps getting in trouble. I wasn't partial to the first two - in fact I reared them all alike."

The wise judge kindly explained, "Mrs. Jones, I know you did your best, but that was the problem: You treated them all alike. Your third son required special handling."

I was reminded of this story when I heard about Amy Chua's recent bestseller, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," in which she details her very strict method of parenting.

My mother acted instinctively on the wisdom of the parable above. My older brother was the shining star in high school, a natural academic who loved learning, especially math and science.

I can still picture him in the living room working on calculus problems, enjoying every minute of the challenge. He eventually graduated from an Ivy League university and became a doctor.

I, on the other hand, had to study harder for my grades - especially in math and science. My high school report card reveals two D's: one in sewing; the other in ninth-grade math. To this day I have no idea how to hem pants or sew a straight seam. As for math, somehow I got through geometry and algebra, but still need help figuring how much paint I'll need for a wall, or tile for a floor.

I don't remember Mother ever chastising me about low test scores in math or poor sewing projects, or comparing my grades to my brother's. What I remember vividly is her encouraging me in the subjects in which I excelled, particularly French.

Mother reminded me more than once that French is a beautiful language; if I kept at it, my grades would get even better, and my confidence, as well.

She also led by example, improving her own skills in the language by taking adult-education classes and joining conversation groups.

Along the way, she reminded me that as a widow, she had limited funds for my education and I needed to prepare for a career. The buck would stop at graduation.

With Mother's counsel in the back of my mind, I continued with French at Washington University, declared it as a major, and found, just as she had predicted, that my language classes got easier.

In French literature classes, I loved discussing ideas, especially those of 20th century existentialist philosophers. By junior year, the future looked bright: I was going to be a French teacher.

My mother intuitively understood that students aren't just study machines, with only la crème de la crème having a shot at success in life. Nurturing each child's unique talents is one of the most important contributions parents can make to their children's future.

And let's not forget that adolescents have many other issues in addition to academics - in my case literal growing pains (I was one of the tallest girls in my class) and social pressures, to name two.

Had Mother ruled by intimidation, browbeating me and making me feel that any grade less than A would shame the family, I would have wound up hating French and dropping the class. Trying to decide on a vocation would have presented a real conundrum.

Most importantly, I would have missed the great joys I've had over the years in my teaching career.

In the first high school where I taught French, there was a plaque I read every morning as I started my day. The words are as relevant now as they were many years ago when I was a rookie teacher: "Man's mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a flame to be kindled."

E-mail Barbara Russek at Babette2@comcast.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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