Advice from the Presidents

At a recent meeting of university presidents, someone asked the group, “What can high schools do to improve the chances of their students succeeding in university?” The presidents all agreed on two issues: resiliency and alcohol.

On resiliency: Some have argued that, because of the new technologies, adolescents are “tethered” to their parents in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. The result is that it’s not unusual for even grade 12 students to have their parents run interference for them and deal with issues, when they should actually be facing the music or the dean on their own.

Parents may feel that they are standing up for or defending or advocating for their sons, but if they step in every time a boy has a difficulty, they may be inadvertently depriving their sons of the “opportunity” to learn how to deal directly with adversity; this buffers boys from the consequences of their actions, and stunts the development of their grit muscles. (If you are interested in this topic, you might enjoy Wendy Mogel’s book, “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.”)

On alcohol: There are at least two ways of thinking about this issue that are diametrically opposed to one another. The “minimize risk” or “safe party” approach follows the European model, which encourages adolescents to make their own choices at an early age. This normalizes alcohol use, de-glamorizes drunkenness, and, the argument goes, minimizes the risk of binge drinking.

Those who take a more absolutist approach argue that, the longer an adolescent delays using alcohol, the less likely he is to have a problem with it later in life. Duke University researchers have discovered that, because the liver and pancreas are among the slowest organs to mature, for every year an adolescent delays experimenting with alcohol, the chances of his developing a dependency on it drop by roughly 5%.

If you have any wisdom on how we can do a better job of promoting resiliency and/or how we can help our boys make good choices on alcohol, please send them my way.


3 thoughts on “Advice from the Presidents

  1. Dr. J,

    I find that what’s lacking in the helicopter parents is a complete lack of personal responsibility in their kids. We can only protect our kids for so long before doing irreparable and irreversible damage. Kids need to make mistakes – that is how they learn. (Same with adults too!)

    I am sure that I am not the best parent on the planet, but I do my best, and I have imparted the following information on my kids: when you do good things, good things happen. But when you don’t do good things, good things don’t happen. I was careful not to fall into the “bad things will happen” as I’m not here to scare my kids, just help them along and get them doing as much ‘good’ as they can and encourage them to define what ‘good’ means to them.

    I have got to tell you that keeping it simple resonated with them and they are amazing kids. Not every lesson needs to be massive – I am a firm believer that many small things, when done together, make something much bigger than you could have imagined. But we live in a world of instant gratification and grand gestures – it isn’t healthy and I’m not buying in!

    I recall at last year’s Founder’s Dinner during the keynote address, Brian Mulroney echoed this when he said, (paraphrasing) ‘don’t set the bar low and count it as a win – set it higher than you have ever dreamed possible, for even if you fail to reach that goal you will have accomplished more than you ever imagined possible along the way.’

    Along the same line of thought, where every child is special and deserves special treatment, I read the piece below recently and though it will play my hand as a wee bit of a conservative, it is well worth the read and dead on accurate from where I sit.

    An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Obama’s socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.

    The professor then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on Obama’s plan”. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A…. (substituting grades for dollars – something closer to home and more readily understood by all).

    After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little..

    The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F. As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. It could not be any simpler than that.

    Remember, there IS a test coming up. The 2012 elections.

    These are possibly the 5 best sentences you’ll ever read and all applicable to this experiment:

    1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.

    2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.

    3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.

    4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!

    5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

    — with Bill Essmann

  2. Thoughts re: drinking

    1. Achieving consensus around a fundamental moral (i.e. right vs. wrong) issue is difficult if not impossible. The best one can do is arrive at one’s own position as responsibly as possible and state one’s reasons clearly. (Of course one must be open to critique and possible change….) So I feel your pain….

    2. This conundrum qualifies as a fundamental moral issue because two very high level principles are being put in opposition to one another (are they naturally mutually exclusive??): To uphold the law and support good health vs. To prepare one’s children for the realities of their certain future in our complex society (which I think of as the “inoculation” argument).

    3. I support the former. Here’s why.

    a. One of my primary duties as a parent is to teach my children respect for the law in our society, where the purpose of the law is to protect the public good and support civil behavior.

    b. An equally pressing duty is the duty to nurture and protect my child’s physical and psychological health, not only by caring for my child when he is sick or injured, but also by encouraging healthy practices (eating well, being active, avoiding addictive or harmful activities or substances privately and publicly, being ethically consistent whenever possible).

    c. These two obligations are of a higher order than preparing my child for awkward or complex social situations that he may or may not encounter. Those situations will occur no matter what and simple inoculation in one domain is no guarantee of preparedness to face complexities in another.

    d. The first problem with the inoculation argument is that it is actually seldom within the parents’ control to limit exposure to the harmful substance. That is, while I might occasionally offer my child wine at the dinner table, that might not be the practice of other families. Other families may practice inoculation by opening the cabinet to the child and his friends at any time under any circumstances and without supervision. Still others may permit actual drunkenness. The point is, that parental modeling and supervision are key to inoculation’s success, no matter what. Opening the cabinet and walking away models irresponsibility and permission to be limitless in one’s drinking. It offers the wrong lesson. The cultural norm of European parents is not that of opening the cabinet as I understand it.

    e. The practice at universities that is frightening is binge drinking, not over-drinking as adults know it. Binge drinking, especially repeated binge drinking is more dangerous than over-drinking. It is a social phenomenon that occurs more commonly in large groups and party settings, not in homes, and that often exposes the drinkers to substances that are prepared by a stranger and in amounts and combinations unknown by the consumer of the drink. ( I have read that it apparently involves kids from all kinds of upbringings and backgrounds, both in terms of parental style or cultural norms, or in terms of the psychological makeup of the child. I have read that repeat binge drinking is less prevalent and of course more dangerous.)

    f. The social behaviours that accompany or result from binge drinking are sometimes as or more dangerous than the drinking itself (violence, destruction of property, injury, sexual misbehavior, etc). My children tell me that being part of a scene where binge drinking is taking place also places pressure on the non-binge drinker to care for the drinkers and to control the group’s activities. The choice not to drink in that situation is a very hard ethical one for most young people. Can we be sure that the young person taught by inoculation is automatically capable of making this tough choice?

    g. I believe that I build the capacity for responsible action in my children by doing 3 main things: first, by modeling it myself, secondly by creating space in my household for safe and open debate and thirdly gradually releasing control for decision making to my kids, in all things. There is a greater chance of my children behaving responsibly as adults if I do these three things than if I go the inoculation route, especially if I do not or cannot control the inoculation or reflect on it together.

    h. How do you teach children about drinking and driving in the inoculation system? How do you make sure they are safe if they are part of a group that is permitted to drink in another adult’s home? What do I do if my son or daughter drinks or over drinks at someone else’s home and acts poorly? Who do I hold responsible if in that situation my child overdrinks and as a result falls ill or hurts himself, and how do I explain levels of responsibility to my child, knowing the laws about host responsibility?

    i. At what age would it be wise to start the inoculation? Is there a magic age? If so, why?

    j. Should we as parents model other forms of illegal activity too (teaching them how to cheat at cards? Cheat on income tax? Tell lies, etc etc etc. the list is endless.)?

    Additional thoughts:
    It seems to me that the inoculation argument is often put forward by parents who are nervous about enforcing certain standards with their children. It is not easy to confront an angry or cruelly reactive adolescent who is not being permitted to do what his friends are doing, or who wants to have certain friends and be popular. It is also not easy to examine one’s own drinking behaviours closely.

    I am no purist. I drink wine almost every day of my life. My children have occasionally seen me drink too much. Since going away to university, they have both had some experience with over drinking, and maybe binge drinking, but I don’t know the details. It is who they otherwise are as people (strong sense of self, of responsibility to themselves and others) and the patterns of behavior that were built in them from their very early years that sustain them in social situations.

    RE: the College’s responsibility.

    I do not, except in the case of boarders, for whom the College has a different kind of in loco parentis relationship, feel responsible to dictate to parents what they do in their homes, or to be part of a discipline process in a situation where a UCC boy behaves badly in a non-school sanctioned private activity. The only exception might be made in the case of student leaders, who in taking on a public leadership role are held to a higher standard and whose behavior provides a model for other, younger students.

    The school should support upholding the law and fostering good health. Responsible decision-making can be taught in many ways…

  3. As I got to the bottom of your thought-provoking post, my eyes caught the closing phrase “please send them my way” before they saw the start of the paragraph. So I assumed that “them” was the boys…who I would be only too happy to send your way. (I have two, ages 13 and 11.)

    Imagine my disappointment at realizing, moments later, that it’s not the boys you want, but my pearls of wisdom on this challenging issue. And there, I’m afraid, I am sorely lacking…

    The only thing that comes to mind is handing off responsibility for some of the small decisions that have relatively minor negative consequences. For us, for example, that has meant letting the boys decide for themselves what constitutes a “portion” of vegetables and a “portion” of dessert (they know it when they see it; they don’t need a parent to count out the number of string beans they eat) and having them get themselves up for school without our incessant reminders to “Get out of bed already!” (yes, there have been a missed bus or two). We figure that if they can master these day-to-day situations, they’ll be more prepared to make the tougher decisions (drinking, etc.) down the road. We’ll see…

    (And are you sure we can’t send them to you for the occasional pep talk to help them on their journey toward self-reliance?)

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