Who’s the Boss? Should Kids Be In Charge Of Their Own Education?

A year ago, I wrote about Letting My 14 Year Old Make His Own Educational Decisions in choosing which high school he’d go to.

I did it. It wasn’t easy. But I did it.

The problem with high school is that my middle child never wanted to go in the first place. He wanted to go straight to college. Unfortunately, the private college that accepted him at age 14 requested twice as much in tuition as we’re currently paying for his older brother to go to the Ivy League. It wasn’t worth it.

NYC’s CUNY system  admits 50% of students who are unable to pass their English and math placement tests but won’t admit a kid who passes those placement tests without a high school diploma or its equivalent. And you can’t sit for the high-school diploma equivalency, the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, until you’re 16 years old.

Like prison, you’re forced to serve a minimum amount of time before you can petition for release.

For almost a year now I’ve refrained from asking him about homework. I’ve refrained from asking him about grades. His father and I did go to Parent-Teacher conferences, where we were assured everything was fine. By any objective measure, he was having a great year. But that came from his teachers. We heard nothing from him.

I told my son it would have to be public high school. But I promised he could plot his own course, make his own decisions. I wouldn’t butt in, offer advice or constructive criticism. He could do anything he wanted (within the law).

Among my son’s independently-made decisions was to forgo extracurricular school activities in order to continue dancing at the academy he’d been at since he was 8.

Last week, while his classmates were taking their AP Environmental Science exam (APES – I love the acronym!), my son elected to honor his commitment to perform at Ballet Hispanico’s fundraising gala instead.

“The exam isn’t what’s important,” he lectured me, “it’s the learning that matters.”

APES is my son’s favorite class. He adores the teacher and is always quoting her. But neither of those things earns you college credit.

I kept my mouth shut.

I’ve kept my mouth shut a lot this year.

I’m not pretending it’s been easy.

My oldest son also rowed his own educational boat. He applied to high school himself, he chose his courses himself, he picked his own extracurriculars and he applied to college himself — including coordinating multiple fly-in programs. We joked that he was a self-cleaning oven (hat-tip: Modern Family).

The difference was my oldest son kept me posted. He’s a talker. (He didn’t speak until he was 3. We were urged to put him Special Ed. We didn’t.) I knew what was going on with him.

I have no idea what’s going on with my younger son.

When I asked him which classes he’d requested for next fall, he all but stroked his chin like a supervillain as he intoned, “Remember how you promised I’d only have to go to high school for a year?”

I did kind of promise him that (in writing)….

“Are you quitting?” I asked tentatively.

“Probably,” he shrugged. And refused to say anything else on the subject.

So it’s May. And I have no idea what my son is plotting for this coming September. I tell myself any drastic action would have required a parental signature, right? Right? And then I recall there are all sorts of way to get around that.

There’s a part of me that believes in letting my kids make their own mistakes and deal with the repercussions There’s a part of me that abhors helicopter/lawnmower parenting, where moms and dads sweep aside any potential  obstacles and micro-manage every aspect of their child’s daily existence.

There’s a part that’s impressed with my son’s stubbornness, his steadfastness, his confidence, and his willingness to not follow the same path as everybody else.

One day my son says he wants to go to CalTech and study DNA computing. The next he says programmers don’t need a degree, he might as well go straight to work. (That’s when my husband reminds him that a Black man needs at least one degree higher than a white one to get the same job.)

And then there’s the part of me that’s terrified.

The one that wants to screw my promises and charge in, guns blazing, “OK, here’s what you’re gonna do, son. You’re going to take the AP test, and you’re going to go to college. Because some doors, once closed, can never be reopened. You’re too young to understand that now. Yes, rich, white kids can buy their way into school, even after major screw-ups. But you’re not a rich, white kid. Your screw ups count. One set of grandparents didn’t immigrate from the Soviet Union, and the other didn’t knock down a multitude of walls to get their kids an education while living in Harlem in the 1970s for you to throw away everything they struggled for!”

It’s an impulse I fight on a daily basis. I don’t want to be like those parents who believe everyone should attend their zoned public school, no screens, no exceptions… until it comes to their own child.

I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

Instead, I’m asking: Who should be in charge of a student’s education?

The person who’s lived longer and knows more, who can see pitfalls and consequences down the line? Or the one whom it will ultimately affect the most? Should parents prevent their children from making easily avoidable mistakes, secure in the knowledge that there are plenty more to be made down the road? Or should kids be allowed to make those mistakes, because that’s the only way they’ll ever learn to recognize and avoid new ones?

It’s a tough call. Though, as my mother says, “Don’t worry, any decisions you make for your child, you’ll be wrong….”

What do you think?

More Comments