Can We Have It Both Ways?

karenWhile driving to work a few days ago, I enjoyed an interview by Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air with Jennifer Senior, author of the best seller All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. Senior is warm, funny, and wise, and she bolsters her positions with interesting research.

As I listened, the phrase “cognitive dissonance” began drumming in my brain. It’s a trendy phrase at the moment, one which explains like this:

“This is the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.”

As Senior explained how children have become the center of their parents’ universes in a way previously unparalleled in our history, she wondered about a possible downside. She noted:

“I’m not clear on whether kids benefit from that…I do question whether it’s good for kids, just because it might set up this unrealistic expectation that, like, if they snap their fingers someone’s going to be there to answer them. It’s like we’ve all become Jeeves and they’re Bertie Wooster. It’s a little weird.” BOOK-master180

Pow! I suddenly understood the discomfort I was feeling about two of our college’s current objectives. On the one hand, we’re trying to encourage student engagement and enhance retention and completion by “high-touch” or “intrusive” advising. As I understand it, we’re simply asked to be actively involved with all our students, and our advisees in particular, to see that they have the information and tools to be successful. We need to offer support in a deliberate and caring way. Clearly, a worthy goal.

At the same time, we’re opening a discussion about how to help our students with “soft skills,” as colleague Brian Coatney noted in his post on February 9th. We are asked to help them learn behaviors that will help them in their academic and professional careers, including attendance, punctuality, and other behaviors that are encompassed by professional ethics. That sounds to me like embracing the doctrine of personal responsibility, or, as my mom would call it, “gumption.” Also, a worthy goal.

429613770_8c0987ab56Senior has noted the dissonance between the desire to manage every aspect of a child’s life and the goal of encouraging maturity. In the same way, I feel the dissonance between offering my students all the help they need and deserve while encouraging them to take responsibility for their own behaviors. As my husband and I reared our boys, there were a lot of tough calls as we walked the parenting tightrope between supporting them and fostering their independence. We didn’t always get it right, but they grew up to be finer adults than we could have imagined, probably in spite of, rather than because of, many of our efforts.

Now I find myself back on that tightrope with my students. When do I intrude and support? When do I let them experience the consequences of their mistakes? I want to get that right…a worthy goal.



One comment on “Can We Have It Both Ways?

  1. Brian Leslie Coatney says:

    This is very interesting. I remember the self help movement and the push to recognize what was then popularly called codependency. It probably had other names before the self help movement. There is nothing new under the sun we know. Perhaps we’re in the “Let me help you” movement, and it’s showing its downside. I am thankful for people seeking to help me. It’s the smothering that I hate when that starts to happen. That’s when dictators are born.

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