Cognitive Dissonance and the Check-Listed Childhood

How many parents out there have read Julie Lythcott-Haims’ How to Raise an Adult, or watched her Ted Talk on the concept of what she defines as a “check-listed childhood”? I am starting to think that everyone in America must have, because her views seem to come up in conversation constantly. If you are not familiar, you can find the video of the Ted Talk here and it’s definitely worth watching if you can’t make time to read the book.

When I first watched her Ted Talk, I was mildly horrified. I agreed with everything she said, of course, and thought about her message during my first rodeo in the world of competitive parenting this fall. I have a first grader, and she took the NNAT on November 13 - my birthday (oh the irony!). I know that many other parents prepped their children for the test; I did not, and I felt really great about my clearly-superior parenting skills. I was going to do this the right way!

As mid-December moved into late-December and we still hadn’t gotten her score back, I turned into a crazy person. I checked SIS like a maniac. Or would it come in the Wednesday folder? In her backpack? Finally, I learned that the letters had been mailed and that I would receive the score on Christmas Eve through the mail. What first seemed like bad timing was actually incredibly well-played, because then parents couldn’t contact the school with questions and would have to wait two weeks to simmer down. Smart.

I spent most of Christmas Eve waiting obsessively for the mailman to come. I wanted it to be high, so she would have a good shot at the AAP program. I saw him come from an upstairs window and made my husband run out to grab it, and stood in the kitchen opening the envelope with my heart pounding, like a complete and total idiot. She is six years old. She did well, by the way, probably not high enough to be in-pool for AAP, but it was a good score. She is a smart kid. Still, I was disappointed (don’t worry, she was not home and she has no clue that this score even exists). Clearly, my decision to forgo test prep was not in line with my goal of a high score.

The entire experience helped me identify with my clients on a deeper level in terms of the concept of cognitive dissonance - particularly in relation to our goals for our children and the effort that it takes to achieve those goals. At the core, we all want our kids to be happy and fulfilled, right? I don’t think that there are many of us that want to push our children over the edge. We all realistically know that test prep for a first grader is probably not a great idea, just as we know that pushing high school kids to overwhelm themselves with coursework that requires studying until 3:00 a.m. each day is not a good idea.

Yet, and this is especially timely at this time of year with course registration on the horizon: how many of us actually modify our goals for our children in response to the decisions we make as parents? It was easy for me to say that I wasn’t going to prep my first-grader for the NNAT, but it was harder to feel fine with the eventual outcome. It’s easy to say that we shouldn’t force twelfth graders to take AP Calculus or continue with a slate of activities that they no longer enjoy, but it’s so much harder to truly feel fine with the idea that UVA may not be in the cards anymore because of those decisions.

I don’t have a magical solution to solve this problem (I wish I did!). It would be so much easier if my daughter just scored perfectly on her own and if all the kids with whom I work are naturally Harvard-bound without any kind of intervention. Ultimately, though, I think that there is a balance between a check-listed childhood and free-range parenting, and that balance may look different for each family.

I would urge parents to consider these types of dilemmas while acknowledging the consequences in the context of our ultimate goals for our children. This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily adjust our goals or adjust our parenting decisions, but we do have to come to terms with the idea that decisions lead to consequences, so that there are no surprises down the line in terms of an inability to achieve goals. There may be situations when we as parents decide that a little pain now is worth the end result, and there may be situations where we decide it isn’t.

As for me, I have a lot of strategy and planning sessions on my calendar this month and will be discussing course selections at length. I will continue to tell everyone that I highly recommend AP Calculus to students that hope to be competitive applicants to highly selective schools, if AP Calculus is an option on the table. Yes, even for the kid that’s not interested in math. And yes, a fourth year of a foreign language (not to be confused with level four) is equally important… IF the goal is UVA. But it doesn’t have to be!