Be the Compass

CompassPerhaps it was no coincidence that, as Holy Week approached, David Brooks’ April 8 Op-Ed piece “What Suffering Does” immediately shot to the top of the New York Times’ “most e-mailed” list.

Brooks makes the case that although we tend to pursue happiness, it is suffering that shapes us. “When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject. But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”

And today’s most e-mailed article describes the results of a longitudinal study related to parental involvement in school (“Parental Involvement is Over-Rated”).

Startlingly, the authors conclude ”Most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.”

They go on to state, “We believe that parents are critical for how well children perform in school, just not in the conventional ways that our society has been promoting.” Their advice? “The essential ingredient is for parents to communicate the value of schooling, a message that parents should be sending early in their children’s lives and that needs to be reinforced over time. But this message does not need to be communicated through conventional behavior, like attending PTA meetings or checking in with teachers…What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it.”

Both of these articles underscore our cultural focus on happiness as the highest good and an almost irresistible temptation on the part of parents to make smooth every path in their children’s lives—even if they are neither healthy nor practicable.

But it’s all well and good for (already “successful”) New York Times columnists and researchers to handily remind us of the benefits of suffering or the need to step back—it’s much harder when it’s your own child.

So what can we do as parents and teachers?

“Help” is defined as to “make it easier for (someone) to do something by offering one’s services or resources.” Guide, on the other hand, is defined as “a person who advises or shows the way to others,” to “show or indicate the way,” or to “direct or have an influence on the course of action of (someone or something).”

Perhaps we need to focus less on direct assistance and more on guidance. Perhaps we “help” children most when we resist making things easier and instead walk beside them to show them the way. It is hard to accept that, in fact, we cannot control our children’s life path—but perhaps can influence their ability to walk it with joy and purpose and, yes, even in suffering.