Focus on kids’ character, not grades

Not long ago, psychologist Madeline Levine gave a lecture at a Jewish day school near her home in Marin County, Calif. The topic: “Your Average Child.”

Nobody showed up. 

“I guess there wasn’t a single average kid at the school,” Levine quips.  

“By definition, the vast majority of our children are average,” she clarifies. 

It’s a notion that is difficult for parents to accept, especially as many of us grew up hearing that we were anything but average—we were special. If our kids are average, does that mean that ultimately we are (gasp!) average, too?

In an effort to keep such thoughts at bay, we enforce the typical trajectory: have the kids load up on classes and activities. Make sure they get good grades and garner trophies. This will land them at a top-tier college where, the story goes, they will graduate and embark upon a well-paid career.

But Levine, author of the new book “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” (HarperCollins Publishers), says that despite today’s high-stakes environment, which combines an uncertain economic future with increasingly fierce competition for spots at top schools, parents are paying attention to the wrong things.

“If you spend all this time going over their homework, correcting it, bringing in a tutor, you’ve lost all this time to build other things: character, persistence, generosity—all the things that people now are saying are going to be mandatory” for future jobs, she said. 

In the book, Levine writes: “Every measure of child and adolescent mental health has deteriorated since we’ve decided that children are best served by being relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested. Our current version of success is a failure.”

It’s a trap in which much of the Jewish community finds itself ensnared, Levine says, given the historical emphasis of Jews on the value of education.

“There’s always this sense that education is the way to go; it always has been,” she said. “If your 15-year-old says I don’t want to clear the dishes today, I have my AP chemistry test [to study for], most [Jewish] parents say don’t worry about it, go study.”

“That’s a big mistake. There’s more to be learned about the issue of sharing responsibility and community that goes along with three minutes of clearing the table.”

While many Jewish schools emphasize community and values, she says, parents too often worry about a botched test.

“We know everything about their grades and not enough about where they go and what they do,” she writes. “We monitor their performance, but not their character.”

Levine reminds parents of their ultimate goal: “We want to turn out good people who find good partners, find work they like, and contribute to their communities.” 

“Teach Your Children Well” is, in part, a response to Levine’s previous book, the 2006 surprise best-seller “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” (“Nobody expected it to end up on The New York Times” best-sellers list, she said. “It did.”)

“The Price of Privilege” touched a nerve. Although its scope was limited to upper-class families, it identified problems also prevalent among the middle- and upper-middle class. Her current book, Levine says, provides a broader perspective along with some solutions. (One example: “Question aggressively a system that seems to sanction excessive homework, competition over collaboration, sleep deprivation, and choosing activities based solely on their resume-enhancing potential.”)

As for her own background, Levine, 62, embodies the notion that “average” can turn exemplary. She grew up in New York City, in the Flushing section of Queens; her father was a police officer who died young, her mother was a social worker.

“We had no money, no insurance, nothing,” Levine recalls. A scholarship enabled Levine to study at the State University of New York, Buffalo.

“I had the best parents,” Levine said. “I was just fine the way I was, whether that was excelling in English or floundering at math. They were more interested in the kind of person I was.”

Levine began her career as a teacher in the South Bronx, a downtrodden, violence-plagued section of New York, in the 1970s. (“I was a terrible teacher,” she said. “I was so bad in the classroom, so good at the one on one.”)

Levine moved to California to pursue a doctorate in psychology and has remained here. She has a private clinical practice—on the back burner at the moment, she says—and is a founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford University-based organization that works with schools and families to promote better balanced, more fulfilled lives for children. 

She and her husband, Lee Schwartz, have three sons, ages 32, 27 and 21. Having adult children, she says, gives her the opportunity to look back and consider what she would do differently. One thing Levine says she’d change: She would have participated more in her children’s Jewish education.

Busy with her family and career, “I remember all the times I dropped them off at Hebrew school, went home and went to bed,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘You have to go to Mitzvah Day.’ Well, if mom’s not going … actions speak louder than words.”

Levine’s youngest son, Jeremy, helped guide her career toward combating the pressure-cooker environment that so many kids encounter at school. While her older sons, good students, “were served by the system,” her youngest (“a perfectly average student,” as she describes him in her book) was falling between the cracks.

“There was very little to feel good about, starting in about sixth grade,” she said. “Nobody was interested in the parts of him that were super good.”

“Every kid has a super power,” she said. “For one kid, it may be calculus. For another it’s an incredible sensitivity toward people.” A parent’s task, Levine says, is valuing these strengths equally. 

“Life hands people all kinds of losses, disappointments, tragedies,” she said. “Why do we want to have kids night after night sobbing over their homework at 2 a.m. because they can’t get it done? It’s something we created that has become an enormous stressor.”

“I feel like adults have a secret: There are a bunch of things you’re good at, a bunch of things you’re average at, a bunch of things you really suck at,” Levine said. “This idea of straight-A students is a perfect mythology to me. Most of us are pretty average in most ways.”

Not your average ‘schlub’ — a memoir

“From Schlub to Stud: How To Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City” by Max Gross (Skyhorse Publishing, $12.95).

Max Gross, by his own admission, used to be your average schlub: He sported an unkempt Jewfro, the bottoms of his jeans were tattered and he’d gamely put a good burger before a diet. In Gross’s first book, “From Schlub to Stud: How To Embrace Your Inner Mensch and Conquer the Big City”, he tells the tale of how some of this has changed: Now the burger and the diet are in a dead heat.

“The title is slightly misleading in that it’s about reveling in your schlubbiness, not purging it from you,” Gross said in a recent interview.

Indeed, the book is rife with advice on how to become a more functional schlub, rather than a former one. For instance, Gross advises his protégés, become a writer: “Dress code is flexible. As are working hours. And all the time you spend goofing off reading anything from Dostoevsky to Maxim magazine can legitimately be called research.”

Before Gross joined the staff of the New York Post, where he is currently a reporter, he authored a column called “The Hapless Jewish Writer” for The Forward in Manhattan, while fielding phone calls from subscribers. Max discusses here the nuances of schlubbism.

Marissa Brostoff: Is there a paradox inherent in being a schlub with a book contract?

Max Gross: Maybe. There was something in ‘The Hapless Jewish Writer’ where I was supposed to fail horribly, and I succeeded — it was either a horse race or a poker game — and [an editor] said to me, ‘We’re going to have to change the name of the column.’ But I don’t think that schlubs are necessarily failures in life. They’re a little disorganized, but that doesn’t necessarily mean living at home with their parents.

MB: Who are some schlubs who have made it big?

MG: I think you can find them all throughout history. My father thinks that Kaiser Wilhelm II was a big schlub. When you think about it, here was a guy who had this incredible empire — I mean, maybe it wasn’t as great as the British or French empires, but he had a country that was going good, and he screwed it up forever.

My father also thinks Marion Barry is a schlub, because he got caught on film smoking crack. I’m convinced that makes him more of a schlemiel.

Golda Meir [was] a schlub. She’s a successful schlub. And very unique in the sense that she’s a badass schlub. She might be the only schlub that has ever had codes to nuclear weapons.

MB: Is there a schlub-Jewish connection beyond the fact that ‘schlub’ is a Yiddish word?

MG: I think most schlubs are Jews, but there are plenty of non-Jewish schlubs, just like I think most schlubs are male but there are certainly female schlubs. In a way, Judaism really values certain schlub characteristics. We were people that for centuries just sat around the prayer house and read. We weren’t out, like, building…. And we all looked like the Satmars in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg.

MB: Maybe being a schlub has something to do with not being assimilated.

MG: Actually, I think that I’m probably more of a schlub than my ancestors. My parents are extremely unschlubby. My mother is a fashion editor and my father is just a cool guy. They have no idea where I came from.

MB: You write that in ‘a world of schlubby newspapers, the Forward is amongst the schlubbiest.’ What makes you say that?

MG: Well, [the Forward] cover[s] a lot of schlubs. I think that, to a large extent, everybody that the Forward covers is a little bit schlubby. They’re these organizations that are obsessed with one little thing that almost nobody else in the world is obsessed with.

MB: The cover of your book features an attractive, blond, un-schlubby-looking woman with her arms around you. Do you feel like you’re more oriented toward women who are themselves schlubby, or women like the girl on the cover?

MG: A lot of shiksa-type women I’m not as into. I like talking about Jews and Jewish topics, and it just doesn’t go over as well with non-Jewish people. Like if you want to talk about Israel all the time, and Saul Bellow, it’s hard to find a shiksa who looks like that to be your soul mate.

Article courtesy the Forward, where this originally appeared.