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Two Decades of Kids and Counting

By Sally Torbey

About this blog: About this blog: I have enjoyed parenting five children in Palo Alto for the past two decades and have opinions about everything to do with parenting kids (and dogs). The goal of my blog is to share the good times and discuss the ...  (More)

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Being number one

Uploaded: Oct 20, 2013
A couple of decades ago my husband and I hosted a cocktail party before the Black and White Ball. It was a festive evening off in black tie attire with nine other couples, all first time parents of two year olds. We had met through a neighborhood playgroup. (Our kids are convinced that we are incapable of making friends without their help, as all of our friends are their friends' parents.)

Our guests arrived: coiffed, stubble shaved, nails polished. No one was wearing sweatpants. Without children in backpacks and diaper bags as appendages, our friends were unrecognizable to us. Our toddlers usually required supervision that prevented us from engaging in adult conversation, but now we had to make small talk at a grown up party.

To break the ice, someone asked, "How many of you were valedictorians of your high school class?" As hosts, my husband and I were regretting that we had not planned the distraction of party games, but our guests responded to the question graciously. Four hands were raised. "Salutatorians? Top 10 in your class?" About half the hands went up. "Top ten percent?" and all the hands were up. My husband's high school did not specify a valedictorian, but since he placed first in his country's comprehensive final high school exam, he qualified (although we like to remind him he comes from a very small country the size of Connecticut).

Nervous laughter rippled through the party. We were all academic stars, our toddlers were already exhibiting obvious signs of genius, and someday they would all certainly be deserving of that valedictorian title, but how could they all be number one?

My husband and I are grateful that we were forced to confront the fact early in parenting that it is not a given that our kids will receive the academic accolades we did. The competition is significantly stiffer, and being number one cannot and should not be what it is all about for them. Constantly comparing themselves to others will lead to certain misery in this environment of high achievers in all areas, including academics, athletics, and the arts. But, our kids can be grateful for how interesting and stimulating it is to grow up around intelligent and accomplished people, and they can work hard, and honor their own gifts.

Most importantly, as author Alfie Kohn states in his book, "Unconditional Parenting", we can love our children "as they are, and for who they are". He explains, "When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short". We celebrate their successes, but not let the successes define them, nor ourselves as parents. For my husband, this unconditional parenting seems to come easily. I suspect having lived through a civil war gives him a useful perspective.

A few weeks before his high school graduation, our son thought he was going to receive a poor grade and his college acceptance would be rescinded. It took more self- control than I thought I had to not point out his idiocy in allowing this to happen, and instead, acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and offer our support in helping him figure out what to do. Supporting my son through this was one of my proudest parenting moments. One of my worst parenting moments was berating the same son a few years later by phone on a spring morning at 7 am. He was involved in his university's Occupy Movement. "How are you going to get the grades to be accepted to law school if you are skipping classes, staying up all night protesting and getting arrested? How can you just throw away the opportunities you've been given?" I said. Grant me a little slack, I was frantic. The last we had heard of him was his 3am Facebook posting of police in riot gear on campus.

As is the norm in parenting, some days we do this better than others, but unconditional love fulfills a basic human need, and it is the gift our children give us from the moment they enter our lives. We do not have to earn it, and neither should they. We hope that our kids know they will always be number one to us, regardless of their class rank.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Renate Steiner, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 7:43 pm

You make a great point, Sally. We do not need to be perfect. We need to be human, honest and as consistent as possible with our children. You continue to inspire me with your from-the-heart commentary.

Posted by Jessica T, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm

Sally - your last paragraph brought tears to my eyes. Thank goodness parenting is a journey made up of good and bad days. I really appreciate your sharing your proudest and less than proudest moments as a parent. We all have them. Your wisdom as a parent of adult children is so helpful.

Posted by BLH, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 20, 2013 at 7:52 pm

This also reminds me of Challenge Success and how important their work is. One of the most thought provoking Parent Ed events I went to was a nursery school one in which we were asked to define success and also rank our top 10 characteristics we wanted our kids to have as grownups. It was eye opening! Incidentally, if anyone reading this is a Walter Hays parent, our next book club meeting features "Unconditional Parenting" by Alfie Kohn. Hope to see you there!

Posted by David Rader, a resident of another community,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 4:56 am

The first child gave me the experience of unconditional love -- their love for me. The second through fourth children taught me love is indivisible. My love for each of them is unbounded; not divided between them. This is a mere speck of God's infinite love. Doubts and self-interest corrupt my love; not His. For the love experienced in family, I am grateful to God.

Posted by Cristina Spencer, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 6:22 am

Thanks for the perspective, Sally. Great to have a mom mentor out there!

Posted by Karen, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 6:57 am

Thank you for another great piece! I wonder if that preschool parent who cared whether or not the other parents were valedictorians mellowed out over the years of parenting. I was sure when I was the parent of a two year old that they were perfect, and that they would always do everything exactly the way I planned.
Of course, as the years went on, my children were great at some things and struggled with other things. The ups and downs beyond my control helped me to appreciate the kids that I have for exactly who they are, without looking for external measures of their achievement.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 8:24 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thanks, Renate, for reading and commenting!

Thanks, Jessica, I appreciate the support!

What a great thought process to go through while your kids are in nursery school. I imagine it can help parents focus on what matters to them for their kids.
That's great that folks at Hays are reading Alfie Kohn's book, it is one I pick up every few years when I need a refresher. I attended a lecture he gave about 10 years ago, he is also an excellent speaker.

Thanks, David, for your comment. Yes, children teach us that love can multiply!

Thanks, Cristina. I am grateful to all the parenting mentors I've had through the years!

Hi Karen,
We realized, after the fact, that the parent who asked the question already "got it" and was trying to do us all a favor and clue us in!
I know what you mean, I am also a planner. I found it challenging when my kids were not with my plan but had their own!

Posted by A mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 8:49 am

Spot on again Sally. Unconditional parenting is the goal, though easier said than done for me at times!

Posted by LJ, a resident of another community,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 11:26 am

Not being defined by success (or failure) was a challenge for many even back when I was growing up in a much quieter, less intense world. Important to think about. Thank you, Sally!

Posted by Mom of 3, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Amen Sally. So well put! I too am learning and continuing to practice the art of loving my children unconditionally for who they are right here and right now - putting aside my agenda for what I want of them and for them. I love to learn from you. Thank you for passing on your insights!

Posted by Maria, a resident of University South,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 3:08 pm

Thank you Sally, to love your children unconditionally means also home is a save place where they can be themselves and return when they need help.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 6:53 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi A mom,
Thanks for reading and commenting. I think it is easier said than done for most of us!

Hi LJ,
It is easy to let it define us! Thanks for the comment.

Hi Mom of 3,
I like how you describe it as "practicing the art" of unconditional love. And "putting aside my agenda". A helpful way of looking at it. It is a process!

Thanks, Maria, for your comment. Kids do need a safe haven. A lot is expected of them as they navigate the world.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Southgate,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm

I don\'t know parents who have trouble loving their children unconditionally whether they were valedictorians or not. I think the more significant problem in PA is that it is hard on kids to be in such hypercompetitive schools where As are rationed and kids are tutored and prepped. I don\'t think the issue for PA teens is lack of unconditional parental love it\'s attending overly competitive schools. Let\'s solve that problem.

Posted by Laura , a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Oct 21, 2013 at 9:09 pm

Beautifully written Sally! Your mentoring has inspired me as I raise my 3 young girls. Thanks so much!

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 22, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Hi Laura! Thanks for the encouragement.

Dear Mom,
Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, our schools are very competitive. With so many bright and motivated students the academic bar is set very high. Not sure there is a way to change that unless the schools do away with grades.

One part of "unconditional parenting" we've tried to practice is encouraging our kids to select a course load appropriate for them, and balance some of the tough courses with interesting but less demanding ones. Just because "everyone" is taking a tough course doesn't mean it is right for them. And when they do have a teacher who seems particularly reluctant to give "A"s, we encourage them to focus on what they have learned in the course through their efforts, and not let a teacher's grading system dictate their sense of self worth or achievement in that subject.

In addition, we have found it very helpful to encourage our kids to be involved in extracurricular activities that interest them and focus on cooperation as an antidote to the competitive school environment. For our family this has been scouts and our church community. Service organizations can be a great way to do this. One of the high school papers recently featured its Best Buddies program where students are paired with other students with intetellectual and developmental disabilities, truly a win/win program!

I'd love to hear how other readers have helped their kids deal with attending very rigorous, competitive schools.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Southgate,
on Oct 22, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Hi Sally, Those are all good suggestions for helping your child cope. However, I think there are things that can and should be done in the schools themselves and that would be short of "eliminating grades" that could make a real difference. The finals before break have obviously helped. Block scheduling at Paly helped cut homework. Later start helped. The homework policy eliminating group project homework seems to have helped.

Other things that would help include evaluting the grading rubric from teacher to teacher within the same subject/course to ensure that teachers are all grading on the same method, so that some students don't have a "hard" teacher and some an "easy" teacher. Also, ensuring that students are not eligible to take a subject if they have already pre-taken it in summer school or tutoring -- limit gaming the system. Finally, work to limit or reduce the culture of bragging and also the culture of llooking down on or subtly bullying students who ask questions in class or need extra help or explanation.

None of these measures would require :eliminating grades" and all would help to reduce the stress of attending competitive schools. If we decide that it's impossible then of course we can't do it. It's great if you teach your kids to cope with a relentless system. But what about making it just somewhat less relentless? Isn't that worth doing?

Posted by Mom, a resident of Southgate,
on Oct 22, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Oh, also, making sure that students don't have many projects or tests due the same day -- huge source of unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 22, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Dear Mom,
Thanks for reading and responding. Your suggestions are great, please run for site council, you have my vote! I would be happy to see these ideas implemented.

In terms of specifics, the late start and block scheduling have been great for my kids. My son is a senior, and the pre-break finals calendar with the earlier August start created some challenges for him. Maybe you've had a different experience with this change with your kids. I think the calendar could be improved with some tweaking. As you probably know, it's being discussed tonight at the school board meeting. He's working on a group homework project that was assigned to be completed out of school as I write this, so not sure what is going on with that policy. It would be nice to have more consistent grading across a class with sections taught by different teachers. Not sure how monitoring kids' taking summer classes or tutoring will work and how that would be enforced. I am all for changing the culture of students' comparing grades. Wondering how the staggering of tests/projects would work, as well. The only way my kids have gotten relief from this is by taking one of the tests early, which isn't always possible if material is being taught right up until the test.

I'm interested to hear how you think there might be progress made on some of these ideas.

Posted by Selina, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Oct 22, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Hi Sally,

Technology is a tough one - so much potential for both good and harm, and we are one of the first generations to parent through it. Of course, each generation has its own challenges. It seems the most important thing is to teach our kids how to navigate the world in a positive fashion - not by forbidding things, but by teaching them how to use them respectively. Not a small task, for certain, and no doubt it's tough to be perfect at it. I love hearing your honesty on the subject. Unconditional love is what helps us work through the tough times and challenges, and provides the motivation for teaching the most valuable lessons. Thank you for sharing your valuable perspective.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Southgate,
on Oct 22, 2013 at 10:04 pm

I just watched the board meeting (as much as I could stand anyway :( ) and I will say that it's apparent that the survey shows that the vast majority (Like almost 90%) of students and similar proportions of parents and teachers like the finals before break, the semester end at break, etc. I cannot imagine that the board would not vote for that and ignore all those students. Both student reps on the board supported the change.

Unfortunately it's not possible to do everything -- there are parameters -- starting a few days later seems possible. But that of course means ending the semester a few days later, or having fewer little holidays. One board member tried to set up so many conditions that it would just clearly be impossible to meet them all. If the highest priority is to start a few days later and end the semester before Christmas, then that seems eminently do-able.

I think that new software such as Schoology, or Haiku, if it was used properly has the functionality to regulate test and project scheduling and ensure that students don't have all those things stacked up. The out of class group project homework ban is supposed to apply to all classes, including honors and AP. You should report that to the principal. No one wants to be the person who reports but if no one does then there is no accountability. My kids were always embarrassed if I was the reporter, so you might want to wait until they complete that class and then complain afterwards in a note to the principal -- there's nothing you can do about it now anyway, but you can help the next class.

Block scheduling should be brought to Gunn -- it has really been great at Paly but only half our students are getting the benefits, which is not fair.

Tutoring and pre-taking is a hard problem but I think that if there was an honor code that students had to agree to and one of the conditions of the honor code was that they had to sign a statement that they did not take this course previously in summer school, private tutoring, or any other situation, that would really reduce it. It would be a form of academic dishonesty to do so. Some people would still cheat, like with plagerism, but the incidence would be reduced.

Hopefully we will someday get someone on the school board (site council is not all that effective) who cares about these kinds of things. It could be you!

Posted by Kirsten, a resident of Community Center,
on Oct 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Dear Sally,

What a thought provoking moment to share! Your blog is a great reminder that as parents we are role modeling every day the kind of behavior we wish are children to emulate. A Stanford professor once said at his talk on finding happiness that we have to walk the fine line as parents, giving our children two equally important messages. First, you are one of seven billion people on this planet, and you are special in so many ways. Second, you are only one of seven billion people on this planet and are no more important than any other one of them.

Your post reminded me of this tricky balance.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Oct 24, 2013 at 7:55 am

> To break the ice, someone asked, "How many of you were valedictorians of your high school class?"

This is an ice-breaker ?

> We hope that our kids know they will always be number one to us, regardless of their class rank.


Posted by Leo Tolstoy, a resident of Midtown,
on Oct 26, 2013 at 1:44 am

When the woman showed her love for the children that were not her own, and wept over them, I saw in her the living God, and understood What men live by.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 26, 2013 at 8:03 am

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thank you, Leo, for your poignant description of unconditional love for all our children.

Kirsten, yes, a tricky balance worth striving towards.

CrescentParkAnon, yes, not a typical ice-breaker.

Posted by Nora Charles, a resident of Stanford,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 12:41 pm

CrescentParkAnon, I agree, how curious that small talk at the party consisted of polling how smart everyone was. Compassion and kindness are far more important than intelligence, grades, and getting into the "best" colleges.

Posted by Sally Torbey, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 28, 2013 at 5:45 pm

Sally Torbey is a registered user.

Thank you, Nora Charles, for reading and commenting. It was odd, and I have never heard someone say something like that since, but I think it made us all recalibrate our expectations in a positive way. No question that there are many other attributes that are far more important and meaningful in life than GPA.

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