Introduction: To the Reader
It is hard.
It is doable.
It is never too late.
We are the parents of three school-aged children. We began our professional careers as teachers over twenty years ago and have spent the years since working with hundreds of teenagers and their families. The experiences we have had and the lessons we have learned in both roles, as parents and as teachers, form the heart of this book.
The bottom-line point we make in these pages is simple. We believe that parents are the primary teachers and the home is the primary classroom. The job of parenting asks us to accept and honor a commitment to develop the best in our children, the best in our families, and the best in ourselves. No job is more important than parenting, and while most people we talk with profess to agree, we have observed that many parents do not organize and prioritize their lives in accordance with this notion. It is our hope that this book and its 10 Priorities can help parents focus their efforts by presenting a program that has provided meaningful experiences and valuable lessons to hundreds of parents.
Many of these experiences and lessons have occurred at the Hyde Schools, a group of schools and programs dedicated to character development and family growth. Both of us graduated from Hyde's original campus in Bath, Maine, in the 1970s. Our time there as students was life-changing. Our teachers challenged us to test our character and we were rewarded with a sense of purpose that has guided us as individuals, as educators, and as parents ever since. Today we serve as leaders of the Hyde organization: Malcolm as president and Laura as director of the Biggest Job workshops, a national parenting program. In these roles we strive to offer the same challenges and rewards to students, parents, and teachers in a variety of settings. Whether at a boarding school in rural New England or an urban public K-12 school in Washington, D.C., it has been deeply gratifying to see the promise of genuine character development unfold for American kids and families from all walks of life.
Although this book has been written with parents foremost in our minds, it is actually for anyone committed to the personal growth and character development of children. In attempting to identify those families that will find it especially meaningful, we are reminded of a one-page piece written by Hyde students in 1970. Entitled "Statement to the Prospective Student," it has since been offered to hundreds of students and families considering a Hyde education. It is intended to help families answer the simple question: Is Hyde right for me? The statement begins:
If you have the desire to take an honest look at yourself and are willing to commit yourself to the pursuit of excellence, then Hyde may be for you.
Later the statement notes:
If you are happy and content with yourself, then Hyde may not be for you. You must want to change and grow.
Near the conclusion, the central point of the piece is made:
As a Hyde student, you should accept the following premise as your basic responsibility: that you make and keep a total commitment to pursue excellence.
Such a commitment is not easy to make, and, once made, it requires effort to keep. We feel that we have made such a commitment. That is why we are at Hyde School and why we have experienced growth.
This book is offered in the spirit of this statement and is designed to be especially helpful to those committed to the pursuit of personal and family excellence. In accordance with the statement, those parents who are happy and content with themselves probably will not find it as useful as those motivated by a deep desire to change and grow. The book calls upon families to make and keep a total commitment to pursue excellence while at the same time it recognizes that each family's goals and objectives will vary. It comes with the fair warning that this commitment is difficult to make and maintain. As parents and teachers, we have made such a commitment and we strive to keep it on a daily basis. This commitment and the accompanying growth we have experienced in the form of various ups and downs have fueled our motivation to write this book.
Our personal and professional experiences have taught us three things about this commitment:
1. It is hard.
2. It is doable.
3. It is never too late.
To add a fourth: It is never too early.
This book and its 10 Priorities outline and support our belief that, at any age, a person's character is more important than his or her innate abilities. Who we are is more important than what we can do. If asked, most people would agree that the right attitude and a commitment to principles are keys to a fulfilling life rich with achievement, strong personal relationships, and a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, in today's results-driven culture, the element of character is overlooked more than those same people would care to admit. How else can we explain the dramatic rise in cheating in schools across our country? How else can we explain the students who, often on the advice of adult role models, might choose to avoid taking a particularly challenging advanced high school course because the low grade they might receive would hurt their chances for admission to an elite college? The logic of this choice is understandable, but it most certainly is not aimed at developing the student's character.
The "results" culture that prevails in most schools is damaging to students in a number of ways. Those who try hard but don't have the aptitude of the class stars come to feel as if they're fighting a losing battle and begin to ask "Why bother?" Meanwhile, the top performers gain a false sense of accomplishment when they are not challenged to explore their full potential. Across the board, these teenagers sense the hypocrisy at work and become alienated and apathetic. Creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm flag, and restless energy looks for less constructive outlets.
Similar troubles emerge in the home when the principles that most parents believe they value -- honesty, responsibility, accountability -- don't actually govern family life. In fact, it's often difficult to determine which ideas do lie at the heart of a family, since many of us are so focused on avoiding the mistakes our parents made that we unwittingly neglect to devise a positive parenting plan of our own. In a sense, we're steering without a rudder, and each time the desire to "get along," to placate a volatile family member, or to quickly repair a problem that someone else has created overrides our purported principles, parents and children veer farther off course. Cynicism and hostility creep in along with secretiveness, making each new challenge that much more difficult to face.
In visualizing a guide for parents, we imagined the metaphor of a map and compass. When hiking in the woods, a map and compass, working hand in hand, are essential tools. A map without a compass is of limited value because we are then forced to guess our direction. A compass without a map not only leaves the destination in doubt, it leaves us unable to identify and connect with critical landmarks along the way. We not only need both, we need both simultaneously. Thus, our book is intended to offer a philosophical framework, the "compass," accompanied by a set of ten parenting Priorities, the "map."
This book parallels the program followed in the Biggest Job workshops, a program we created and have presented to thousands of parents across the country. We call these workshops the Biggest Job for two reasons. First, we want to clearly establish our belief that parenting is a very difficult undertaking. In fact, we sometimes tell parents: "Even when you do it right, you will feel like a sucked lemon!" Thus, we offer fair warning that this book will not appeal to the parent seeking a "quick fix." Parenting is hard work. However, we have observed that anyone with a genuine commitment can be pretty good at it.
The second reason for the title Biggest Job derives from a regular theme of the many interviews and conferences we have conducted with students and their parents over the years. In these sessions we have repeatedly observed a phenomenon we initially regarded as a fascinating irony but have come to expect as a common occurrence. Sitting before us are men and women who, on the one hand, are confident, highly competent, and very successful professionals, yet, on the other hand, are uncertain, perhaps even frightened, parents. We often say to them, "What works at the office may not work at home. No matter how successful you have become in your professional lives, remember that this is the big leagues. This is the biggest job you will ever have."
Laura and Malcolm Gauld
Copyright © 2002 by Malcolm Gauld and Laura Gauld