Giving every kid Sam’s chance at success

photo credit, Flickr Creative Commons

Seeing my kids learn and grow and change (too quickly, sometimes!) every day, makes me think a lot about kids, and what their lives are likely to be like, and what it takes to give them a really good chance.

My oldest son is exceptional. I know that. He’s not only extremely bright (there’s no way that I could parent him without Wikipedia, because I have to look things up multiple times each day to answer his questions), but he’s also very insightful. I hope every day that I will be able to help him find the best ways to use his talents, that I am up to the task of parenting him.

And, so, as I watch him take on the challenges of his world, I have a new measuring stick of sorts–a new criterion by which I evaluate how well we’re doing by our children:

Does every child have Sam’s chance?

Obviously, every child is born with varying levels of innate ability. But, as Malcolm Gladwell dissects in Outliers, the experiences of everyone from political leaders to professional hockey players to child geniuses to Asian math students to rock stars to billionaire software engineers show that no one really succeeds on the basis of his/her inborn talents alone, that all of us are highly dependent on the context in which we thrive (or not) to determine the course of our lives.

Which is wonderful news, really.

It means that we have, within our control as a collective, the power to shape much of the trajectory of our children’s futures. It means that determining who will succeed and who will not doesn’t mean getting better at measuring IQ at earlier ages, or looking at the success of one’s parents.

It means putting all of the elements in place to support each child, so that we take much of the ‘luck’ out of the equation.

Today, when I look at Sam’s peers, I’m worried. Rather than trying to level out the disparities, the environments in which kids grow up today magnify them dramatically. I talk with him, and learn with him, and I get angry that he starts off so much farther down the road than so many.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I know I’m not the only parent who thinks like this. I’d never claim to be Marian Wright Edelman, but I do apparently think like her, as she writes to her sons about her, “sometimes difficult, even frantic, efforts to balance my responsibilities to you, my own children, and to other people’s children with whom you must share schools and streets, the nation and world. Paradoxically, the more I worried about and wanted for you, the more I worried about the children of parents who have so much less.”

We know what helps kids succeed: good schools, with qualified teachers and quality materials and ample hours dedicated to study; safe communities, with recreational opportunities and hazard-free housing; a healthy foundation of nutrition and access to care; strong relationships with supportive adults.

Giving kids a fair start, then, like so many other social policy challenges today, isn’t so much a technical problem as it is a political one. The problem, of course, is that we’ve failed to commit ourselves to investing in these elements in the life of every child.

And maybe a big part of the “why” is that we fail to understand how much of a difference it could make. Maybe, as Gladwell asserts, it’s our personalization of success–our belief that it’s about you or I when it’s really all about we–that leads us to miss out on so many opportunities to make successes of so many. And, of course, we’re the losers then.

When only those kids who are naturally amazing enough or baldly lucky or unjustly privileged enough to push through all of the obstacles that could derail their success manage to make it, we lose the potential of all of those who could have, would have, if only we would have understood that it’s up to us to make sure that they did.

I love part of the introduction to Outliers:
“We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid? This is not a book about tall trees. It’s a book about forests” (p. 20).

Here’s to planting better forests.

I want Sam, and every four-year-old with whom he will share a world, to grow up in the shade.

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