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We’re falling apart

This is cross-posted on my problem-solving Substack and my parenting blog, because it’s about solving a big problem parents are having right now and this coming weekend and which affect almost everyone in the entire country.

Why does this affect everyone? Because everyone works with or for parents, so if parents are all stressed and precarious, everyone and everything is stressed and precarious. (Hint: Parents are already stressed and precarious therefore everything is stressed and precarious therefore parents are stressed and precarious, etc.)

The problem is that our entire process for raising children in the U.S. is invested in having children in school full-time 180 days a year from the time they’re 5 years old until they become legal adults, and now the schools have fallen apart and we have no replacement system.

This isn’t exactly a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to schools for the last 20-30 years. But covid has turned all the cracks in the system into huge gaps, and the duct tape of parent volunteers, fetishizing of technology, and arguments about curricula just aren’t enough to hold things together anymore.

Here in Michigan, my high schooler didn’t have school today because his district was overwhelmed by copycat threats and rumors of threats echoing from the Oxford shooting 90 minutes away. Most of the schools in the area were closed, except for a few that were able to go virtual at the drop of a hat. But between the staff shortages, covid infections, and weakened community because of arguments about covid protocols, the district just couldn’t get on top of the threats in a way that made anyone feel safe.

We aren’t the only district or the only state. Districts and schools all across the country have been limping along with staff shortages, skyrocketing covid transmission rates, and teachers, kids, and parents with PTSD from the last 20 months. Every parent I know is just waiting for the robocall that their kid’s school is going virtual for the rest of the year. Half the parents I know have had a kid out of school this semester for possible covid exposure or a school closed for staffing shortages.

This just doesn’t work anymore.

And the real truth is that school hasn’t worked for a lot of kids and a lot of families for decades. But it worked just enough for just enough kids and families for us to put all our society’s eggs in that one basket. Those of us who had been hurt by school were expected to parent our own kids effortlessly through going to the same schools hurting them in the same ways we’d been hurt, but with higher stakes and fewer resources and community supports.

Lack of funding, No Child Left Behind, the DeVos family, artificially low wages, racism, the school to prison pipeline, and general lack of respect for teachers and teaching have eroded the stability of schools at the same time that the stability of parents was being eroded by the same stuff. (And teachers, who are often parents themselves, were double victims of all of this.)

I’ve got theories about how to get out of this tailspin, but my real focus is on helping parents figure out what to do now to help themselves and their kids, and other parents and kids. I’ve got a couple of suggestions.

1. Strengthen community. Reach out to other parents you know, at your kids’ school or other schools or homeschoolers. If you’ve been mostly making friends online because you haven’t been seeing people in person lately, start creating friendships or at least alliances with local parents online. You don’t have to solve things with each other. Just get to know each other, talk about things that matter, support each other, and care about each other’s kids.

2. Tap into teachers. Part of the separation of schools from the communities they’re in has been the gatekeeping of teachers by administration and unions, so parents are put at odds with teachers and teachers experience a really dysfunctional sample bias of only being contacted by the parents with extreme emotions and opinions. Talk to your kids’ teachers and let them know that you support them personally, not just as part of the system, and that you support their relationship with your kid, and that you support them individually¬†and as part of this parent community you’re generating.

3. Reevaluate. I mean hard core. Step back and look at your life and what kind of life your kids could be living vs what’s happening right now. Gen X (plus younger Boomer and older Millennial) parents have been manipulated and guilted and gaslighted into forcing our kids to conform to the system as much as possible so that they won’t fail. But the system is so broken that conforming to it might be more traumatizing than failure is. Step back and inspect your entire life and what you want your kids to know about themselves by the time they go off on their own. Let yourself think about what would happen if your kid failed or “failed.” Maybe this full-scale reevaluation will lead to changing things. Maybe it won’t. But just the act of reevaluating will give you a little more space and that will make your interactions with the system less high stakes on a daily basis.

4. Give everyone in your life more leeway. At work, at the grocery store, with clients, with employees, with your boss, online, in traffic. Culture, society, and the economy are all squeezing all of us all the time. Make your body big to take up space to buffer that squeeze, and then give some of that space to other people to give them a little ease.

5. Get political. Not a single thing will get better until we fix the minimum wage and how we deliver healthcare, at the very least.

I always sign off my posts with some version of “You can do it,” and yes, you can do these five things I’ve outlined. I can, so you can. But it’s also really normal to feel so overwhelmed by this (especially in the dark and cold of December, especially under the weight of the timeline of the murders in Oxford) that you need a minute to just breathe and get a little more stable before you start. Take the time you need to get your legs under you again. You are smart, strong, clever, worthy problem solver, but we’re all soft mammals, too.

Love,

Magda

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