An article in the Times caught my eye the other day: “The Good-Enough Life.” The author, Avram Alpert, a writing teacher at Princeton, draws on the work of D.W. Winnicott, who popularized the idea of “the good-enough mother.” Alpert summarizes her thusly:
This mother is good enough not in the sense that she is adequate or average, but that she manages a difficult task: initiating the infant into a world in which he or she will feel both cared for and ready to deal with life’s endless frustrations. To fully become good enough is to grow up into a world that is itself good enough, that is as full of care and love as it is suffering and frustration.
It made me wonder if that’s the sort of school I should want for my children. (Others have wondered this too.) Not a school that is just “adequate or average,” much less mediocre, but one that, by design, helps to prepare kids for “life’s endless frustrations.”
This is hardly a hypothetical question, as my kids are getting an ample dose of frustration at their public elementary school in Montgomery County, Maryland. It’s nothing terrible; they are making solid progress academically, and I know they are safe. These are not things that all parents in America can take for granted. I know we are extremely fortunate—my friends on the left would use the word “privileged”—and that “good enough” would not be good enough for families without our advantages.
But my boys have to put up with plenty of annoyances all the same. Some are small, like their school’s new recess policy: Because playing on a muddy field is “unsafe” (figure that one out), and the black top isn’t very large, they only get to go outside every other day. Or their weekly art class, which is boring and uninspiring. But some are big, like a recent spate of near-constant disruption caused by a handful of unruly boys in one of my son’s classrooms—disruption that’s starting to take a toll on learning.
I have no doubt that if my only goal was for them to excel academically—to develop their reading, writing, and math skills; to build an understanding of the wonders of the world through history, geography, art, and science—it would be more efficient and effective to homeschool them or send them to private school. In just a few hours a day at home they could learn way more than they can at school, what with the realities of dealing with large groups of kids, differing readiness levels, and so much more. And my brief experience as a private school parent—when my boys were in preschool—indicates to me that a tuition check would earn me more responsiveness from school administrators, instead of the “talk to the hand” attitude we public school parents enjoy today. High-end private schools are a luxury good, after all.
Yet perhaps there is something valuable in my kids learning to put up with the hassles of public school, so as to be ready for the hassles of life. They are going to have to deal with stupid rules and difficult (and sometimes troubled) people in the real world. Why not now?
It reminds me of the reason the U.S. military at one time didn’t want to take kids who graduated from fulltime online schools: They hadn’t dealt with the B.S. of a traditional high school, so they weren’t sure they could deal with the B.S. of the military. Maybe sucking it up is a valuable “social and emotional” skill.
To be sure, I might be rationalizing. To find the money to send two boys to private school would require a painful change in our family’s lifestyle; likewise with becoming homeschoolers. But the truth is that we could do it if we wanted it badly enough. So I have a strong self-interest in conflating “mediocre” and “good enough.” Maybe I’m just trying to feel better about the fact that I haven’t figured out how to get my boys into a school that’s excellent.
In the end, I feel OK about our choices. It helps that while their school is often mediocre, they do get to experience flashes of excellence, thanks mostly to some fantastic teachers. Getting a taste of both greatness and daily annoyances might be the best preparation for an excellent—er, good enough—life.