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Head of School Letter—April 2019

Dear FXW Community,

It was mid-July, 19 years ago. Lily, our first-born, was 5 days old, and my wife and I were taking her to her first visit to the pediatrician. I do not remember the pediatrician’s name, or where his office was, or any details of his assessment of our daughter. I do, however, remember what he said to Colleen and me: “How are you?”

It was not intended as a throwaway greeting, nor was it some sort of heartfelt concern for our well-being. Rather—at least how I interpreted it—his question was more of a statement that how we were would directly impact how Lily was. In other words, this new life depended on us completely, and our level of sleep, our physical health, our mental and emotional vitality—everything about us—would be reflected in our approach to parenting and would, therefore, shape Lily’s development.

Fast forward to the present, and that newborn girl is now a freshman in college, 1000 miles away from home. But looking back, many years and two other kids later, I still find this question helpful and insightful—How are you?

If I am being honest, the answer to that question often would be, “busy with a side of constantly and consistently engaged.” My household did, in fact, miss the opening day of 3rd grade for my son two years ago, and I scrambled to make sure I didn’t miss a tuition payment at my daughter’s high school last year (the very same school where I had been the Headmaster), but at least I can finally remember the Wednesday start time at FXW. Thus my frequent sarcastic nod to my parenting efforts—”well, I am dad-of-the-year.”

I share this not to seek your sympathy, to humiliate myself, or to provide fodder for the car line. My point is that we are all a work-in-progress in terms of parenting. We all have been through 3rd grade or 6th grade, but until that time comes, we have not been a parent of a 3rd grader or 6th grader. And when it does, there is a whole new parental learning process. Add in social media, electronic devices, the social dynamics of pre-adolescents, mix with it a dose of anxiety, disappointment, and dismay, and it is clear that as parents, we have our hands full—and just wait until high school.

This obviously isn’t the place for a detailed treatise on parenting and based on my parenting “accomplishments” above, I may not be the most trustworthy authority. But as a parent, I am heartened, and as Head of School I am proud, of the many ways that we as a school partner with and support you in this journey. And vice versa. As I reflected on this, especially in light of the recent college admissions scandal, my thoughts kept returning to the long, difficult transition from dependence to independence. Or, to return to where we started, how did that completely dependent infant become a (mostly) independent college student in those 19 short years?

This year, our Maggie Daley Speaker Series has paid special attention to this topic. In October, Julie Lythcott-Haims, the author of the terrific book How to Raise an Adult, warned us about the dangers of overparenting and explained how the tendency to “helicopter” inhibits the development of independence. (She also recently appeared on CBS This Morning discussing the admissions scandal). As Julie stated, parents today often want to prepare the road for the child, rather than prepare the child for the road. As an illustration of this, a recent survey conducted by USA Today found that, among other things, 15 percent of parents with children in college had texted or called to wake them so they would not sleep through a class or test. My fifth-grade son recently chastised me for not waking him in time to get ready for school and, taking a cue from Julie, I very gently reminded him that the watch on his wrist has a handy alarm feature. Dad-of-the-year, here I come.

In February, Jean Twenge—author of the equally wonderful book, iGen—discussed with our community how today’s adolescents are growing up more slowly and are spending more time online and less time face-to-face with their friends. Perhaps as a result, they are more likely to experience unhappiness, anxiety, and depression, all of which seem to be increasing with the prevalence of smartphones. Some of the data that she presented—like the fact that some 50% of high schoolers get less than 7 hours sleep a night—was truly startling. Dr. Twenge offered us some practical advice, like shutting down our phones and tablets at least one hour before bedtime, and reminded us that it is not a waste of time for our kids to simply hang out with friends. She also stated that kids find taking a break from the phone a relief, not a burden, a fact borne out by the popularity of our recent Day of Unplugging.

Just this past week, alum Johnny Franklin joined us as part of the Maggie Daley Speaker Series. You have probably read his amazing bio elsewhere—Northwestern Co-op Student of the Year, participant in an elite hackathon at the Vatican, work experience at Google and Pixar. I was delighted to read his mother Terri’s description, shared in our most recent Charism Magazine, about how FXW helped to shape his success, as well as the success of his siblings and friends. She wrote that “the teachers did a great job fostering a sense of independence in the kids. There was always the expectation that if you had a problem with homework or did not understand something, it was the student’s responsibility to let the teacher know. As a result, FXW kids as a whole are such great self-advocates. And, as hard as it sometimes is, we have to let them make mistakes. That’s where being in this amazing school community is so helpful, because FXW makes each child feel like success is possible.” That’s the key—finding that balance between fostering independence and providing necessary support. We don’t always succeed, as parents or as teachers, but it’s certainly encouraging to hear that we are on the right path.

So, to recap: encourage independence and self-advocacy, knowing that there will be stumbles along the way; take a break from the devices, especially before bedtime; allow your kids to have some down time to simply hang out with friends; and trust the process, knowing that we at FXW are partnering with you in this journey. Relish these years—they go by too fast. And take good care of yourselves.

I want to wish all of our Christian and Jewish families and friends a joyous Easter and a very Happy Passover. Enjoy the long weekend…

Michael