MomsOnMonday: Prep for Parenting Your Modern Family

Posted on May 11th, 2015, 0 Comments

Modern Family: Season 6, Episode 22, Patriot Games

Alex Decides That Number One Is a Lonely Number

The Framework
Tonight the three modern families explore the various rights and traditions of our country. Gloria is about to take her citizenship test – because as Jay says: This country is all about freedom and opportunity and I want you to be a part of that – not to mention that he also longs for shorter lines going through customs at the airport. Mitch and Cam act on their right to assemble, protest – and incessantly whine. But my attention is held by the Dunphys as they participate in the American tradition of naming a winner.

The Dunphy storyline begins with the parents talking to the camera.
Claire: We were called into Principal Brown’s office one week before Alex’s graduation.
Phil: That can mean only one of two things: Either she’s gonna be valedictorian or they’re giving an award for sexiest dad.
Claire: We’re very proud of Alex.

As they wait to see the principal, Alex is beside herself with expectation, whistling like a teakettle.
Claire (admonishing): Honey.
Alex: I’m sorry. I just feel like my whole life has been building up to this point.

Moments later, though, everything changes as Alex’s rival for the number one spot, Sanjay, enters the principal’s office – accompanied by his parents.
Principal Brown: Well, Alex and Sanjay, after four years of spirited competition, I am very pleased to tell you that you are the Pali High Class of 2015 Co-valedictorians!
Sanjay: What do you mean “co-valedictorians”?
Principal: Well, I thought there might be some aggressive questions that, uh, made me nervous, and so I wrote down my remarks. Uh (Clearing throat) No, I’m not trying to ruin your lives. It’s just that your GPAs are tied to the thousandth of a decimal point.
Alex: I didn’t work my whole life for a tie!
Sanjay (scoffing): No offense, Principal Brown, but you were a teaching major.
I’d like to check the GPAs myself.

Phil: What is it with these two?
Sanjay’s mom: I agree with them. Ties are un-American. Would you be happy if the Super Bowl ended in a tie? There must be some way to determine who the best student is.

It turns out there is.
Cam: Well, it looks like you both have the same gym grade, but I do see here that neither of you have completed this semester’s mile run.
Principal Brown: We will do a makeup race. And whoever wins gets to be valedictorian.
Phil: Guys, we should be celebrating … Are we all so obsessed with being number one that we can’t just celebrate this moment?

It appears that they are. That is until Sanjay stops by to see Alex.
Sanjay: Tomorrow, it’s all gonna be over, everything we’ve been working for since we started school. So, I-I wanted to come by and say thanks … You know how hard it’s been to keep up with you my whole life? I have my GPA because of you … I got into Stanford because of you.
Alex (giggling): I’ll admit I did spend about a few hundred extra hours trying to be better than you.
Sanjay: I’m gonna miss this when we go to college.
Alex: Yeah, I guess I’ll miss this, too.
Sanjay: I like you.
Alex: Okay.
Sanjay: I mean like-like, like how Pierre Curie liked Marie Curie.

And by the end it’s clear that Alex likes-likes him back.

Flipping the Frame: My Notes
As farfetched as this storyline may seem, similar stories play out in schools across the country at this time each year during the valedictorian season. But not all have such a happy ending. Tales abound of aggressive, sometimes even bitter, rivalry between high achieving students to win the number one spot at a highly competitive high school

Some students – usually with the help of their high-pressure parents – strategize to win, coming up with ways to improve their standing in comparison with their classmates. To gain an advantage, these students often take on an extra-heavy load of AP courses, which are weighted when grade point averages are calculated. Some may avoid classes like dance, art, or music – because they might get a B in these classes where grading can be more subjective and because even an A in an unweighted class can hurt their shot at the top spot.

Because gaining the number one spot requires not just high achievement but beating out everyone else in the class, the quest for valedictorian has led to contested grade point averages. And a handful of parents have even brought lawsuits because they felt that their child had been somehow wronged in the selection process.

Alex: But my GPA is 4.645923.
Sanjay: My GPA is 4.645923.
Alex: This is a nightmare.
Sanjay: Worst day of my life.

Naming a valedictorian is a strong tradition in many communities. More than half of all high schools in the nation have done away with class ranking over concerns that small differences in grade point average could lead to large differences in class rank that could end up hurting students’ prospects for college admission. Yet schools continue to compare students’ grade point averages to determine the number one spot. Thus, each year at this time many principals are confronted with the same predicament we saw Mr. Brown face tonight. And as we saw tonight, sometimes the difference is as little as one millionth of a decimal point in students’ GPAs.

Some schools have addressed this issue by naming the top 10 ranked students in the graduating class. But this does nothing for the student who ends up in 11th place. Plus why name 10? Why not 12? Or 20? Or the top 10%?

Just as important are questions about whether the practices for selecting the class valedictorian foster the kind of traits we most value in students. Of course, an outstanding academic record as well as the hard work required for that kind of performance should be honored. But what about curiosity, cooperation, caring, and compassion? Plus even if a student wins the coveted number one spot, what might they lose in the process?

Many of us are required to consider similar questions – whether our kids are competing for the number one spot or not.

Some kids – like Sanjay and Alex – seem to mostly thrive under the pressure to keep up with their high-achieving classmates. With kids like this, we mainly need to stay out of their way and do nothing to add to the pressure they put on themselves. But what about capable teens who don’t want to work that hard? What should we do when they tell us they want to take a lighter load of classes than we’d like?

We want our kids to work hard, stretch, and reach their full potential. Plus we worry that colleges are not going to like the fact that they didn’t take enough hard classes. Yet hard work and perseverance are not the only valuable character traits. And we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that they need downtime – that they’re not achievement machines.

What’s a Mom to Do
When you’re faced with a teen who wants to lighten their load, you could insist that they take a tougher schedule, but you can’t make them excel in their classes or even pass. You could try to bribe them. But your best bet is to work on their internal motivation.

So if you find yourself confronted with a teen who wants to put forth less effort than you’d like, consider this strategy.
Say: I can see why you might like to take fewer tough classes so that you can enjoy life more. And it’s your life. But it’s my job as your parent to do what I can to ensure that you make an informed decision. I have a few questions that I’d like to discuss together before you make a final decision. After that, I’ll support you if you decide you want to lighten your load a bit.
1) What do you see as the advantages of taking easier classes?
2) If you took easier classes, what would you do with your extra time? (This is a good time to probe for other activities or interests your teen might want to pursue.)
3) Do you think if you worked with a tutor or a friend who is choosing to take the tougher classes, it would help enough to make a difference in your decision?
4) People who don’t stretch themselves are less likely to have an exciting career or do well enough to have the lifestyle you seem to crave. I’m not saying that this decision not to stretch yourself will become a pattern. But if it does, have you thought about where that will lead? Are you okay with that?

The more dispassionate and calm you stay during this discussion, the more likely your teen will be to keep talking. Question number 4 above is the most important. Their first response to this one is not as important as what they do with it later. You want your teen to take this question away and think about it – when they’re alone in their room and when they’re signing up for classes.

As you listen and watch your teen’s response to this conversation, try to stay curious and open to their ideas and beliefs. After all, the voiceover at the end of the episode begins: This is a land where people are brought together by their willingness to work hard and their desire to succeed. But it ends by reminding: This is a land made great by people standing up for what they believe.

Your Parenting Experiences
Do you sometimes find yourself getting upset – anxious, angry, or depressed – when your teen doesn’t meet your expectations in school or in a sport? If so, consider reclaiming your own favorite hobby or passion. Show your kids that you believe in hard work but you also believe in taking time for the things you love.

Sources and Resources: The All-in-One College Guide by Marty Nemko, Ph.D.; “Class Rank Weighs Down True Learning” by Thomas R. Guskey, Ph.D. in Phi Delta Kappan; “The Joy of Graduating” by Kate Stone Lombardi in the New York Times

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