This past winter break, I read and savored (like over 3-plus million others in the U.S.!) Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. It’s compelling on so many levels, but as a mom and educator, I was struck by her honesty and the challenges of a two-parent working family in their pre-White House days, and the ways she was able to prioritize but not coddle her girls. She also writes persuasively about the importance of relationships and what she, and now her daughters, learned from Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Shields Robinson.
Michelle reflects on her mother’s parenting style in a close-knit working-class family in the 1960s and 70s:
My mother maintained a parental mindset that I now recognize as brilliant and almost impossible to emulate--a kind of unflappable zen neutrality…She wasn’t quick to judge and she wasn’t quick to meddle. Instead, she monitored our moods and bore benevolent witness to whatever travails or triumphs a day might bring. When things were bad, she gave only a small amount of pity. When we’d done something great, we received just enough praise to know she was happy with us, but never so much that it became the reason we did what we did.
Perhaps this resonated with me, as I am from this same era and was raised by a single working mother. Obama goes on to say about her mother: “Advice, when she offered it, tended to be of the hard-boiled and pragmatic variety. ‘You don’t have to like your teacher,’ she told me one day after I came home spewing complaints, ‘But that woman’s got the kind of math in her head that you need in yours. Focus on that and ignore the rest.’”
What struck me about Mrs. Robinson’s parenting style, and Michelle Obama’s narrative, is the focus on the need for a combination of academic skills and social and emotional awareness. Success is not just about achievement--grades, degrees, performance--but it is more importantly about ethics, relationships, and personal responsibility. Just this week, the Aspen Institute released an important research study: “From a Nation of Risk to a Nation of Hope.” The study, with nationally recognized researchers including Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond and Dr. Pedro Noguera, supports Head-Royce’s focus on whole child education. Whole child education means just what we imagine it to: educating for academics and for life.
This includes the development of traditional academic skills we most typically imagine as well as the kinds of life skills Marian Robinson taught: taking responsibility for one’s actions, developing grit and perseverance, leading with empathy, listening, and encouraging respect in the face of differences. The study adds: “Eight in 10 employers say social and emotional skills are the most important to success and yet are also the hardest skills to find.” The study goes on to state: “Social, emotional, and academic skills are all essential to success in school, careers, and in life, and they can be effectively learned in the context of trusted ties to caring and competent adults.”
Marian Robinson—and Michelle Obama—advocate for a parenting style that promotes values, skills, and mindsets that are not always easy to see or quantify. The report calls for “skills such as paying attention, setting goals, collaboration, and planning for the future. They require attitudes such as internal motivation, perseverance, and a sense of purpose. They require values such as responsibility, honesty, and integrity. They require the abilities to think critically, consider different views, and problem solve.” I imagine that Marian Shields Robinson’s no-nonsense yet loving perspective achieved these exact traits. It’s common sense, and yet, today can get lost in the race for social media connection, grades, and college admissions.
Michelle Obama ends this part of her narrative with a quote about her mom’s parenting style. Marian Robinson states: “I’m not raising babies. I’m raising adults.” That is our goal at Head-Royce as well.