THERE ARE NO NOBEL Prizes for parenting or education, but there should be. They are the two most important things we do in our society. How we raise and educate our children determines not only the people they become but the society we create.
Every parent has hopes and dreams for their children. They want them to be healthy, happy, successful. They also have universal fears: Will their child be safe? Will she find purpose and fulfillment? Will he make his way in a world that feels increasingly driven, competitive, and even at times hostile? I remember how all of those unspoken and largely unconscious worries crowded into the small birthing room as I held my first daughter.
I lay in the hospital bed cradling Susan on my chest. The nurse had wrapped her in a pink blanket and put a tiny yellow knit hat on her head. Stan, my husband, sat by my side. We were both exhausted but elated, and in that moment, everything was clear: I loved my daughter from the second I saw her, and I felt a primal desire to protect her, to give her the best life possible, to do whatever it took to help her succeed.
But soon the questions and doubts started to creep in. I couldn’t figure out how to hold Susan, and I didn’t know how to change a diaper. I’d stopped teaching only three weeks earlier, which didn’t give me much time to prepare. And I never really understood exactly how I was supposed to prepare in the first place. The ob-gyn told me to take it easy for at least six weeks after the birth. My friends and colleagues gave me all kinds of conflicting advice. They told me labor was going to be long and hard, that nursing was too difficult and restrictive, that bottles and Similac were better. I read a few books on nutrition for adults (there weren’t any titles specific to children at that time), and I bought a crib, some clothing, and a small plastic bathtub. And then suddenly Susan was there in my arms, with her big blue eyes and peach-fuzz hair, staring up at me as if I knew exactly what to do.
I was just on the verge of being discharged when I really started to worry. This was 1968. Back then you got three days in American hospitals after your baby was born. Now most hospitals discharge you after two days. I don’t know how mothers today do it.
“Can I stay for another day?” I pleaded with the nurse, half embarrassed, half desperate. “I have no idea how to take care of my baby.”
The next morning the nurse gave me a crash course in infant care, including, thankfully, how to change a diaper. This was the era of cloth diapers and safety pins. I was warned by the nurse to make sure that the pins were closed properly or they could stick the baby. Whenever Susan cried, the first thing I did was check the pins.
Even though it wasn’t popular at the time, I was determined to breastfeed, so the nurse showed me how to position the baby’s head and use my forearm for support. The baby had to “latch on” and only then could I be sure that she was getting milk. It was not as simple as I had hoped, and sometimes poor Susan got sprayed. The plan was that she should keep to a four-hour schedule and I agreed to follow that as best I could.
“Make sure you hug your baby” was the last piece of advice the nurse gave me. Then Stan and I were on our own.
Like all parents, I saw my daughter as hope—hope for a better life, hope for the future, hope that she might change the world for the better. We all want children who are happy, empowered, and passionate. We all want to raise kids who lead successful and meaningful lives. That’s what I felt the moment Susan was born, and later on when we welcomed our other two daughters, Janet and Anne. It’s this same wish that unites people from all different countries and cultures. Thanks to my long and somewhat unusual teaching career, I now attend conferences around the world. Whether I’m meeting with the secretary of education in Argentina, thought leaders from China, or concerned parents from India, what everyone wants to know is how to help our children live good lives—to be both happy and successful, to use their talents to make the world a better place.
No one seems to have a definitive answer. Parenting experts focus on important aspects of childrearing like sleeping, eating, bonding, or discipline, but the advice they offer is mostly narrow and prescriptive.