I just had a great sushi dinner with my son who is applying to graduate school. We had a rich and interesting conversation about his application essay — exploring ideas, weighing the pros and cons of including certain experiences he’s had, and strategizing about what the readers would want to hear. Later tonight, I’ll edit his first draft. I would never write the essay — I know that wouldn’t be ethical, and he wouldn’t want me to help in that way. But I will help him to sharpen his ideas, to remind him of some conversations we’ve had over the years that could be included, and to tighten his wording. Do we need to tell the graduate school that I helped? What assumptions do faculty members at graduate schools, colleges, and high schools make when they read a student’s work? Should each paper or essay include a footnote saying, “I got this idea while talking to my mom over sushi”?
If we think that one of the purposes of an education is to prepare the next generation of thinkers, citizens and leaders, then it seems important to teach them about the value of their ideas, and about how to sharpen those ideas in conversation with others, including their parents. Though we entrust our children to schools where skilled teachers provide these lessons, parents are not absolved of the obligation to teach their children as well.
The Talmud instructs parents to teach their children to swim, to learn a trade, and to study Torah (Babylonian Kiddushin) — one of the more loosely translated words in the Hebrew lexicon. Here’s my interpretation of that mandate: We have an obligation to share “our Torah” — our wisdom, experience, values, and worldview — so that eventually our children will create their own “Torah.”
But what are the limits of “teaching” our children? Is editing their work too much? Is talking about their work, after it’s been graded or handed in, not enough? Is there universal agreement on what is acceptable?
Central to determining the ethical parameters of helping children with papers or college applications is a question about expectations and assumptions — on both sides of the equation. Does the high school teacher really expect a student not to discuss a paper with his or her parents or to have a parent read it, raise questions, or edit it for grammar? Does the university admissions committee really expect a parent to be uninvolved with the application process? What about children whose parents cannot help? Are they, then, at a disadvantage? Schools should explicitly state whether or not they expect parents to have any involvement in the application process — as they do with take-home exams. Without that clarity, I approach the process as a teachable moment — one that may even be an ethical obligation.
Within that editorial conversation, children may learn about their own capacities, how to hear and use criticism, and how to hone and play with an idea until it’s really good. I want my children — now 20-something adults on career paths — to be comfortable talking through ideas in an effort to ever-sharpen their thinking. I don’t want them to fear that in the give-and-take, one of the ideas was mine and it’s therefore not okay to use. Ultimately, I want my children to know that when any group of colleagues sits around a table to problem solve or draft a proposal, it’s only through the conversation and the challenging of ideas that clarity and best ideas/practices surface. I want to mimic that at home so that when they get to the workplace, they’ll be ready.email print