I remember the meeting well. A teacher discovered a student who had plagiarized a paper and gave him a failing grade. The father of the student demanded a meeting with me, the teacher, and his son. He opened the meeting with line I will never forget: “My son never lies.” The teacher, a woman with a sterling reputation for excellent teaching, exemplary character, and an abiding concern for the welfare of her pupils, was stunned by the implicit assertion that she either had lied in making the accusation or made a terrible mistake in evaluating the student’s work.
Having worked with students for many decades, I, like most teachers, always assume the best of students. But when confronted with incontrovertible evidence of cheating, I accept the reality that students, even good ones, occasionally may do dishonest things. The teacher in question broke down in tears from the baseless accusation. I, of course, defended and supported her. Several months later, the father apologetically confided in me that his relationship with his son was very rocky, and he felt a need at our meeting to be publicly supportive of his son, even if he had doubts about the veracity of his statements.
This kind of misguided, naïve parenting is at the heart of Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, a comic, but true perspective on teenage life in the ’80s that still resonates today. The plot, such as there is one, revolves around high school senior Ferris, who decides to cut school on a beautiful spring day and enjoy the day in downtown Chicago. He enlists his girlfriend Sloane and his buddy Cameron to join him on his self-declared vacation day.
The day begins with a lie as Ferris fakes an illness to his fawning and naïve parents, who believe everything he says. It is clear that they are preoccupied with their own lives; parenting to them is a diversion, not a mission. Cameron’s dad is never seen in the film. We only see his polished Ferrari, glistening in the family’s hillside garage. It is an emblem of parental neglect and a reminder of his parents’ total preoccupation with material things. In fact, almost all the adults in the movie are out of touch with children. Whether it be parents, teachers, administrators, all are self-absorbed and only peripherally aware of the children with whom they interact.
Two insights emerge from Ferris. First, parents need to be present in the lives of their children. They need to spend quality time with them and not be so preoccupied with business that they are clueless about what makes their child tick. Second, Ferris’s visit with his friends to the Chicago Art Museum suggests that kids need more than mastery of rote knowledge to succeed as human beings. Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron engage the modern art they view with creativity and wonder. The classroom is boring, but the museum, which houses a major collection of abstract art, unleashes a creativity that speaks to their curious and active teenage minds.
Proverbs tells us “to educate a child according to his personality.” This means that it is the job of parents to know their children well and to provide opportunities for them to develop their own unique talents. The patriarch Isaac, according to some biblical commentators, erred in educating his children Jacob and Esau with the same parenting tool box. He failed to recognize that each one required a different parenting approach, one that recognized their different personalities and intellectual and spiritual inclinations. It may be easy to do more of the same when it comes to parenting, but it may be wiser to do something different that takes into account the way each child learns.