Outside of graduate seminars, our education debates tend to shy away from thorny questions about parental responsibilities and rights. Why? Well, those issues can make us really uncomfortable. I suspect this is why we so rarely discuss the nation’s two million homeschooled kids. I suspect critiques of “opt-out” tend to be cursory and dismissive because anything more profound raises all kinds of tricky questions about how much we trust parents and whether it’s bad parenting to allow one’s kid to skip two days of test-taking—especially if parents doubt the results will be used to help teach their child.
This all comes to mind because I’ve been following the kerfluffle kicked off last week by (former) White Sox first baseman Adam LaRoche. A 36-year-old slugger, LaRoche walked away from the second year of a two-year, $25 million contract when the Chicago White Sox asked him to limit the time that his 14-year-old son was spending around the team. This wasn’t a case of LaRoche’s son poking his head in the locker room or occasionally shagging fly balls. Drake was at the park with his dad all day, every day. He traveled with the team. He had a locker in the clubhouse next to his dad’s. LaRoche has explained, “We’re not big on school. I told my wife, ‘He’s going to learn a lot more useful information in the clubhouse than he will in the classroom, as far as life lessons.’” When the club asked LaRoche to dial things back this year, he instead decided to retire. When LaRoche tweeted out his decision, along with the hashtag #FamilyFirst, he became instant fodder for talk shows and pundits.
I find the whole thing so interesting because it lands on a question I wrestle with a fair bit when thinking about helicopter parents, “Tiger Moms,” and parents who spend whole weekends lugging kids from one sporting contest to the next: how to tell selfish from selfless parenting. Is dismissing formal schooling and wanting to have your son with you all day at your (exceptionally cool) job an astonishingly pure example of paternal love . . . or the kind of extreme helicopter parenting that only a $12-million-dollar-a-year athlete can get away with? Is it reasonable for LaRoche to think that a year spent as part of the White Sox will teach his son a lot more than he’d ever learn in school, or is the rationalization of a self-indulgent father? These are hard questions. In each case I find that I’m generally sympathetic to LaRoche, but I find it all too easy to talk myself the other way.
It’s not just LaRoche. Is it admirable when a comparative lit professor or a violinist (or a pro ballplayer) spends enormous time immersing their children in their passions? Or should we look askance, and wonder if these parents are selfishly imposing their interests? We don’t see a lot of Adam LaRoches, but we do see more tempered versions of this story every day. We see parents who may seem unduly invested in lugging their kids to sporting events and parents who don’t seem invested enough. And, when we’re being honest, we acknowledge that these parental decisions matter hugely for children, schooling, and educational outcomes.
Look, I think any parent who makes an extraordinary effort to be with their kids is deserving of praise. All accounts suggest that LaRoche is a level-headed guy and responsible father. And it’s true that few of us could wrangle his deal, but that hardly seems a reason to question his taking full advantage of it. This all leaves me hugely sympathetic to his stance. That said, judgment grows more important as our freedom expands, and I find myself unsure as to whether I think LaRoche’s course demonstrated good judgment. I’m inclined to kind-of, sort-of think so, but it all really comes back to how we think about parental rights, the role of schooling, and all the rest.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.