Benefits of high-level challenge extend well beyond the classroom

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

“I’m going to push your sons,” the advanced placement statistics teacher declared at our back-to-school night.

And the small group of parents collectively cringed.

Granted, we all wanted our children to be challenged and were proud of their inclusion in this high-level course. However, the reported blistering pace and stringent grading guidelines preceded our formal introduction.

Now, the storied tales were confirmed.

Upfront. Honest. Matter-of-fact.

I couldn’t decide if the affirmation made me feel better or worse. Not that it mattered.

“It is what it is,” is the philosophy I’ve learned through 22 years of hard parenting. Often, we just have to “deal with it.”

So, I looked around the room at the other honored parents, took a deep breath, braced myself and decided to hunker down for unknown lands.


It’s what we do, as parents — guide children through each challenge and resulting adjustments.

And as autumn’s patterns descend upon the end of summer’s unfettered days, many of us have more adjustments than ever before.

New classes, new schools, new teachers; the launch of a child to college; or the re-entry of a college graduate back home.

But for some, the unexpected has rudely intruded, bringing serious illness, job loss or financial strain.

“Adjust, adapt and improvise,” becomes more than the motto I recall from my son’s wrestling coach. It becomes a lifestyle.

Children have no choice about growth and adapting. Their bodies and minds are set on a steady course. They move so quickly through the years that they are never quite the same person twice.

What once pacified now provokes. What once amused now annoys. What once challenged is now a bother.

And we wonder where that child went–the one we brought home from the hospital.

Yet often, the new person emerging from our child’s march to maturity is fascinating, rooted in the family’s traditions, but stretching through, even beyond our experiences.

We, too, are forced to grow and adapt as our children’s needs change with each stage.

Yes, we would like our children to excel, but we also worry—at what cost. We hope they will be challenged enough to reach their potential, but not so overwhelmed that they shut down, quit, or lose their spirit.

When do we push? When do we console? When do we defend? When do we let life’s consequences teach lessons they will remember the rest of their lives?

When do we let others do the same?

The teacher explained that his exams will be harder than the final AP placement exam for college credit. He likened that concept to team practices that are more difficult than live competitions. The grueling workouts prepare the athletes to deliver his or her best when it counts.

“And,” he added, “they will succeed even if they fail.”

Then he showed us the placement grading criteria, noting that some do not score high enough for college credit.

However, he emphasized, they will still succeed by simply completing this level of coursework. Our boys will have explored fully their capabilities, waking up to the reality that hard work is necessary to achieve their future goals.

And I exhaled a bit, grateful that the unknown journey ahead will at least be well anchored—but still wondering what adventures were ahead for my son — and for me.

Eric Nordstrom teaches AP Statistics at St. Paul’s School where he is also head coach for ice hockey.