If you’re a parent racing to deliver your son’s forgotten algebra assignment to Catholic High School for Boys in Arkansas, Principal Steve Straessle has a little advice: stop and turn around.
Adorned with a red stop sign, the placard reads: “If you are dropping off your son’s lunch, books, homework, equipment etc., please TURN AROUND and exit the building. Your son will learn to problem-solve in your absence.”
An alum in charge of the school’s Facebook page posted a photo of the sign online on Aug. 10, under the message “Welcome to Catholic High. We teach reading, writing, arithmetic, and problem-solving.” By Friday, it had been shared nearly 120,000 times and received more than 3,700 comments, with parents debating whether it was ethical, fair or wise to punish teens when their memories fail them.
The debate about the policy at the small school in Arkansas comes as many people — including high-ranking school officials — raise concerns that today’s young people are not self-reliant enough, the result of parents who are too involved in their lives and too prone to swoop in and rescue them in the face of any challenge. And some argue that parents who are trying so hard to help their children might actually be hurting them, leaving them less resilient and less able to cope with failure.
Straessle said there are not many “helicopter parents” at the school. It has long been a part of the school’s mission to teach young men to be independent, and he was surprised that others found that idea — or the policy — so shocking.
“The policy is one of the many policies that we have, hoping to help build self-reliance and self-advocacy in our kids,” Straessle said in an interview with The Washington Post. He said the school urges boys to think “beyond the default switch” of relying on their parents when they need help. “We just want a boy to figure out what comes next when Mom or Dad are not there to guide them. … We’ve been amazed that a school teaching self-reliance and personal responsibility seems like a novel idea.”
The policy has proven polarizing online, where thousands registered their thoughts in comments. One of the most common criticisms came from those who feel it was cruel to let a student go hungry because he forgot his lunch.
“Children don’t learn well on an empty stomach … so this is stupid,” one person wrote. Another called it “child abuse.”
Straessle said students never go hungry: if they forget lunch, they can get an IOU from the cafeteria or borrow money or food from a friend. Spare books and athletic equipment can be borrowed from a teacher or coach. But he said sometimes students do have to pay the price: late academic assignments lose points, for example.
Many commenters backed the policy, seeing it as a great way to introduce teens to adult responsibilities.
“Love it,” one person wrote. “If he’s hungry a few times he will remember. Get better at remembering. The job won’t bring ur lunch or provide supplies u left at home. You’re fired. Best to learn responsibility now if it’s not already too late.”
Others who backed the policy saw it as an antidote to a generation of adolescents that is often cast as overly reliant on parental help.
“Kids today have EVERYTHING handed to them on a silver platter,” one commenter wrote.
But Straessle also took issue with comments that reinforced the notion that all of today’s teenagers are coddled and helpless. He said many of the families who send their sons to the school are middle class and many students work part-time jobs to support themselves. Students also pitch in to raise money to support cancer research and other charity projects.
“I am extremely optimistic about this generation and about their potential and the future of our country,” Straessle said. “With that optimism comes a responsibility to make sure that my generation is doing its part in giving them every tool necessary to thrive.”
And one of those tools, Straessle believes, is the ability to figure out where to get lunch when yours is left on the kitchen counter.