There has been much controversy over the Common Core, the attempt to set uniform standards in education by establishing a curriculum that children must master at various grade levels. The goal has been to raise the level of achievement in subjects such as reading, math and science in which American children have fallen behind. American education is competing with the educational systems of other countries that, according to test results, achieve greater success.

Complaints have been heard from parents and teachers that children are stressed and that teaching has been constricted by the focus on material to be tested in the implementation of new standards.

A broader question is about the purposes of education and how children learn best. In an earlier era, education was more rigorous, with more demanded of students, greater reliance on memorization and repetition and clear standards of behavior.

Changes in educational approaches reflect changes in thinking about child development that have also had an impact on child-rearing practices. Criticism of the changes in child-rearing is as great as criticism of changes in education. Too often the discussion is set around extremes, such as too strict or too permissive. Presently the issue revolves around whether children need to work harder or whether they are being stressed by the new demands being made of them.

One aspect of this question is to what degree children internalize standards and demands that are made by parents and teachers. This question was raised by the parents of a nine year old girl who were concerned about her own demands of herself and her need to excel over and beyond what others expect of her.

The parents described tennis lessons that the girl was enjoying. Recently, a new teacher took over for one lesson. Other girls at the lesson were above the level of this child, and she had difficulty keeping up. Afterward she told her parents she didn’t want any more lessons. When the parents said could go back to the first teacher, the child decided she wanted to try another lesson with the new teacher.

The parents thought their daughter realized she learned more with the new teacher and now her need to excel was in conflict with the desire for the earlier enjoyable lessons. Mom thought that the child would eventually have more pleasure playing with greater skills. Dad was concerned that her need for excellence would rob her of the fun she had been having earlier.

This is a familiar conflict with relevance at a time when a criticism of young people is their inability to accept the kind of work needed for mastery, whether in academics or sports. To what extent is the need to work at something in conflict with the ability to take pleasure in learning something new?

In a basic sense, this is the question raised in objections to Common Core. Is it possible to set standards that require hard work on the part of youngsters while at the same time giving them pleasure in learning? Obviously the answer lies in finding a balance between the two. This is difficult to do in an educational system that serves large numbers of children with different levels of ability.

Ultimately, it falls to parents to make this determination about their own child. The example given is of a child who may need protection from tipping the scales toward applying herself unrealistically. Other children may need help in finding pleasure in learning in order to develop the motivation needed to apply themselves. Both work and pleasure need to be part of learning.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at