A group of friends and I recently attended a screening of Race to Nowhere, a documentary intended to raise awareness on the way our children are educated.  Roughly 90 minutes, this documentary highlights the negative impacts of the pressure parents, educators, the government and students themselves place on students in their quest for achieving good grades and getting into the best universities and colleges.  Though succeeding in sports and in school can be a good thing, the unintended consequences can be anxiety, depression, panic attacks, misuse of drugs (particularly stimulants and depressants), cheating and even suicide.  The documentary begs viewers to ask themselves the fundamental question:  are we really going about preparing the next generation for healthy, productive lives the right way?

I wish I had taken notes as at the end it summarized strategies for each:  school administrators, parents, teachers and students.  Discussing it with my family at the dinner table, I felt some guilt in the “reward systems” I’d established over the years for academic achievement.  I confess to bribing my son with a laptop for achieving 2 consecutive semesters of an over-80 average and buying my daughter a new hamster for getting straight A’s (okay, I get that these rewards vary drastically in their scope but it’s relative after all!).  Watching this documentary,  I felt pain for these kids whose lives have been turned upside down in this quest for excellence.  I felt anguish for the mothers who agonized over the guilt.  I felt the frustration of educators whose optimism seemed doomed in the face of government pressure and board-mandated curriculums.

Since I’ve been too busy lately to write, I haven’t had the time to post my feelings about this documentary immediately.  Perhaps that was fate, for that post would have been a heartfelt emotional plea to ban organized sports, outlaw homework and curtail household chores for the evils of “the system” in stealing my kids’ childhoods.  Over the week, some perspective has since bubbled to the surface of my cauldron of anxiety.    My oldest son has often asked me, “When was the last time your boss asked you what you got in high school Math?” and I can truthfully respond “Not once”.  But I have been asked on more than one occasion, “when can I expect that presentation for [insert anything here] or “can I please have you review this by this afternoon?”  There is the need in our children’s lives for some structure, order, a healthy dose of discipline and the need to exert some effort from time to time.

Part of me wanted to immediately ban all homework in our house and the incessant interrogation of “did you do your homework”, “how’s that project coming along”, “why did you get a C on this test?” etc., etc., etc.  I actually don’t think my kids’ teachers or coaches are hard on them at all.  I don’t think I’m that hard on them for that matter either.  Or is it possible that we happen to function in our own little bubble of balance.   Not that I don’t stress over their future, their grades, their sporting skills, their social lives, their clothes, their choice of friends, their choice of music, their more than occasional lack of initiative, their excessive gaming and TV viewing, their adulation and obsessions with really stupid people (imho), because I really do lose sleep over those things, and so do they.  Just not every day and not every night.

We can’t always look for the easy route for our kids.  Yes, ABSOLUTELY, it’s critical to monitor for signs of excessive stress and anxiety in our kids (and their friends, as it does take a “village” after all) as they forge their path through the school years.  But the truth is, school shouldn’t always be a breeze, and shouldn’t always be a social club scene.  We DO have to somehow equip our children with the means to cope with what is difficult, rather than just take that right out of their path.  How many days does anyone wake up with nothing to do and nowhere to go?  It’s not often I go to work and have nothing to do.  There are plenty of days that some stressful situation or uncomfortable discussion presents itself for which I need to know how to navigate. 

I recognize the need for balance.  Even though the documentary highlighted individuals who are stressed to the max because of school and because of organized or school-sanctioned sports activities, it is not representative of my kids (at least not now, though my oldest has only just started high school).  Rather than do away with homework and scheduled activity, it’s time for the parents to take charge and know when their kids have had enough – and that is difficult because you can’t always rely on kids to tell you they’ve had enough.

Whatever your point of view on this, I encourage you to see the documentary!

Race to Nowhere

7 Responses to Race to Nowhere

  • This is such a tough one. I see kids all the time overly stressed out because of their load or parental pressure to do things not of their choice. I understand it’s our job as parents to provide them with the basics, a structure, a solid footing, in short the foundation for them to build upon, but we’re not entitled to live or get a second chance at life through them ( I see this a lot to). Balance is something I work at myself every day, and hope my kids see me making the tough choice. Being a parent is the toughest job I have ever held. If asked by women considering a family, I always say “It’s not about the cute baby gap clothes, it’s a lifetime of heartache, beautiful, beautiful, heartache and joy, but it’s tough. Don’t go into unless you are willing to go the distance.” And tell your son the only place they ask for you grades is if he goes to work for Google, or maybe if he wants to be a rocket scientist.

    • I agree Brenda – a tough one. I certainly see lots of kids putting too much pressure on themselves as well and I see plenty of parents trying to give their kids what they didn’t have – sometimes to a fault. I just think we can always provide our kids the fastest or easiest way out or up or over.

  • I saw The Race to Nowhere and highly recommend it as well, Astra. I found it sobering, to say the least. It’s so important to be able to read your child, to know when to gently push, and when to back off. I agree with you, Brenda. Parenting is the toughest job I’ve ever held, too. My mantra has become: “Stay the course – no matter what – stay the course.”

    • Thanks Nancy – I recall your advice from a previous post: “Stay the course”. I think sometimes we all veer off course 🙁
      Hopefully just temporarily !

  • We are heading up to the States in a few days and because of you I will be sure to see this. Thank you! Living in Mexico, has challenged almost every idea I have about education. Especially when (contrary to the news you get up in the States) our kids play in the plaza until 10 at night virtually unsupervised, there are almost no team sports, few have computers, no one has hand held games, and every day I am greeted by school kids (and parents) with genuine, heart-felt smiles. They may not have the money that we have in the States but they certainly have a lot of joy. Education? For what end? For me, I think the most important thing to teach my daughter is to empathize with others and to know herself. I think the thirst for knowledge will grow from these two things. Every second adult I come across in the States (where I am from) would be so much happier if we both empathized a bit more and knew ourselves better. And isn’t that what we’re here for? To love and be loved? Oh yes, and to share joy.

  • I agree with you–a balance has to be established. I believe both extremes are bad: pressuring our children to strive for excellence at the cost of their mental and physical health, and not encouraging our children to do their best, that as a result, does not equip them to handle the curb balls life throws them. I think every parent has the ability to know his or her child’s potential and to encourage the child to do the best he/she can. I don’t believe in a reward system; a good grade is in itself a reward. However, I do feel that reaching milestones should be celebrated and acknowledged. I believe recognition for a job well done is vital for a child’s self-esteem and continued growth. At the end of the day, all we can hope for is that the tools we’ve provided our children with will be of service to them in the future.

    • Well said Bella, thank you. I recognize my reward systems for educational accomplishments are biting me in the butt now and am rethinking that strategy! I recently conveyed to my oldest son Canada’s unemployment stats: though it may be 7% (or so) nationally, it’s over 20% for those without a high school education, over 8% for those with some post-secondary education and under 4% for those with a university/college degree…In the end it’s important to love what you do in life but these frank discussions about keeping your options open seem to have an impact.

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About Astra
Ottawa mom of 3 poking fun at myself, motherhood, and minor hockey! I am steering through life dodging stinky hockey gear and empty wine bottles.
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