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!