Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pressure Gauge

My kids received excellent reports card this month, but I will not be shopping for a new bumper sticker to proclaim my pride in their achievement.  It’s my kid’s accomplishment, not mine.  I believe that these well-intentioned displays of praise and pride become more of praise and pride for the parent’s, not the child’s, success in raising them.  Where I live, however, my attitude about not trumpeting my kid’s achievements on a rolling billboard seems to be the exception.  Let the pressure of expectations begin right here on the rear bumper, and hope the kid doesn’t get run over. 

I should not be surprised by this.  We parents have been fed a steady diet of information that defines our main parental function as a Manual Ego Inflation (ME!) device.  If we aren’t praising their every little movement, we are crushing their chances of going to a good college.  “What a handsome little BM, Johnny.  So solid and well shaped.  You must have worked very hard on that!”  Poor Johnny may be proud of what he made, but now the pressure is really on to produce something bigger and better the next time he sits.  Some things are better off coming naturally.  Undue pressure can cause unintended consequences. 

Little Einstein videos cater not to the child’s brain centers, but to the parent’s.  Baby Mozart CDs stimulate activity in parents, not our children – and I think the activity is spending more money.  Flash cards help parents learn how to create unrealistic expectations of our child, not for the child to learn word recognition…at age 2.  Yet, our neighbors have this stuff strewn across their family rooms, so we didn’t want little Johnny to be left behind.  Group think in the parenting world is a very powerful force.

It has only gotten more intense as the kids have grown up.  In our house, we are now entering the pre-college phase, where every class, every extra-curricular activity, every volunteer effort will be used as a measuring stick for admission into college and a lifetime of student debt.  The pressure of understanding the college admission requirements is mounting, and the pressure to make the correct life-altering decisions for our child today is immense and growing.  Is it possible that if our little one doesn’t have enough school club leadership positions on her college application that she is doomed to a life of cashiering at the local membership warehouse?  I would like to think that she might still survive without a Ph.D, or a diploma from UVA, but if I listen to the chatter, I am not so sure.

My feeling has always been that after the Ivy League schools and a small handful of other prestigious institutions (MIT, Stanford), what matters is the degree, not the name of the school.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with high expectations and coping with pressure, particularly since children often rise to the occasion in ways that can surprise us.  There is, however, something inherently wrong with not accepting our child for who they are – a unique person with different skills, different interests, different learning abilities, different tastes, different motivations.  In short, my child is not the same as the kid next door.  The challenge for our educational system is to teach our children in a standardized fashion in an increasingly personalized and customized world.   

Learning is hard to measure, but it is certainly more than test scores and Certificates of Participation.  Traditional ‘carrot and stick’ methods of motivation for teachers and students may result in slightly better test scores (although the research is inconclusive on that point), but it does not make for better students interested in lifelong learning.  And given the pace of information these days, don’t we need lifelong learners?  A daughter who pulls As and Bs in honors classes who also has a countdown sheet for the days left of high school is not preparing for lifelong learning.  She is preparing for the end of learning, and as we all know, learning can never end if we hope to be competitive as a nation into the future.  Yes, we need more math and science experts, but we need artists and entrepreneurs and social workers, too.

I recently attended a presentation of the documentary, Race to Nowhere, sponsored by my local high school.  Cherie had seen the movie, and found it provocative.  She insisted that I attend a showing so we could discuss how its message might affect how we are parenting our kids through these high school years.

The movie discusses the enormous pressures that are heaped on our adolescents to achieve for the sake of achievement, to learn facts instead of concepts, to learn how to game the system instead of thrive within it, to learn to memorize today instead of memorizing ways to learn for tomorrow.

Can there be viable, alternative ways to teach and learn in the 21st century?  We decry our children’s obsession with video games and ignore the potential opportunity.  The games teach strategy.  The games teach incremental improvement, monitored on a dashboard that provides instant feedback on performance.  The games teach teamwork.  Consequences of wrong choices are immediate.  Kids continue to play, even when they lose, and in many cases, it only gets them to try harder the next time.  Wouldn’t it be great if all this described our academic environment?

My son Thomas and I were out bike riding last summer, just exploring parts of the outer limits of our neighborhood when he remarked, “It’s fun getting lost when you know where you are.”  This struck me as downright Suessian in its simplicity and truth, and it had a larger message for me, like most Dr. Suess quotes.  Kids learn best when they explore on their own, and what they require from us is just a safe home base as an anchor.  We don’t need to guide and lead, as much as we need to invite and support.

With all this in mind, and confident that at least my kid’s school understands the crazy pressures to excel at all costs, I get this email:

It’s Never Too Early to Think About College!
Program for Parents of Students in 7th, 8th and 9th Grade Monday, February 28 at 7:00pm in the Auditorium.

·         Have you heard about the increasingly competitive college application process and want to know how to help your child prepare and make good decisions? 
·         Are you worried that you are not helping your child enough to prepare for college?
·         Are you worried that you might be pushing your child too much?
·         Does your student have an academic plan for high school?

The message was clear.  Regardless of what might be best for your child, this is the era in which we live.  Get on board, or risk being run over by the honors student next door.  Beep beep.

Editor's Note:  I read in The Week that a NYC woman is suing her pre-school for "hurting the child's chances of making it into the Ivy League."  She complains that her daughter's $19,000 per year school places undue emphasis on "shapes and colors." 

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