My friend told me about a screening of the much talked-about documentary, Race To Nowhere, in my community. Have you heard about it? The documentary explores this new age of burned out teens (I can relate!) and the pressure they’re under to “get into the best college”.
I’d been wanting to see it, so last night I hauled my mom and husband over to the local Lutheran church to check it out.
First shock of the night? It was PACKED. I mean standing-room only packed. Mostly mommies (naturally), several clustered together in groups swapping child-rearing war stories. The air was charged with a tangible sense of anticipatory dread…we all knew the subject matter – and worse – we all knew that we’d be called out, to varying degrees, for the push-push dynamic of our parenting style. Many of us felt we were better parents simply because we turned out to see the movie. You could see that smug I’m-an-involved-parent look on many of the mommies’ faces (gag me).
Second shock of the night? The absolute hopelessness conveyed by the filmmakers…the utter lack of faith they showed in this generation of kids to figure out how to cope with the pressures of being a student today. And worse? The hearty helping of responsibility heaped on the parents to solve it for their kids. I’m not sure what I expected, but given the hype and the general buzz I’d heard leading up to actually seeing the film, it was a bit of a letdown.
Because it was so obvious where they were headed.
The filmmakers attempted to correlate the one- two- punch of pressure parenting and schools that ‘teach to the test’ with the increase in child burnout, which results in stress, lack of sleep and – in extreme cases – teen suicide. The filmmakers appeal to parents, teachers and administrators to ‘fix’ the problem by advocating for the overstressed child, but can it be that simple? The fact is, today’s kids have less to worry about in some ways. I had a job when I was in high school – most kids today don’t have to work. My mom wasn’t at my beck-and-call to drive me to and from school and activities. I had to get creative with getting where I needed to be. In fact, my parents were not involved in my schooling at all. I did my homework. I planned my classes. I chose my activities. There was no such thing as a ‘private college counselor’ when we were growing up. My school counselor was the varsity wrestling coach.
This is radical, but what if the reason these kids feel ‘pressured’ is more about our manic need to control (i.e. coach) all aspects of their lives? What if the puppet strings are strangling them? What this documentary didn’t do was put forth the theory that parents need to release the stranglehold on their kids’ lives in order to allow for a more natural progression. Fire the experts and tutors and private coaches. Stop with the supplemental learning like Kumon and Sylvan. Scary, I know, because it may turn out that YOUR kid isn’t bright enough to take an AP class or get into Harvard. It may turn out that YOUR kid isn’t good enough to be on the A-team or in the Gifted and Talented Program at school.
Here’s a question: so what?
The fact is, some kids are not wired for college. Some kids will end up working at the grocery store or mowing lawns. They may become tradesmen or even drop out of high school altogether. Does that make them less valuable? Less smart? Does that give them less potential to achieve happiness in life?
With all that being said, my main beef about this movie is that it speaks so clearly to me about the bigger issue: we are pussifying our kids. Yes, I said it (and made up a word in the process). Our kids are pussies. They are coached from the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed. They are programmed, directed, managed and supervised. We make all of their decisions for them (and please don’t give me that B.S. about how you simply give them choices). They are walking, talking status symbols for us. Our fear of failure is often the driver of our expectations for them, rather than allowing them to dictate their goals and objectives. We fail to see their actual potential, strengths and weaknesses, and what they’re actually capable of. We want a robot. We want the “perfect kid”. We want to post about them on Facebook.
After experiencing something like Race To Nowhere, the knee-jerk reactions of parents is almost scripted. They whisper nervously amongst their friends and family, they begin to act – either passively through deep thought and reflection or actively by contacting the school and issuing a referendum – the emotion crescendos, and then they slowly move back to their parenting ‘base of operations’, which is whatever strategy they follow naturally. Very few parents are moved to the point of long-term, life- and policy-changing action. We are like lemmings – we parent to the prevailing culture. Culture today dictates that kids need to push themselves in order to be competitive and “get into a good college”.
You can dress it up and put heels on it (i.e. watch a thousand documentaries), but if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. You will most likely change nothing as a result of watching this film. Just admit it.
My referendum? Stop manufacturing an outcome. Let these kids breathe. Give them room to figure it out for themselves. That doesn’t mean disconnecting entirely, but stop living vicariously through them, and please stop trying to script a ‘perfect’ life for them.
There is no formula – if there was we’d all be doing it. Unfortunately, our generation of parenting is far too fear-based. Don’t play into the pressure any longer.
And by all means, see the movie. I’d love to hear your comments. For me it fell short of explaining the true problem. In a word….US.