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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 07/20/2012

The rat race of childhood: Why we need to balance students’ lives

This was written by Vicki Abeles, a parent of three and the director of the documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” which challenges common assumptions about how children are best educated.

By Vicki Abeles

In Aspen, Colorado each year, intellectual leaders from around the world meet for the Aspen Ideas Festival, presented by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. This year’s most Googled names attended the Festival’s most recent installment, held June 27-July 3, to present on the “big ideas” currently shaking up American society, from science and technology to the arts, education and culture.

 Among them was Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton professor and
(AP photo/The Atlantic)
former State Department official, whose recent piece in The Atlantic on the daunting systemic challenges and compromises faced by the working mother has dominated headlines and stoked fiery cultural conversation since its publication in the magazine’s July/August issue.

Appearing at the festival in conversation with Katie Couric, Slaughter reiterated one of her article’s most salient reflections on work-life balance — or the lack thereof — in modern America: “Given the responses to my article, [it’s clear] there are many, many people — and many, many men — feeling like we have gone way too far,” she noted. “We’re working 24 hours on 24 hours, and we don’t have the time to be human beings in the round.”

 This notion that we should strive toward being “human beings in the round” — adults who can healthy, sanely, and productively balance roles as parents, professionals, mentors, spouses, community members, hobbyists, thinkers — stood out as an informal leitmotif of the Aspen Ideas Festival at large. David Agus, a renowned physician, mentioned in one session, for example, that sitting stationary for six hours a day is as bad for our health as smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes daily. His quip went viral on Twitter instantly, undoubtedly because it resonated so deeply for so many.

 But as Slaughter tackled the idea that workaholism drains and exhausts working parents, I kept wondering why the conversation about balance so often focuses only on adults. After all, we seem as a culture to think that the “more is better” strategy works for children, too. Stretched in a growing number of ways as they are relentlessly urged to build adult-like resumes, excel in sports, show leadership in their activities and accumulate volunteer hours, our children also live a version of the “juggling act” that Slaughter identifies. As a result, we are seeing an unprecedented rate of academic burnout, anxiety and stress among our school-age population.

Slaughter suggests that we need to change the “default rules” of the workplace, which tend to equate hours clocked — even inefficient, sleepless, anxious hours — with professional success. So, too, do I see our educational culture in need of new default rules. Currently, it’s a system that encourages students as young as 9 and 10 to “multi-task” and “buckle down,” to set their sights on far-off goals like college admissions and perfect test scores, and to grind through busy work and Scantron sheets at the expense of creative and imaginary play, family time, and just plain downtime.

Indeed, even the “time macho” Slaughter references in her piece — that “relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters” — is running rampant among our middle- and high-schoolers. What’s more, it’s actively and openly encouraged by college admissions officials, guidance counselors, and private tutoring companies and test-prep publishers. No wonder that studies indicate that school is now the No. 1 stressor in the lives of our children.

And yet, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, as in the larger cultural conversation, the question of how and why our education system encourages our children to “have it all” remains largely unexplored. How is it that we can devote hours to debunking the myth of the have-it-all working mother, but we stand idly by as our children struggle with the same unattainable ideal?

To be sure, in addressing the educational issues du jour — including technology; the gender gap; the role of arts in education; the importance of character, “grit” and self-control; the Millennial generation; and the preparation of students for the job market — the Aspen Ideas Festival included myriad sessions devoted to schooling and parenting. But the “have-it-all” default mentality that informs our current educational practice went unquestioned.

Instead, sessions on education emphasized how we can improve education “outcomes” (mostly defined by test scores). They questioned how we can prepare our children to “compete” in the global economy, not thrive as “humans in the round.” And sessions devoted to parenting — “Tiger Mom Tells It All” with Amy Chua, “How To Land Your Kid in Therapy” with adolescent psychologist Madeline Levine (who appears in “ Race to Nowhere” and is the author of the upcoming book Teach Your Children Well), and  “What is the Goal of Parenting?” with Harvard’s early childhood education expert Erika Christakis, among others — too often focused on why parents are to blame for their children’s anxieties or successes. They too infrequently analyzed how we might look to our education system as a whole for answers about our children’s emotional, academic, and developmental health. 

As a parent, activist and filmmaker who has spent the last several years exploring the epidemic of academic anxiety in American schools, I was struck by the festival’s microcosmic reflection of a larger cultural handicap: our failure to look at child-rearing and schooling as a holistic system governed by a web of rules, expectations and standards that intertwine, engage and influence each other — both in the home and in the classroom. Only by looking at parenting and education practices as a whole system can we hope to understand how we might prepare our children to thrive in their own communities as in the global marketplace.

 Just as Slaughter so powerfully pointed out the systemic and complicated reasons “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” conferences like the Aspen Ideas Festival should spur us to think more deeply about the “big ideas” behind parenting and education. Women like Slaughter, who have the courage to step outside cultural expectations to take a different path and to alert us to the lethal effects of our “rat race” culture, should be lauded. But it’s time for an urgent conversation about the importance of examining the rat race of childhood, too.

 That’s a big idea we can all get behind.

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