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No class boundaries to childhood stress

Tuesday, October 12, 2010; B1

There are many ways to kill a childhood.

War or a personal tragedy can fast-forward a child into adulthood. And so can the crushing reality of childhood poverty. Three in 10 living in the nation's capital are feeling the weight of adult problems every day.

Those kids rarely have a carefree moment. The pressure of their situation squeezes them constantly, putting the joy of a simple exhale beyond their reach.

But wait a minute. Isn't that almost exactly what we hear from many of their more privileged peers?

They describe a life in which they aren't given the time to just go out back and play. They are crushed by their obligations and crippled by stress.

That was the theme in the "Race to Nowhere" documentary, screened last week in Bethesda by Walt Whitman High School's "stressbusters committee." (Seriously, they have assembled a committee to deal with out-of-control level of student stress.)

In the movie, children complain of being stifled by herds of ambitious parents who steal their childhoods.

No fun, no play, no failure.

That crime begins early here in the Washington region, where we have 5-year-olds being raced to the French tutor, violin lessons, the Tae Kwon Do belt test and on to lacrosse clinic.

We'll reserve the Latin verb camp for when they turn 6, of course.

Picture-book reading has become so three years ago as parents of preschoolers move past the tiresome machinations of a caterpillar and forge onward to more substantive chapter books.

Because, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien meant for the pull-ups set to relate to Golem.

First graders are doing an hour of homework a night, and one kindergartner in my son's school last year was so frazzled about the need to succeed on standardized test days that he routinely puked right before the No. 2 pencils were handed out.

And that's just the early years.

For kids who live in Northern Virginia, parents might already be figuring out the years of grueling coursework necessary to get their offspring into Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, also known as TJ.

"Getting into TJ spawned a whole industry," explained Elizabeth Lodal, the retired former principal of the magnet school consistently ranked as America's best by U.S. News and World Report.

"There's test preparation, tutoring. Even churches have programs that start in preschool and they are based on getting into TJ," she told me. And "if it doesn't happen," she said, "kids are crushed."

Among the kids who did make it, Lodal added, "many would say their parents wanted them to go there more than they did."

They are suffocated by their parent's hunger for achievement.

Lodal said she frequently saw the evidence of childhoods lost at her high-octane school.

"Every occasion we had for the kids to wear a costume, they did. I saw more kids in costume at that school than any other," she said. "They were reliving a childhood they never had."

Ditto for snow days, when she looked outside her window and saw the area's science and math prodigies "playing like elementary students, just frolicking."

Somehow, the parents of these students can't see what all this pressure is doing. Many undoubtedly pity children who are living in poverty, without ever realizing that their own kids are hurting, too.

In a region increasingly divided between the haves and have-nots, where the number of families earning more than $100,000 and the number earning less than $25,000 are rising, it's probably hard to see that our children are often suffering in very similar ways.

The big difference is, one group is doing it by choice.

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