Jay Mathews: Amid the SAT-obsessed, this family doesn't live by the numbers

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2011; 9:23 PM

If you overlook the 12-foot-long purple dinosaur in the front yard of their stone-and-brick Bethesda home, the Demarees appear to be a typical American family of the Washington suburban variety.

Debby and Larry are commercial real estate brokers with incomes above the national mean. Their children went to private schools and are active and ambitious. Liz, 22, is a straight-A graduate student planning to teach. Tim, 22, has his own business. Cat, 20, is at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts studying to be Meryl Streep.

I mention the Demarees only because one part of their family story is so contrary to the character of their neighborhood and this region that it might inspire astonishment, disbelief and maybe even censure. When their three kids were applying for college, Debby and Larry never let them know what their SAT scores were.

"We told them that the scores were unimportant and not a measure of who they are or what they want in life," Debby said. "Did we test prep? No. Did we tutor? No. Did we apply to 15 colleges? No. . . . Did we use private college counselors? No. Did we even rely on the school counselors? No."

Well. Let's all take a breath, particularly parents like me who waited anxiously for my children to open the SAT results envelope so we would know how desperate we were going to feel in the forced march to college.

I have a problem with the documentary "Race to Nowhere," which decries the pressure we are putting on our kids. I agree that it addresses an important issue. It is bad that lust for selective colleges is as natural to us as backyard barbecues and ski vacations. My complaint is that the film never acknowledges that encouragement of five hours of homework a night is prevalent only in the top 10 percent of communities measured by parental income and education.

A much more serious problem is that most high-schoolers spend less than an hour a day on homework - often no time at all - and devote their afternoons and evenings to video games, TV and other unstressful pursuits. That reduces choices in life and helps maintain vast pockets of poverty. Regretfully, that doesn't seem to interest the producers of "Race to Nowhere" or the parents who flock to PTA meetings in wealthy school districts where the film is often screened.

Still, they are right to worry about our college obsession. What can we do about that? Why not learn from families such as the Demarees? They let their children make their own decisions, even when friends and school officials told them it would ruin their kids' lives.

The Demaree children had average grades and learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Liz was so out of control as a child that the coach of her boys-and-girls soccer team switched to all boys to get rid of her. At age 7, she wanted to learn Irish dance. When she decided to major in that at the University of Limerick in Ireland, her parents said fine, although people asked them, "What can she ever do with that?"

Tim was told he would never get into the University of Maryland, but he talked the theater department into taking him because of his backstage skills. He didn't like sitting in class, so he dropped out sophomore year. He runs a successful pressure-washing company (with contracts for cleaning 30 shopping centers) he began at age 8.

No one thought Cat would get into super-selective Tisch, but she flew to Florida to make the last possible audition and nailed it.

Debby said to me, "What makes you think you have to be part of the herd?" It takes some courage, and faith in our kids. But if we listen to them carefully, as the Demarees did, their sense of the future will make more sense than what everyone else is telling us.

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