Summer’s over and school’s here. Here’s a smart piece about the things that kids really need to be successful at school. It was written by best-selling author Madeline Levine, whose newest book is “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” and Vicki Abeles, director of the education documentary “Race to Nowhere,” which looks at the pressurized environment in many schools and the consequences when students are over-scheduled and over-tested.
By Madeline Levine and Vicki Ab eles
It’s that time of year once more, when purveyors of school supplies begin their campaign to entice school-age children— or more precisely, their parents — to stock up on all manner of academic paraphernalia. Three popular 30-second spots from mega-retailer Target recently began filling the airwaves, harbingers of the back-to-school buying frenzy.
But with the return of the back-to-school commercial genre comes a reminder that we’d do well — in our individual homes as well as in our culture at large — to take a harder look at what our children really need as they re-enter the schoolyard gates this fall.
Markers and notebooks? Of course. Calculators and backpacks? Sure. But more important? Parental and community support that nurtures the coping skills and psychological resources that students need. These are the true “supplies” that encourage not only steady academic growth but also the kind of holistic, authentic success that will ensure our children’s well-being as they move into their adult years.
Television commercials, unsurprisingly, tend to suggest that it’s tangible, material tools that can contribute to a child’s enthusiasm for learning and discovery. In the omnipresent Target spots, as in ads for Walmart and Old Navy, grinning kids and teachers greet back-to-school time armed with new clothes and shiny folders. We’re meant to believe these will equip them with boundless energy for the new school year.
Sadly, the tuba-embracing, science-adoring children of Target’s or Old Navy’s imagination are becoming increasingly scarce in real life. A 2005 KidsHealth KidsPoll revealed that 9- to 13-year-olds cited school as the top stressor in their lives — not their number one cause for spontaneous dancing. Meanwhile, school bullying, teen suicide and school violence, and increasing rates of adolescent mental health disorders, continue to make national headlines across the country.
And our own personal experiences and investigations bear out the statistics.
In every community we visit — as filmmaker and director of the education documentary “Race to Nowhere,” and as an adolescent psychologist and author of the New York Times bestseller “Teach Your Children Well”— we see an epidemic of burnout and depression among teens. And not only teens. Parents, coaches, community politicians and education administrators alike feel the unrelenting pressure of a culture that overemphasizes academic and career triumphs like acceptance into a top college or the landing of a high-paying job over the pleasure of academic curiosity or the reward of being happy at work. Most confounding, the epidemic appears particularly virulent in demographic enclaves where parents appear to be most involved and invested in their children’s academic performance and achievement.
Indeed, in both private clinical settings and in public forums where parents and educators come together to discuss our nation’s plague of unrelenting academic pressure, we hear consistently that our communities have squeezed out the time and energy needed for the fundamental tasks of growing up. These are cultivating a sense of self, developing coping skills to manage challenge and disappointment, and maintaining the curiosity and enthusiasm that leads to real learning. We see that it is really no longer an issue of if kids need to adapt to a pressure-cooker environment with an unforgivably narrow vision of success, but how they will adapt. Some particularly robust kids manage just fine. They rise to the challenge and show no signs of being unduly distressed. But this is a small group. Many children simply fold their cards and refuse to play. They know that the deck is stacked and simply drop out — some figuratively, some literally.
Kids show up on the doorstep of a psychologists’ office crying that they can’t go home because their parents will be so upset by a poor grade. When rejected from their “gotta get in” college, teens take to bed blinded by their disappointment. “It was all for nothing,” they insist. And too frequently, students show up at school, at work, at sports activities, or at doctor’s appointments spent and exhausted, pushing themselves past caffeine and into dangerous study drugs as a way to “keep up.”
No community should tolerate this damaged view of childhood and adolescence. Our job, collectively and as parents, is to help our children grow up so that they can lead independent lives of their own. But that’s not what’s happening.
Of course, it’s not just ad agencies and retailers that espouse the idea that stuff, and the financial resources that pay for it, paves the way toward success. We’ve bought in as a culture—literally. The National Retail Foundation published a report in July that the average American will spend $688.62 to outfit his or her K-12-age children for the new school year in 2012. College-age students and their families will spend $907.22. Both numbers represent spending increases since last year. We are quite simply modeling for our children that to prepare for “success” we need to spend, to spruce up, and perhaps most damaging—to “appear” new and shiny and polished on the outside, regardless of how poorly we feel on the inside.
What families and their communities should truly invest in, however, can’t be found in a store. Both clinical research and common sense says that what makes children truly excited about and prepared for school — and about life — takes the work of the whole community.
It takes parents, teachers, mentors, coaches and siblings who consistently and lovingly give young people the space they need to develop a sense of self. It takes whole school systems and neighborhoods and sports teams that ensure that kids get some space away from constant parental involvement and time apart from structured activities and schedules. It takes principals and school boards and PTAs working together to ensure that children get some freedom from the tangible trappings of “preparation” and “practice”—from fancy school supplies to private tutors to test prep courses.
To truly bring pep back into the step of our students as they return to school this fall, we don’t need to shower them with merchandise. Instead, we need to create for them a community in which the authentic measures of adult achievement are adequately valued. We need to commend mental and physical well-being. We need to praise the ability to demonstrate empathy and to maintain friendships. We need to teach the capacity to exercise self control. In doing this, we will drive our children’s enthusiasm for independence; their resilience in overcoming minor failures; their creativity and resourcefulness in the face of disappointment or challenge; and their defenses against depression and anxiety.
The sheer inertia of the American back-to-school consumer tradition will ensure that you’ll continue to be bombarded by sale flyers in your mailbox and by campy television and radio advertisements over your airwaves as fall approaches. But your family — and your broader neighborhood, your school community, your church or synagogue, your carpool — can shift priorities more quickly. This year, put that at the top of your list.
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