I once knew a father who decreed that his academically talented daughter, a leading candidate for Ivy League admission, had to get seven hours of sleep a night.
He meant well. He had grown up in a culture where a father’s orders were usually obeyed. He saw the fatigue in the girl’s eyes at breakfast after a 2 a.m. bedtime. He thought he was helping her by providing structure at home that would keep her healthy.
She was a friend of my daughter’s, so I heard her side, too. Her father’s new rule made her life worse, not better, she said. She felt trapped. She knew how much work she had to do to get the grades that would help her realize her dreams.
To her, a normal bedtime was like being sent to jail.
I was reminded of that family’s bad moment as I read a new essay by social critic Caitlin Flanagan in the Atlantic. She was discussing one of my favorite topics, the documentary “Race to Nowhere.” It argues that we are killing our kids with too much schoolwork.
I thought the film grossly distorted reality because it failed to mention that usually only the most affluent 10 percent of families have children doing too much homework. The vast majority of U.S. teens do too little, less than an hour a night compared with the two or three hours they spend with TV, video games and other less stressful pastimes.
Flanagan thought the film’s flaw was its earnest conclusion that “we can change the experience and reduce the stress and produce happier kids, so long as we all work together on the problem,” she wrote in her piece, “The Ivy Delusion.” The film insisted, she said, that “no parent can do this alone; everyone has to agree to change.”
Not so, Flanagan said. Parents such as that father I knew could limit the number of advanced courses, impose bedtimes and cure stress and exhaustion all by himself if he made one crucial adjustment.
“It’s what I like to call the Rutgers Solution,” Flanagan wrote. “If you make the decision — and tell your child about it early on — that you totally support her, you’re wildly engaged with her intellectual pursuits, but you will not pay for her to attend any college except Rutgers, everything will fall into place. She’ll take AP calculus if she’s excited by the challenge, max out at trig if not. It doesn’t matter, either way — Hello, New Brunswick!”
Readers like me laughed at that. But she was right, in a way. Instead of imposing a seven-hour sleep rule, that father could have told his daughter he would only support her attendance at the local equivalent of New Jersey’s Rutgers. Salisbury University in Maryland and James Madison University in Virginia have admission rates close to Rutgers. They take most applicants. Would the heavy pressure be gone?
No. Parents of such children would be horrified at the Rutgers Solution. The nowhere in “Race to Nowhere,” Flanagan theorized, “more or less is Rutgers.”
Some of the overstressed students whose health so concerns us wouldn’t buy the Rutgers Solution, either. In some parts of this country, they might even be able to get a psychiatrist to persuade Child Protective Services that a parent demanding his 2200 SAT daughter go to Rutgers is guilty of child abuse, and arrange foster care by a family more in tune with community values.
The saving grace is that many Rutgers graduates prove to be just as successful as the ones who attend the Ivy League school that my daughter’s friend, freed from the early-to-bed rule, eventually attended.
We have some at The Post, such as our intrepid foreign correspondent Emily Wax. She is talented and energetic, appreciative of what the university gave her and thousands of others who graduated from that fine New Jersey state university. That is the kind of Rutgers Solution, or Madison Solution, or Salisbury Solution, we can all embrace.