Peter Greene, a veteran teacher of English in a small town in Pennsylvania, wrote the following post about how hard it is to be young today. The moving piece describes the “One Wrong Move” syndrome and how scared children are of making a mistake for fear of ruining their lives because that’s the message that society sends them. He ends the post with a moving description of a class he once taught, what he told his students and how they reacted. This appeared on his Curmudgucation blog, and I am republishing it with permission.
By Peter Greene
Back in November, writer Hanna Rosin started a ball rolling with her Atlantic magazine cover story about the high rate of student suicides in Silicon Valley. Two high schools in Palo Alto have a 10-year suicide rate between four and five times the national average.
If students from wealthy families in one of the most affluent communities in the country are feeling driven to these sort of extremes– what the heck can that mean? And it’s not just the issue of suicide. Rosin writes:
The rich middle- and high-school kids [Arizona State professor Suniya] Luthar and her collaborators have studied show higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse on average than poor kids, and much higher rates than the national norm.* They report clinically significant depression or anxiety or delinquent behaviors at a rate two to three times the national average. Starting in seventh grade, the rich cohort includes just as many kids who display troubling levels of delinquency as the poor cohort, although the rule-breaking takes different forms. The poor kids, for example, fight and carry weapons more frequently, which Luthar explains as possibly self-protective. The rich kids, meanwhile, report higher levels of lying, cheating, and theft.
Rosin pointed to huge pressure put on kids by their families, and Rebecca Rosen followed up with her piece, also at the Atlantic, “Why Affluent Professionals Put So Much Pressure on Their Kids.”
Rosen’s conclusion is that affluent professionals find their own position fragile, and their ability to pass that position on to their children non-existent.
All of this results in what the economists Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, brilliantly termed “the rug rat race.” As they wrote in a 2010 paper, “The increased scarcity of college slots appears to have heightened rivalry among parents, which takes the form of more hours spent on college preparatory activities.” In their findings, the rug rat race takes place primarily among the most educated parents, because there simply aren’t enough spots at elite schools for less-educated parents to even really have a shot, especially as the competition accelerates. It’s for this reason that the most educated parents spend the most hours parenting, even though they are giving up the most in wages by doing so.
If you’re looking for one of the sources of the idealization of competitiveness that has leached into public education, well, here it is:
As one soccer parent told Friedman during her research on parenting in such a competitive culture, “I think it’s important for [my son] to understand that [being competitive] is not going to just apply here, it’s going to apply for the rest of his life. It’s going to apply when he keeps growing up and he’s playing sports, when he’s competing for school admissions, for a job, for the next whatever.” Friedman concludes, “Such an attitude prepares children for winner-take-all settings like the school system and lucrative labor markets.”
And the competition is all the more important because of the vast gap between the top tier and everyone else. The gap between the middle class and the wealthy elite is now a chasm, and by the time a child is 18, the feeling goes, his trajectory is already set. While the wealthy elite cannot pass on, say, their legal practice, they are the only people with the resources to get their children every inch of extra help available. Private lessons, personal coaching, top equipment, the best technology– only the wealthy can provide those necessary tools to land on the right side of Prosperity Gulch.
This echoes the work of Robert Putnam in “Our Kids,” in which he discusses how soft ties and social capital give wealthier children an extra edge. Wealthy parents can always pick up the phone and make a call. Wealthy parents can throw money at the problem. That ties us back to studies such as the one from John Hopkins that shows how family and neighborhood cast a long shadow over a student’s future.
What Rosin and Rosen underline is just how scared and worried the wealthy are– just one wrong move and Little Pat will end up with a life that’s Less, a life that’s Not Good Enough. Little Pat will be a failure.
But if that’s what the wealthy of Silicon Valley are thinking, what about the rest of us? Remember Richard Corey? The poem has two characters– Corey and the ordinary people who narrate– and its power doesn’t just come from saying, “The rich have troubles you know nothing about.” It also says, “If the most successful guy we can think of is that miserable, what hope do we have?”
And so that fear of failure, and the massive depth of what failure will mean, slowly leaches down into the whole system. It works its destructiveness in different ways. The children of Silicon Valley end up super-pressured, hammered into the shape their parents demand. But on lower levels of the economy, levels where parental units don’t have access to every possible advantage, there is fear mixed with hopelessness.
For all the pressure Silicon kids feel, wealth gives them one other important advantage– the Do-Over. Putnam and the John Hopkins study both highlight this– how rich and poor kids both take drugs at similar rates, but poor kids are more likely to pay a huge price for being caught. When a rich kid screws up, dad can make some phone calls, use some connections. The poor kid is just screwed. And yet Rosen and Rosin suggest that the rich kid pays in other ways, emotionally and psychologically.
And so, in different ways, children grow up on a razor’s edge, imagining a world that will destroy them the moment they make One Wrong Move, raised by families that believe it, too. I’m also reminded of the work of Jessica Lahey, the teacher-writer whose book The Gift of Failure, has touched such a nerve with so many people. It has become a radical, revolutionary idea that children need to fail, that failure is a necessary part of growth, that you do not build muscles by having your parents lift weight for you.
But, but, let them fail??!! If they fail, that might be the One Wrong Move! It might be the moment that defines their downward spiral into failure and squalor, with the child ending up living in a van by the river eating canned cat food warmed on a hot plate, alone and miserable. They can’t afford to fail. They can’t handle failure.
Much of the education reform movement has been a reflection of this mindset. We must set benchmarks, and we must get students to meet them because if they don’t meet those benchmarks, they will be failures and the nation will fail and our national defense will be compromised and our international standing will disintegrate (and our seat at the United Nations will be moved to a van down by the East River). Everyone must be made to understand that if these third graders don’t pass the super-duper Big Standardized Tests, then that is a failure of epic dimensions.
I am more and more wondering how and when America turned into a nation so deeply steeped in fear (the same terrible fear that has arguably turned Trump into a viable presidential candidate). It is harming our children. Some are raised in a bubble, repeatedly told through word and deed that they are not strong enough to face life and that all of their energy must go into building a protective shell. Some are raised out in the open, with no tools or assistance but repeated insistence that they must Grit Up and Get Tough.
Even those who get those wealthy do-overs pay, as Rosin and Rosen suggest, by a look or speech that says, “I had to pay this price for you, because you can’t hack it. If someone didn’t bail you out, you’d be at the bottom of the barrel somewhere because that’s what you actually deserve.” Some learn that they must expect failure. And all of that is before we get to those who emerge from college, untested and untoughened, walking into the world and demanding their soft, protective bubble– right now.
And all of this fearful vision of the world becomes increasingly self-fulfilling as we make the world harder and uglier and meaner. Instead of giving help where we can and lifting up people around us and designing our institutions to do the same, we let people flounder and sneer at them– “You’d better toughen up, because this is how the world works.” Well, people– this is how the world works if we decide to make the world work this way!
Yes, life comes with hard, unpleasant, painful challenges built in. But that’s why we have a moral imperative not to add more hurt and trouble when we can help it. This does not have to be a world in which One Wrong Move ruins your life.
Let me tell you again, those of you who don’t teach– this is wearing on our children.
I know this is long, but I’m going to finish with a story. Just a couple years ago, I taught a class of juniors who were just so paralyzed with fear they couldn’t do much of anything. These were honor students, the top students that my rural/small town high school had to offer. And they couldn’t get past their fear-inflicted need to never do a thing unless they were sure it was right (because one way to avoid making One Wrong Move is to never move at all).
So one day, I snapped. They were breaking my heart. So I dropped the lesson, and I got personal (and understand–if you told my students that you thought I was all warm and fuzzy, they would laugh at you). I said something along the lines of, “Look, I’m going to say some things about you, and if you think I’m getting it wrong and I don’t understand, just stop me.”
I told them I thought they were afraid, that they were terrified that they were going to screw up and their life would be a disaster. Nobody said a word. So then I told them about some of my former students. (I have taught in the same small town for over thirty years, so I have seen pretty big sections of my student life stories.) I told them about several students who were sure they wanted to go to college for one thing and then dropped out and started over or switched schools or changed majors, and today they are living happy lives in rewarding careers. I talked about students who made terrible mistakes, like the one honor student who ended up running away from her husband with her drug dealer and ultimately serving time in prison– after which she turned her life around, found new work, fell in love, and now has a fine family and a happy life. I talked about how, when my first marriage fell apart, I thought I was done and felt as if I had failed in every way that could possibly matter, and yet it turned out that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was.
And then I told them about themselves. I told them about how they were strong and smart and capable. I told them about how they had so much talent and brains and ability and value, and that they had good hearts and good heads and that they could trust themselves. I told them that no matter how carefully they planned, it was likely that a lot of things in their lives were not going to go the way they planned or expected, but that they would handle it and sometimes those unexpected twists and turns would bring huge rewards. I told them they would find their way. I told them that I really believed in my heart that they would all turn out okay. It’s going to be okay. You can handle this. It’s going to be okay.
Some bowed their heads. Some just sat. And some wept.
The point of the story is that the message I felt moved to deliver– that they are strong, they are valuable, they can handle what happens next, they will be okay– that’s a message our children are hearing almost never from the culture. Instead, what they hear over and over is, “You are balanced on the edge of disaster, and if you make one wrong move, you will topple over into the pit, and knowing you, you’re probably going to make that one wrong move.”
We have allowed our school system to be overrun with an intent to find and weed out losers, instead of a system designed to lift up every student and help each one find the strength to win. Remember drivers’ ed, when your teacher told you to keep your eyes on the road and not the ditch, because you will go where your vision is focused. We need to stop focusing on failure. We need to stop devoting mental energy on the fear of the “wrong moves” and focus on the right ones.
Most importantly, we need to work for and demand a world fit for humans. No, I don’t want a fuzzy world with no sharp edges in which no hard things ever happen. That’s not real. But we should demand a world in which young men and women don’t feel that failing a test or losing a sporting event is the figurative End of Their Life, and we should continue to demand a world in which men and women don’t feel they are in danger of being shot down because someone thought they made one wrong move.
We don’t need to demand a world that is all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, but it doesn’t seem too much to demand a world that doesn’t just grind up our children.
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies- God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
— Kurt Vonnegut