Its been another devastating month for Bay Area students and their loved ones. Three suicides in as many weeks. Two students jumped in front of CALTrains and another off a 280 freeway overpass. Those are just the ones I’ve heard of through friends and social networks, the ones that were reported on by news media. School administrators, teachers, parents, education policy experts, we all keep talking about the fact that our students are under incredible pressure, quite literally killing themselves to meet expectations, to achieve, to compete. Schools add suicide prevention programs, parents attend seminars and read books such as this one on the “Price of Privilege” to try to discern a way through the craziness. And still our kids are killing themselves, death perceived as a viable alternative to the weight of adolescent living. This dire situation is not abstract for me. I’m in the middle of it, trying desperately to lead two pre-teen daughters through the minefield that is Silicon Valley, through the even larger minefield that is a “21st Century Education” and even larger still the Global Economy in which they must someday exchange goods and services in order to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I make my choices. I pray, I worry. I do my best. But none of it feels adequate. Sometimes I inadvertently even add to the pressure when what I am trying most desperately to do is simply to give them the tools they need to thrive, my good intentions paving a well-traveled road that is only ever down and out.
I heard of these suicides within a few hours of reading this article, Better All the Time: How the “performance revolution” came to athletics and beyond— in the New Yorker. Author James Surowiecki explores the impact of ever-increasing levels of performance training to produce the best “fill-in-the-blank”: the best athlete, chess player, musician, corporate worker, student, teacher. Summing up his observations, he writes,
“That’s actually the biggest change in performance over the past few decades—it’s not so much that the best of the best are so much better as that so many people are so extraordinarily good.”
I have been told by friends who live elsewhere in the States that the pressure — no, the need — to be extraordinarily good is now nearly universal in affluent communities, of which Silicon Valley surely is the vanguard. Where money is no object, we can invest it in churning out the best and the brightest, no longer understood as limited or more positively, shaped by natural talent, God-given ability or grit, but only by the amount of focused training a developing student receives, either at their request or at the insistence of a well-meaning, petrified parent. It goes without saying this applies not only to athletics but to music, academics, extracurriculars of every stripe. I will never forget the day the Principal of our local public elementary school informed me that in excess of 80% of attending students went to “school after school” — not remedial tutoring, mind you, but accelerated learning: Kumon, STEM curricula, language classes (for second and third languages). She admitted to me without even flinching that her teachers did not need to teach basic skills because 80% of her students were learning those basics and more after hours, and if I wanted to compete I should consider putting my Kindergartener too in after-school learning programs. Because, you see, the assumption was that this was the only way to produce a student who was extraordinarily good, and that manufacturing of said student was what I desired to do. Kindergarten, it turns out, was actually all about me and not in the least about my 5 year old.
Let’s talk for a moment about that parent I mentioned above, the well-meaning, petrified one. I know that parent because on too many days of too many weeks, I am one. Every day I wrestle with how to help my daughters grow and thrive, and my wrestling is not always infused with excitement and anticipation but rather with anxiety and doubt. They are inheriting a difficult world absolutely saturated with dog-eat-dog competition. Nevertheless, it is a world they need to be able to cope with, make sense of, thrive within. But they were born into a cultural moment suffocating beneath technology, succumbing to the relentless pounding of elusive forces driving us into isolation and fragmentation, a moment where childhood is cast as a race to the top and where the complexities of daily life befuddle even the grown-ups who are supposed to know how to navigate — but we don’t, we can’t, because the world changed beneath our feet. It changed so fast we were knocked off-kilter and many of us are having an increasingly hard time figuring out how to right ourselves first, let alone help our children keep their wits about them. I quite literally cannot tell you the number of times I have talked with friends who grew up in the America of the 60s and 70s, where kids played in the neighborhood after school until the streetlights came on, where homework arrived for the first time in modest amounts somewhere around 6th grade, where being good at cheery drops off the high bar on the playground was enough to make you feel like you were something special. This is the world we understand, the world we were prepared to pass along to our children. Work hard at school and do your best, find what excites you, learn how to get along with peers by playing baseball and soccer in the neighborhood, no adult supervision required, with sweatshirts for bases and goals and the ubiquitous though contentious “Do Over.” Do I even need to say it? Those Days Are Forever Gone and in their place are high octane days of rigorous school and hours of homework, special projects and travel teams and Tiger Moms. In the circles I run in, for many it is a given that their child will not merely attend Stanford (that is a fait accompli) but will attend on an academic or athletic scholarship — never mind the fact that the parents have 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars in the bank and the scholarship is purely for parental bragging rights, proof positive that their labor to produce an award-winning child has succeeded.
I see parents responding to this cultural moment in a few ways, and I am not casting judgement on any of us. The older I get the more I realize we are all doing the best we can and maybe that’s why I feel so compelled to talk about why we are choosing what we are choosing –to deconstruct our choices if we can so we can see more clearly the places where we parent from fear and where we lead and nurture our kids from a place of faith, confidence and unimpeded vision. If you have comments and nuances to add to these categories — or challenges to them even — please do so, keeping in mind that language choices must be made carefully and with attention to the fact that others might be choosing differently than you. If you can’t find a place of genuine collaboration, it might be wise to just listen for a while. Perhaps if we can understand the available options we can invent better ways through the quagmire, because invention seems to me the only way forward.
Rejection. Parents literally relocate their families to rural or intentionally non-affluent settings to make it easier to embrace values that dominated in previous generations. Unschooling and extreme homeschooling, Christian patriarchy, homesteading and communal living are all examples.
Co-opting. Parents opt out of traditional schooling and secular-based organized sports, music and drama programs and put their kids into Christian versions of the same programs, an argument in kind that says the institutions aren’t the problem, only the people running the institutions.
Competing. Parents play the game — top schools, expensive sports programs, private music lessons, after school academic classes to augment in-class learning — with or without a self-reflexive awareness that they are in fact playing the game.
Combining. Parents try to cobble together a unique way forward based on what they think are the best parts of each approach. I see the most doubt in this group, frankly, perhaps because they can’t locate themselves in any of the other spaces.
How do we connect the dots then, between the horror of children broken beneath trains, broken beneath the pressure to achieve, and how we are parenting as individuals and as villages? How do we help our children develop into adults — find their passions, discover their talents and gifts, connect with the people who will enrich their lives — given the changing landscape of the world we now inhabit, where excelling above and beyond the pack seems to be Job #1 and yet ironically where “so many people are so extraordinarily good”? How do we stop talking and start doing, in ways that shield our kids from the worst of the worst but still prepare them to step into adulthood as fully functioning members of an ethnically and religiously diverse, fast-paced, global society? This all feels incredibly urgent to me. My daughters are growing fast, and they are looking to me to guide them — to know when to intervene and when to step out of the way, to know when to give counsel and when to show I trust them by my silence.
I don’t know about you but bromides and pat answers don’t work for me when the stakes are this high. This feels complex and risky and totally resistant to anything that could be stuck on a Pinterest board or Tweeted. Plus, I have that chilling sense that I only get one shot at getting it “right” — scare quotes intentional, because perhaps ultimately that’s the root of all this evil.
Header image is taken from promotional materials for Race to Nowhere.