I am a triple Type A, high achiever always wanting to do more. I sleep very little and keep pushing myself. I find it hard to say no, and just take on more and more. Apparently I am not alone. On Sunday we saw the documentary Race to Nowhere – which looks at the dark side of America’s achievement culture. According to the documentary we have a whole generation of teenagers who are pushing themselves to unbelievable and dangerous limits.
The documentary looks at the circumstances leading to this pressure and it can be summarized as follows:
-We live in a society that values high academic performers
-Kids understand that when there are 180 spots in a prized tertiary institution and 7,000 applications are received, they need to be near the very top academically
-They know that education from a good institution is the ticket to a higher socioeconomic lifestyle
-Everyone around them is working hard and they feel the pressure to work even harder
Sadly, many of these kids are missing out on their childhood and teenage years. The mom who created the documentary was shocked into action and started questioning this culture when a 13 year-old classmate of her daughter’s committed suicide over a poor algebra test result.
I was very disturbed by this documentary. The Rabbi/psychologist who moderated a post-screening discussion shared further insight. Kids who experience the highest levels of stress typically share the same family profiles:
-They live in a world where mediocrity is not recognized – no parents say Shimmy got a solid “B” on his test
-These kids typically come from a world where they are given everything and are seldom expected to give anything back
-Parents are typically high achieving professionals, work long hours, and are “absent” parents (physically or emotionally)
What’s scary is this is so many of us – myself included. Even scarier was the moderator’s first question to the parents post-screening, “How many of you would say your children are happy?” I was so shocked – less than half the parents put up their hand. So I can conclude this was not just a documentary about kids in faraway places or other communities. It’s about my kids, our kids.
On the drive home Gavin and I debated the subject at length. Ultimately Gavin feels parents pressure their kids way too much and don’t help kids deal with their self-imposed stress to perform. He feels that few parents understand the essence of their kids and they don’t let the kids march to the beat of their own drum. This is what causes the stress and unreasonable expectations of success.
I agree with Gavin but I really question how we as parents can truly change this reality even if we recognize the faults. We parents go home to our higher socioeconomic world, and kids live in this world. Private school fees, summer vacation, household help, after school activities, vacations, and new clothes are pretty much the reality even for the middle class amongst us. We create the subtle expectation that anything less is not success. So do we really make room for the creative kid to excel or for the quirky kid to march to his own beat? In fact the high achievers are overtly and covertly applauded while the parents fear that their musical son will not make a living. Road to nowhere, rat race, call it what you will, but how do we shift the paradigm?
Originally published: May 3, 2012