The film Race To Nowhere, which has been shown in dozens of New York and New Jersey communities, is extremely critical of what it calls an "achievement culture" that demands that children have to take the advanced classes and do many extracurricular activities in order to become successful citizens. In fact, the film suggests that this unrelenting pressure is contributing to psychological and health problems with our children, as well as children who are burnt out and unprepared for college and the rigors of the workforce.
Many parents in middle class communities identify with the film as they juggle their children’s schedules, and sometimes add additional tutoring or coaching to advance more quickly in academics or sports skills. Opting out of these kinds of activities isn’t as easy as you might think, because then you have to put aside the niggling feeling that your child is at a disadvantage. After all, other children maybe be getting an edge from all the extra enrichment activities.
"You bump into people in the supermarket and they say, ‘did you hear that my kid did this?’" says Debbie Falkow, a mom of three in Ramsey. "In some ways, that is part of what pushes parents to push their kids. Parenting has become a competitive sport. It’s not fair but I don’t know what the answer is."
At the root of all of this pushing is parental anxiety from the sense of being in a world where success seems less certain than before, and where the pace of globalization and technological change has been unsettling, says Margaret Nelson, author of Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (NYU Press, 2010). "Professional middle class parents know that the traditional ways of being successful are not as secure as they were in the past," she says. "We know that students need to be prepared to do a variety of things. She adds, "the gap between rich and poor has expanded enormously. In the past, if your kid didn’t make it to the top of a company, maybe they could be a teacher – now those kinds of professions are under attack."
The result of this is more competition amongst peers, which is not always healthy for the student or the family. "People think, ‘my kid has to be the best at whatever they do.’ It’s not necessarily what I believe and I definitely feel that I am bucking that trend," says Falkow.
Jen Cunningham, who has two elementary school age children in Hoboken, says it was easy to see a bit of her own parenting style in the movie. "All day it resonated with me because I was thinking that I am headed in that direction with my kids. All these parents in the movie had the best intentions and yet things still went wrong." Cunningham notes how parents get caught in the trap of thinking their children have to be the best at everything rather than realizing that you should "push your kids, but with a grain of salt."
Dr. Punam Kashyap, associate chief, Division of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics at Hackensack University Medical Center, says that this doesn’t mean that parents back off entirely – there’s nothing wrong with setting realistic goals for your child. "There is a difference between saying I want you to acquire knowledge and I need you to get an A plus, or playing a sport because you like it versus because it will help you get into college."
Many parents find that although it can be challenging to find playmates for your children if their peers are involved in a lot of activities, it can be done, and the tradeoff is that you aren’t overscheduling your child. Falkow, whose youngest child is 7, says, "You have to be a little bit more focused on planning – you can’t just go into the community and see who is around. My daughter is quick to pick up the phone and look for play dates." Her older son, a 9th grader at Ramsey High, elected not to join a travel soccer team that would play outside of New Jersey, choosing to referee games and earn spending money as well. "He has a lot of friends who do club soccer after the season at high school. I wasn’t willing to make the commitment – does my 7-year-old want to get dragged off every weekend somewhere else? Do I want to spend the money for weekend tournaments?" She adds, "he got a refereeing license and he now has money to show for it. He has to learn a lot of diplomacy but it makes sense for him and he likes it."
Dr. Kashyap says that she likes the burgeoning slow-parenting movement, and sees nothing wrong with stepping off of the treadmill, if that’s what you and your family want. If, on the other hand, your child enjoys all of the activities he is in, and he does not seem to be under undue stress, there no harm in letting him continue. "Constantly being under pressure is not a good thing but very often kids will express that they want to do all of these things. If you kids enjoy the activities, I don’t find anything wrong with it.
However, she does add the caveat that young child need time for free play. "We feel lots of free play is important and downtime is important for older children as well," she says.
A professor at Middlebury College, Nelson sees students who appear somewhat burnt out by the time they get to higher education, because they have been working so hard for most of their lives. "The students are worn out at a very deep level and we are all seeing the consequences of that. We are all seeing students that are frayed and at the end of their ropes – they don’t want to work as hard as we want them to work. I think that they are more frantic and tired and they are doing too many things," she says.
The bottom line is that whether your child takes five Advanced Placement courses, competes in four difference sports and performs in the jazz band probably means less than you think in terms of her overall happiness or the course her life will take. "So maybe your child goes to City College or Rutgers rather than Bryn Mawr, or Michigan rather than Berkeley. We are frantic about these small things because we think that they will ensure success, when the reality is that we don’t know what will ensure success today."
Jan Wilson of Hoboken is a writer, mother and The Parent Paper’s education columnist. You can contact Jan at firstname.lastname@example.org.