This is a summary of a recent Time Magazine article, titled, “In Praise of the Ordinary Child.” Thanks to Kim Marshall for providing the summary. It certainly makes you think about how you parent.
Are We Putting Too Much Pressure on Children to Be Exceptional?
In this Time Magazine article, Jeffrey Kluger bemoans the way some American parents are pushing their children to apply to elite colleges, compete at high levels in sports, and develop esoteric talents in search of wealth and fame. These kids “are being fed a promise,” says Kluger, “– that they can be tutored and coached, pushed and tested, hothoused and advanced-placed until success is assured… Somewhere between the self-esteem building of going for the gold and the self-esteem crushing of the Ivy-or-die ethos there has to be a place where kids can breathe, where they can have the freedom to do what they love – and where parents accustomed to pushing their children to excel can shake off the newly defined shame of having raised an ordinary child.”
Among achievement-obsessed parents, there’s a virtual contagion, says Harvard lecturer/activist Richard Weissbourd. “You see it in this arms race to get kids into selective colleges. A neighbor’s kid has an SAT tutor in eighth grade, so you think you’re denying your own kid if you don’t do the same… There are racial, class, and cultural differences involved. In many working-class and immigrant families, for example, you tend not to see children being told they’re special all the time. There’s more of a collective responsibility.”
Step one, says Kluger, is accepting that there is a downside to force-marching young people to very high achievement. “You can sign your kids up for ballet camp or violin immersion all you want,” he says, “but if they’re simply doing what they’re told instead of doing what they love, they’ll take it only so far.” Sometimes coaches or teachers see a spark of talent in gymnastics or dance or chess and push young people too hard, forcing them to focus prematurely and snuffing out the intrinsic motivation. When genuine interest flags, that’s a signal for parents, coaches, and teachers to back off. “Kids can persist with something difficult or boring only if they can connect with how it’s making them what they want to be,” says Harvard professor Nancy Hill.
RULER is a program developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence whose aim is fostering young people’s “E.Q.” and helping them balance motivation, talent, and goals. RULER summarizes these ways of dealing with emotions and their consequences:
“You want children to dream and have a vision,” says RULER co-creator Marc Brackett. “But you also want them to have the emotional education to strategize accordingly.” (For more information on the program, see http://ei.yale.edu/ruler/.) Search Institute in Minneapolis has a similar approach. “Children have to feel they have a voice,” says CEO Kent Pekel, “that they have age-appropriate autonomy and agency. This allows them to find their own spark. You want to put them on a path to thrive.” (See http://www.search-institute.org/about for more information.)
Children who are raised to believe they’re exceptional can experience a devastating crash when they get to college or graduate school and find themselves surrounded by lots of other “one percenters.” This can be traced back to parents who get overly invested in their children’s success and smother them with praise, which can raise the pressure to keep performing at unrealistic levels and make kids fearful of failure when they are faced with new challenges. “Parents begin to see their children as part of their own identity,” says Eddie Brummelman of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, “and their kids’ ambitions become their own.” Young people who are brought up this way are often at a loss when they encounter stiffer challenges and competition and don’t know how to ask for help. “Having been so painstakingly raised and tended from birth,” says Kluger, “a student may arrive at college as a kind of temperamental orchid, one that can’t possibly survive in the wild.”
The key is broadening the definition of exceptional. “It’s possible to raise a miserable billionaire,” says Kluger, “just as it’s possible to raise a happy shop owner or social worker.” But the current push for exceptionalism has made jobs like these seem less worthy. Parents and educators can get angry at the suggestion that a student might think about an associate’s degree aimed at skilled trades, nursing, computer technology, or airline mechanics. “These are really good jobs,” says James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University, “jobs that let you use your head, and they’re jobs that society needs.”
We cheat ourselves and our kids, concludes Kluger, “if we view life as a single straight-line race in which one one-hundredth of the competitors finish in the money and everyone else loses. We will all be better off if we recognize that there are a great many races of varying lengths and outcomes. The challenge for parents [and educators] is to help their children find the one that’s right for them.”
“In Praise of the Ordinary Child” by Jeffrey Kluger in Time Magazine, August 3, 2015, available for purchase at http://time.com/3969237/in-praise-of-the-ordinary-child/