Race to Nowhere


A friend of mine watched this documentary recently on how we, as a society, are over-stressing our children by expecting so much from them. You can click on the image above to see the trailer.  It’s all about making sure they reach their full potential and become highly successful as soon as possible. They have to learn to swim and skate before they can even walk. I have friends who registered their 9-month-old baby in three activities – music “awareness”, storytelling, and baby yoga.  In some schools, kids are expected to do five hours of homework every night just to keep on top of things. The level of stress is palpable. And despite all the extra activities, the hours of homework, the exposure to everything that parents can think of, I don’t see them getting to university any more prepared than they were in previous generations.

I wasn’t particularly fond of school when I was a kid. I liked to social aspect of school and enjoyed going mostly for the opportunity of meeting my friends but wasn’t really engaged at the intellectual side. I was mostly bored all the time. But my parents weren’t really on my case and I never felt that if I didn’t ace a particular math exam my life would be over. Despite never doing much homework, I did learn enough in school but I learned even more on my own and by playing with my friends. I remember being very conscious of the fact that it was great to be a child because that meant I had no responsibilities and lots of free time. I particularly loved the long summer months when I would even forget what day of the week it was because summer meant the end of scheduled activities. The worst summer of my life was when I was 10 years old and my mom was at university at the time and for some reason my parents put us in a day camp at the university. Every day we had to wake up early and go to the university campus for a full day of scheduled activities – volleyball, swimming, painting, you name it. Both my brother and I HATED it. It felt like school. There were instructors that told us what to do and everything was scheduled. And to us, the whole point of summer was not having school. For years my brother and I would make a big scene every time we drove past the university campus just to tease my parents “Don’t look! there’s that concentration camp to our right!” and we would visibly shudder and pretend we were hyperventilating (we were very imaginative kids).

Because I appreciated the feeling of freedom that I associated with childhood, I get very sad when I see how little freedom kids have today. I’m sure some of them are quite happy and well-adjusted but I have to confess I’d hate to bring up a child today. I wouldn’t be able to give them the same childhood I had or the same degree of freedom, which would just make me feel very anxious and unhappy for them.

On another note, one of the points of the film is that we need to re-define success. Currently success is measured in how much money you make and how much you own. So parents put pressure on kids to have high profile careers or get degrees that would set them up for high profile careers, and kids feel that unless they can make lots of money, they cannot call themselves successful. I know people who make lots of money, live in big houses, but who are totally miserable and have no life and no friends. How can they call themselves successful?

Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t become a lawyer or a big-shot executive. What I am saying is that you should do that only if that’s what makes you happy and fulfilled. If you do the things you are really passionate about, success will follow. I have a cousin who showed an interest in cake design when she was fairly young. I remember that she was 12, 13 years old and would spend three or four days decorating a cake, following a complicated design from a magazine. She loved it. She was also a very smart girl and after high school she got into the top law school in the country, got her law degree and began work as a lawyer. She never really enjoyed law and kept dabbling on gastronomy as a hobby. She worked at a couple high end restaurants, and did really creative cakes for her family. Her work was really creative and well done and I kept telling her that she should do that for a living. She hesitated for a while. She was afraid of disappointing her family; her dad was against it since he felt it wasn’t a “serious” enough profession. All those years of studying would go to waste. But she finally made the plunge. She quit her lawyer job and started investing in her career as a cake designer. She got a few clients, her reputation grew, she went after specialized courses, she made it her job. It’s now a few years later and she’s extremelly happy and is considered one of the top cake designers in Sao Paulo.

And that’s why I always tell my students – just do something you enjoy. It doesn’t really matter what it is. And it doesn’t need to be the only thing you enjoy.

Update: looks like many parents are starting to move away from these trends. See an article on The Star entitled “The slow childhood movement