Slow and Steady Wins the “Rat Race”: Reflections on “Race to Nowhere”

Last night several moms and dads from my “Parent with Purpose” Meetup group gathered, along with other Dallas parents, at the Studio Movie Grill for a screening of “Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America’s Achievement Culture”, a film by Vicki Abeles that the NY Times calls a “Must-See Movie”. Mom Vicki was moved to do her research and make the film in search of answers after a 7th grade girl committed suicide in her community (Devon got a B minus in algebra). Vicki’s own children (in 5th and 7th grade) had started complaining of headaches and stomach-aches due to school-related stress and anxiety. She noticed that they simply could not keep up with their work loads. She felt that their childhoods were being robbed from them, and her children being robbed from her. She is speaking up and out for all of us, and the message is clear: “Enough is Enough.” It is time to put the health and happiness of America’s children and families first. It is time to check our priorities.

The stories and statistics are staggering: TOO much homework for kids, TOO much pressure to get into the “right” schools and colleges, TOO many AP classes, TOO much anxiety about grades and test scores, TOO much over-scheduling, TOO many teen suicides (2/ week here in Dallas), TOO many eating disorders as a result, TOO many good teachers quitting out of frustration with “the system” (including my own father), TOO much use of stimulant drugs to cope, TOO much cheating to cope, TOO much depression…TOO much, TOO much, just…TOO…much!

TOO much of the bad stuff, and NOT ENOUGH of the good stuff. The stuff that research shows over and over again is BEST for our children:

  • NOT ENOUGH time to SLEEP!
  • NOT ENOUGH time to PLAY!
  • NOT ENOUGH time to RELAX!
  • NOT ENOUGH time to be bored.
  • NOT ENOUGH authentic connections with friends.
  • NOT ENOUGH time to be with FAMILY.
  • NOT ENOUGH time to just BE!
The research shows that there is NO benefit, no real learning that happens when elementary students do homework. One principal has abolished it completely, and her students’ grades have gone up! Research shows that there is little correlation between homework and learning in middle school, and that for high schoolers, the benefits are only there for up to two hours of homework. (Some of these kids have 6-8 hours of it, after their after-school activities.) The schools have our kids for 7 hours a day – that should be enough!
Why all the extra work? College admissions have become more competitive because everyone is expected to go! AND teachers and schools are being federally mandated to teach more than is achievable within class, more than is developmentally appropriate, more than is necessary so that they hit the benchmarks, get their funding, and “leave no child behind”. Well, it’s not working. Kids are getting left behind because they’re being pushed too far, too fast. (Did you know kids in Scandinavia have the highest reading scores in the world, but they don’t learn to read until age 7? Because they know that this is when kids brains are wired to read. On the other hand, we tragically turn many kids off of reading for life at the age of 5 or 6 because they feel stupid and frustrated by it. They should be playing with blocks instead! Play is children’s work, and it is what prepares their brains for the work ahead.) Holding back tears, Vicki’s 7th grade daughter stated, “I can’t remember the last time I got to just play in the yard.” Though obviously a smart, curious girl, she said the last time she enjoyed learning was in the 4th grade. On a rare non-homework day for Vicki’s 5th-grade son, he told her he would love school if every night was homework-free. She said she felt like he came home a different child that afternoon: joyful, carefree, smiling again, riding his bike. (This in comparison with the crying, defeated child the night before.) Which picture do we want for our kids?

Maybe it’s time we set new standards for “success”. Maybe success doesn’t have to look like a big house and a fancy car. Maybe it looks like a happy, healthy person doing something that they love to do: doing hair, doing woodwork, fixing cars, making cakes, writing plays, writing blog posts, spending time having fun with the people that they love.

One high school girl reflected on her life of work and no play, “Sometimes I wonder, why am I doing all of this? I know…It’s to get into college and get a good job, so that I can be happy someday.” She paused, “But what if I’m not happy now?”

Another high school girl said that she is so tired of adults asking her “And?” When she tells them what classes she’s taking, teachers/ counselors/ parents ask, “And?” When she lists what clubs and extracurriculars she’s involved in, they ask, “And?” What about community service? What about sports? “And?” on and on….Since when is it NOT okay to focus on one favorite subject, one special talent, one passionate pursuit. Steve Jobs did, “and” he only attended one semester of college.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “but what can I do!” Start with your own family, your own parenting:

  • Consider your family’s rituals, the special ways you have of connecting on a daily, weekly, seasonal basis. “Loving, healthy RITUALS foster the development of loving, emotionally healthy children…. RITUALS are the GLUE that holds the MOSAIC OF LOVE together. (Becky Bailey) Check out these ideas for fall, and stay tuned for ways to connects over the holidays: http://mommymanders.com/2011/09/23/celebrate-fall-and-family-10-rituals-for-connecting-with-your-kids/
  • Share “good things” at the end of the day – to end on a positive note, to teach gratitude. I couldn’t help but think that this ritual surely would have helped some of these overwhelmed teens to stay grounded, some of these busy families to stay connected.
  • Share a meal together. There’s lots of research on the benefits of this simple act. You may not be able to do it every day, but do it when you can.
  • Live and Label your values: you have to be explicit with children, and repetition is key. From “In our family, we take care of our bodies” to “In our family, we help others“, my goal is that these values are being written on my kids’ hearts and minds for life.  We have a family “song” that labels our main values, and my hope is that this labeling will help my children recognize what truly matters and what doesn’t when they face pressures from the outside. Specific ideas to get you thinking: http://mommymanders.com/2011/08/16/live-and-label-the-values/
  • Focus on Effort, not results. Focus on the “process”, not the product or performance. There is lots of new research on the dangers of too much praise for children, and what makes for effective praise. The idea is to instill intrinsic motivation in our children, not a sense that their worth/ that our love depends on the grades they make, the goals they score, the college they get into…Here’s the latest scoop on praise, and some great “usable” phrases for you: http://mommymanders.com/2011/10/04/nurtureshock-lessons-the-inverse-power-of-praise/
  • Don’t ask about homework or test grades, ask about FUN and LEARNING. The parents who’ve had “enough” of the “TOO Much” in this film, the parents who’ve lost a child or friend to suicide, have simply STOPPED the nagging and berating after school. They play, they have a family dinner. They are there to help and guide when asked. They let their child experience consequences – success and failure, but they refuse to let homework stand in the way of their child’s health.
  • Reflect on your family’s schedule: Does it include enough down-time, play-time, sleep, time outside, and time TOGETHER?
  • Reflect on your own schedule. What are you modeling for your child? (Are you constantly stressed – skipping fun? skipping sleep? skipping meals?)
  • Stay tuned to my blog for a series on “Slow Family Living” and join my Meetup group to be notified of upcoming discussions/ seminars on the subject: http://www.meetup.com/Mommy-Manders-Parent-with-Purpose-Dallas-Meetup-Group/
I admire Vicki for being a “warrior” Mommy who is fighting for ALL of our children. If you want to join the movement:
  • Sign the “homework pledge” at racetonowhere.com.
  • Vote for your school board members, know where they stand on the issues, tell them what you think.
  • Pass this on to your friends and family. It is not just a problem for parents. It is society’s issue.

Please let me know. How does your family intentionally work against the rat race? How do you handle the homework problem?

Comments

  1. Gary Minton says:

    Great post, Sweetheart. Love, Dad

  2. Stephanie says:

    This is an important topic. I am a working mom and I used to schedule the weekend full of activities. In the past year, I grew tired of the rat race and have slowed things down. On the weekends, we plan to do one fun thing as a family and then the normal chores – grocery store, mow grass, etc. The other remaining time is relax time and connecting to each child, and also my hubby. I really have noticed a difference in all family members and me as well. I look forward to the day (hopefully soon) when I can be a full time mommy. It’s become very clear to me that raising good kids is more fulfilling than a corporate career.

    • mommymanders says:

      Stephanie, What a great step to take with your family. I know you’re swimming upstream, but I’m glad you are enjoying your time together. Doing the chores, grocery shopping, etc. together builds connection, skills, and values!  My son often asks for a “home” day, and now that he goes to school 5 mornings/ week, that means I try to protect a Saturday or Sunday morning when we don’t have to be anywhere or do anything in particular. This means we often miss church, and it means we haven’t yet signed up for any sports teams. And it is often some of our favorite time together! I applaud your intentional parenting. Thanks for setting an example for the rest of us.    Lowry Manders | Licensed Kindermusik Educator

      Kindermusik, Piano and Guitar by SoundSteps   http://www.soundsteps.com| lowry@soundsteps.com   214-680-7464 (SING) phone 214-402-6746 direct

      ________________________________

  3. Stevie Moon says:

    Hi Lowry! I met you this morning at the school tour and then was glancing at FB and a friend linked to this post. It’s great. I am certified in Handwriting Without Tears and teach it at a local preschool. It is another area where we really push kids too far too soon. Some kids are not developmentally ready to write diagonal lines until as late as 5 or 6 years old but we’re expecting them to go into kindergarten knowing how to write capital and lower case letters.

    Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the tour this morning. One thing I loved when we had our Meet the Teacher night for 2nd grade was when the teachers said they would only send homework home that was review from what they had taught at school. They said it should be easy and that parents shouldn’t be having to “teach” the kids what they were doing in the homework. My 2nd grader has about 20 minutes of homework an evening and then is asked to read 20 minutes a night – which for her is a joy and a pleasure.

    Let me know if you have any questions or concerns about the school.

    Stevie Moon

    • mommymanders says:

      Thanks for the hand-writing tips, Stevie! I remember learning that about diagonal lines at a seminar, and also, that young kids should use broken crayons, and golf pencils to help ensure a proper grip. But you’re right, they should get to draw pictures with sticks in dirt when they’re 5 and six, instead of being required to achieve something their body just isn’t ready for! And I was relieved to hear that homework is not such a problem at LHE, and that there is a focus on reading for pleasure. Glad you found my blog.

  4. Victoria says:

    Stevie and Lowry That is why the business of Occupational Therapy is booming! Kids who can’t hold in pencil by age 4 or who don’t have “good” fine motor skills are sent to OT. Case in point, my 4.5 year old nephew has been in OT for a year now because his school thought his fine motor skills are week. At age 3.5 can you really say that?!? So my sister and her husband felt forced to comply with the schools “recommendations” and are shelling out 200/2k for OT when his pediatrician says he is fine. To top it off, my poor nephew is exhausted by OT because it is right after school and he is already tired from a full day of learning. I told my sister not to send him but of course there is always the fear in private schools that you will be counseled out. It is a sham if you ask me. OT for a 3.5 year old because he doesn’t tie his shoe well or hold a pencil great yet!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Lowry–I am dying to see this. I can’t make it this week but how else can I see it? Sounds like a fascinating topic. This post came just in time for me to tour our local elementary school tomorrow–I will certainly be asking about homework, which is something I probably would not have thought of. In fact, my bigger concern was what kind of “gifted” and “advanced” programs they have. Ha! This puts things in perspective. Of course we all want our children to do well in school and we want the education they receive to be a good one, but it’s not ALL about achievement, especially at this young age. Thank you!!

    • Glad you got a little insight before your school tour. I actually saw it right before I visited our local elementary school, too, and asked the homework question. The answer was about 10 minutes per grade, which doesn’t sound bad, but that means 1 hour for 6th graders! The research shows that homework for elementary children actually lowers their learning potential (taking away from sleep and play and family), that more than 1 hour for middle-schoolers and 2 hours for high-schoolers is counter-productive for the same reasons. I was pleased that they don’t give homework on weekends or breaks…That said, I know some elementary schools and teachers are more creative and flexible about their homework assignments – some might include reading with a parent (always great!), or a list of creative family projects to choose from. What you want to stay away from is too many boring worksheets that don’t really add to their learning, and just become time-zappers. Good luck! I’ll let you know if there will be another screening, and it should eventually be out on DVD.

  6. Maybe it’s because I’m a yoga teacher and I work with children who are so stressed out from school, over scheduling and family obligations that they’re developing stress related diseases at such young ages, or maybe it’s because I was one of those stressed out, over achieving, success driven kids that was delivered a huge blow to my health when my senior year at SMU I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a digestive disease aggravated by stress. Regardless of why or how I got to this place, this movie just affirms what my gut instinct has been telling me for years- and I feel so empowered that I’m taking my family out of this rat race and off the hamster wheel so that we can get back to what matters in life- fun and play! Learning through experiences and experiencing those milestones together as a family! I’ve withdrawn my kids from the traditional, strict and structured schools to homeschool while we investigate the right learning/teaching method that works for our learning styles! After doing years of research, I’m convinced Montessori Method holds the answers and I’m eager to see my children blossom and thrive and hope other parents will advocate for their children as well! Enough is enough! The stress and pace of our society is killing us all! Let’s get back to what matters before it’s too late…

Trackbacks

  1. […] See my thoughts on the film….Slow and Steady wins the ’Rat Race’! […]

  2. […] more on the subject, see my post, “Reflections on Race to Nowhere” , the documentary about education and pressures on our culture’s kids, and read “Why […]