Pressure Cooker

8 03 2010

As I idly flipped through channels last night, waiting for a friend to come over (I mean, who really wants to spend all night watching the Oscars?), I landed on a program talking about the ethics of cheating by students. I watched for just a few minutes as the commentator interviewed dozens of students, young and old, about why they cheat. They all said pretty much the same thing—“You have to.”

Many of the kids talked about how they just couldn’t keep up with their extremely demanding schedules, and how everyone they knew was cheating, to some extent, just to get by. Some of these kids looked no older than 8, but they were all clearly frustrated by both their grueling daily activities and the insane amount of homework they had every night. The program also talked about how a record number of parents are now cheating just to help propel their child to the top of the class, even stooping to sneaking into their kids’ friends’ backpacks to see if the other kids are reading more advanced books than their own child. Teachers are not only turning a blind eye to this rampant cheating, but many are also intentionally changing answers on tests so their school gets the top mark.

Just yesterday, one of my eighth graders posted the following message on her Facebook: “I’m so worried about the end of quarter…. I hope it’s straight A’s like usual but somehow I have a feeling it isn’t going to be, and Oxford is on the line…”

These same messages of frustration are echoing across almost all the conversations I have with overwhelmed middle school and high school students.

These kids are in a pressure cooker.

One article I read on ABC quoted a mother justifying her three-year-old daughter’s weekly schedule of preschool, cooking classes, gymnastics, dance, and soccer by saying she needs to experience all of these things in order to narrow down what she wants to participate in as she gets older.

But—are these kids actually dropping all of their activities in order to “narrow down” their lives as teenagers?

No.

Instead, we’re racing to hyper-schedule kids from the cradle to the grave.

As author Stacy Debroff points out, “If you bring a child who’s 6- or 7-years-old to the soccer field for the first time or gymnastics, there are kids who have already way excelled them in terms of skills, and they can’t catch up! When we were growing up, we were kicked outside to play, and you went from house to house. Now, kids are being driven from activity to activity. The kids next door aren’t around to play because they’re off at gymnastics or starting soccer leagues.”

Kids now have, on average, 12 fewer hours of free time a week, less family dinners and vacations, and virtually no conversations that involve the entire household, compared to the youth of 30 years ago.

Three years ago, I wrote a short research paper on the “quest for the perfect child” and the impact that parental pressure has on kids. In that paper, I cited some research performed on 800 families with “academically talented students” and found that 73% of the parents interviewed deemed it crucial that their child would attend a top-level university and 81% desired their kids to be highly successful in their future profession.

At the same time, 39% of their kids said that they felt a lot of pressure from their parents to always be a top-notch student, and that the stress of that was wearing them down. And remember, these statistics are a few years old, now—I’m confident that number is a heck of a lot higher now.

Just looking up some basic information about homework was an eye opener for me. According to the National PTA and National Education Association guidelines, homework for kids in grades K—2 is most effective when it doesn’t exceed 10 to 20 minutes a day. Children in grades 3—6 can handle 30 to 60 minutes a day.

So, how much homework are kids actually doing? Researchers from the University of Michigan compared the amount of homework assigned in 1981 to the amount assigned in 1997, and found that although the amount didn’t vary much on the high school level, the amount of homework assigned to younger students almost tripled during that time.

A lot of research points to the fact that although homework pays off in high school, little correlation exists between homework and test scores in elementary or middle school. Translation? Educators are pushing ridiculous amounts of homework on kids every day, expecting huge gains in test scores—and the research doesn’t indicate that that’s happening.

My husband has long said that we’re raising a generation of kids to perform well on tests, not actually learn. I think he’s right.

I know it’s a hard time to raise kids, and it’s hard to buck the fast-paced, out-of-control trends of our culture right now. But when I can’t find a single night of the week where kids aren’t obligated to at least two other activities to host a youth event, and when I hear that my youth are being shuffled to games at 10:00 pm on a Friday night and then expected to get to an early-morning activity by 7:00 on a Saturday morning, I have enough sense to realize that we’re failing our kids.

What’s the long-term effect on these kids going to be? Who knows.

One of my favorite quotes about this subject is from child expert Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld: “Free time is crucial. Harried schedules take away the free time that is essential for children to be able to fantasize and create. If Einstein’s parents were alive today, poor little Albert would get a comprehensive evaluation and end up on Ritalin. Deprived of his daydreams, he might not discover the theory of relativity, but he certainly would focus more fully on the complex demands of fourth-grade math.”

So true.

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One response

1 05 2010
Rachel

This is so true, and so crazy! My husband and I don’t have children yet, but if we do in the future, we hope to have a more relaxed “schedule” with them. Hopefully with not too much on the schedule at all!

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