One of the hardest lessons to learn as a parent is to trust your instincts. You feel something is not right with your child, but you can't quite put your finger on it. Is she happy? Is she under too much pressure? Is this the way it's supposed to be? These are all questions you might ask yourself when you see something's off. But, despite the voice in your head, there is a whole host of people, from school counselors to medical doctors to your closest friends, who will tell you: "Everything is just fine. Don't worry. This is normal behavior."
That's where mom Vicki Abeles found herself a few years ago as she struggled to determine what was happening to her own daughter, who seemed to be slipping into a shell. Their family had a life that might seem familiar to you: a complicated, filled to-the-minute schedule of school, sports and extracurricular activities. Hours spent on homework starting in elementary school and spiraling out of control by high school. Unrelenting standardized testing in school and encouragement to enroll in test prep classes outside of school. Pressure to get into and excel in multiple honors and AP classes. Constant struggles between parent and children in order to complete all assignments on time. Sleep-deprived kids thanks to late nights, early mornings and weekends swallowed up in schoolwork. Endless sports practices at dinnertime and games at church time. And the disappearance of family time in favor of tutors, private coaches and any other résumébuilding activities that you and your kids can squeeze into a week.
And all of this wrapped in the promise of getting into a top college someday.
Welcome to the culture of achievement, otherwise known as the "race to nowhere." Side effects include major health issues like depression, eating disorders, binge drinking, drug abuse, rampant cheating and other stress-related health issues. And it creates burnt-out kids who get to college in no shape to really do the high-level thinking and learning they need to be productive students and future employees.
Vicki's concerns lead her to question why she and her family were the unwitting participants in this march through childhood. Vicki is a mom who wanted who wanted to restore her daughter's health and well-being, not an expert in education. But the questions she asked of school officials, child psychologists, medical doctors, students, teachers and other parents inspired her to produce and co- direct a groundbreaking documentary called Race to Nowhere. The documentary is an investigation into the pressures American children and their teachers face in our achievement-obsessed education system and culture. The film is being screened in schools and communities all over the country. I had chance to watch the film and talk to the director last week. And, like a lot of parents in the standing-room-only audience at my screening, I saw my own family onscreen.
As the mother of a high schooler and a middle schooler, I'm right in the thick of the race to nowhere. Personally, I have tried to hold back the tide of pressure that can be heaped on kids in terms of grades, test scores, GPAs—all those measurables that we use to create a narrow definition of success for this generation. But, despite my efforts at balance and realistic expectations, it's easy to get swept up the race to succeed academically, especially if it seems like everybody else's child is a 4.0 student body president/team captain who recently started a nonprofit organization in his or her spare time.
Trusting your own instincts about how much your child can handle is a daily challenge in self-restraint. Sometimes, in order to maintain balance in your child's life and health, it can feel like you are one parent holding back the dam.
Not so, says Vicki. She has noticed a trend in many school districts after a screening of the film. "People are tired of being alone on these issues," she says. "They want community. They want to be together." Parents are forming online groups, meeting in person and committing to work toward change for the health of their students after coming together to screen the documentary. The film has empowered school districts to initiate change in areas like reducing or eliminating homework for elementary kids, setting later start times for tired high schoolers and limiting the number of AP courses a student can take in one semester. "Systemic change will happen when parents trust their instincts. And educators trust their instincts. It's too difficult to do by yourself," Vicki says.
Do you feel like your kids are in the race to nowhere? If you do, trust your instincts to do what's best for your own child. And visit the Race to Nowhere website to see if the film is screening in your area. You'll be inspired to make some changes, big and small, for the health of your kids.
Lian Dolan is a mother, wife, sister, friend, daughter, writer and talk show host. She writes and talks about her adventures in modern motherhood for her website,ChaosChronicles.com, and her weekly podcast, The Chaos Chronicles.