I was asked to write this blog on “grit.” A concept I mostly endorse and a word that simply annoys me. Of course hard work, persistence and diligence are good character traits. Although educator and author Alfie Kohn certainly has a point when he says that sometimes it’s just as important to know when to quit as when to forge ahead. The annoyance I suspect comes from Silicon Valley’s infatuation with the word as if it had just invented perseverance. But I’ll save this idea for another time because right now I’m writing from Southeast Asia and Palo Alto (or any of its iterations around the country) seems far away.
I was asked to speak in Hong Kong, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to compare the legendary anxiety about school performance among Hong Kong parents with our own homegrown anxiety. Besides what a good control group Goldman Sachs parents on the other side of the world would make. So, in spite of jet lag and an unfortunate case of food poisoning I had the privilege of speaking to close to 1,000 parents in Hong Kong. A few months earlier I had spoken to parents in Amman, Jordan. In between I spoke to parents in 8 different American cities. And this is what I discovered — that anxious parents around the world are pretty much the same. Parents worry about their children’s physical health and emotional well-being. They worry about how to provide advantages to their children in our flat, uncertain and ambiguous world. They find it hard to combat perceived community pressure to back off. They ask dozens of questions all centered on how to keep kids both healthy and competitive. They are confused, concerned, well-meaning and desperate for an expert to provide solutions to problems that seem insolvable.
While American parents are convinced that particular schools can confer great advantages to their children, this notion is, at best, only partly true. Mostly it is a deeply flawed misconception that has done more harm than good. Kids thrive in schools that acknowledge child development and play to these well-documented developmental stages. In addition, no school, whether preschool or university, regardless of name or prestige, can predictably confer the benefit of a school that is a good fit for child. This does not diminish the value of prestigious schools, it simply underscores what research has shown, that kids thrive in environments that are warm, collaborative and play to the strengths of a child. Children’s test scores in Jordan determine not only what school they attend, but what work they will do for the rest of their lives. Similarly in Hong Kong, high stakes testing is likely to determine, to an unreasonable degree, the course of a youngster’s life. Apparently the toddler who isn’t reading by two or three is considered pretty much a lost cause. How odd, since Finland, one of Hong Kong’s competitors for highest rankings on international testing, doesn’t even begin to teach children how to read until they enter school at age 7. So were Jordanian parents more anxious than American parents? Were parents in Hong Kong? Sure. But we serve neither ourselves nor our children when we think of either anxiety or high stakes testing as an arms race to be won, rather than an affliction to be avoided.
Fortunately more and more parents both around the world and here at home are rethinking the risk-reward ration of pressured, exhausted children. They are trying to figure out how to ensure a healthy childhood while not diminishing their child’s chance for success down the line. They want to know what measures are most effective in raising consciousness in their homes, their schools, their communities. Curiosity about how to solve these problems is high. Courage, not so much. Parents’ job is first and foremost to protect their children. We can do better.
As I moved across Southeast Asia, I planned on continuing this piece and staying focused on writing about how both parental anxiety and the educational systems that promoted anxiety compared to each other. It was my first trip to this part of the world and I was both open and curious and locked into my historical way of framing educational issues. Then I got to Cambodia. Palo Alto disappeared. Hong Kong disappeared. Grit and high stakes testing and all the concerns that have been at the heart of my work for the last decade disappeared. I’ve never seen the kind of heart-wrenching, sickening poverty that I saw in Cambodia. With no basic services and an entirely absent infrastructure, I saw malnourished children bathing in fetid water and playing in raw sewage. Education, when you can find it, terminates in early adolescence. Malnourished children lay next to dying dogs on sidewalks that stink of garbage and refuse. Hospitals beg for resources to treat the children suffering from typhoid and dengue fever. I think back to how easy it was to get my kids vaccinated when they were babies. How we walked into a drugstore for typhoid immunization right before the trip (two of my three sons came with me). I think about the debates around how many AP courses a high school student should take or whether to apply to 8 schools or 10 and realize the luxury of worrying about problems like these.
And I think of a question my Challenge Success Co-Founder, Denise Pope, posed to me nearly 8 years ago. “Would you rather your children were good or smart?” Denise knows I considered this an unfair question. A “yes/but” question, not an “either/or” question. But it haunts me in Cambodia. I think about how broken the world is. Of course we want our children to be both good and smart. And my youngest son Jeremy helps me to answer Denise’s question. When I say I can’t wait to leave Cambodia he looks at me with puzzlement. “I want to come back,” he says. “Why?” I ask. “It seems hopeless.” But that’s the point, my son says, “It’s a blank slate, anything you do here would help. It’s the easiest place to make a difference.” He’s already talking about a return trip. The answer is “good.” Definitely good.
Stop worrying about your kids’ grades and acceptances and standings. There are 24 hours in a day. Cultivate empathy and caring and goodness. There is a broken world out there. Just waiting for our children to help fix it.
Madeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.