Since Teach Your Children Well came out in the summer of 2012, I have been on a perpetual book tour. I have spoken in many of the wealthiest enclaves in this country but I have also spoken to parents who are squarely middle or working class. I have been to the most prestigious independent and public schools as well as those that range from the notable to the unexceptional. I have spoken to top-level executives from Google and Microsoft, American Express and Morgan Stanley. I have also spoken to the boots on the ground people who work for these companies. I’ve been to Austin Texas, but also Midland Texas. To the Upper East Side of New York, the North Shore of Chicago and Beverly Hills as well as Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis. I’ve crisscrossed the country speaking to parents, teachers, administrators, professors, business executives, regular folks and billionaires. While the wealth disparity in this country is increasingly shocking, here is what has surprised me most: regardless of where I am, and whom I’m speaking to, change – in our value system, in the way we parent, in what we expect from our children – has been consistently met with a combination of interest, appreciation, apprehension and resistance.
This mixed bag of reactions to the call for change is understandable. Change, for most of us, is hard. Change that involves our children is particularly hard. Experts throughout the country, including those of us here at Challenge Success are pushing for a new way of thinking about success for our children. We’d like parents to understand that every child is different, that there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to measuring success and that the historical measures of success, grades and SAT scores, are limited in their ability to predict success for our children. We are proposing a new paradigm, one that is more closely aligned with what research tells us about child development and the best practices of educators. We’d like parents to keep the bar high for their children, but to make sure that bar is in line with their abilities, interests and well-being. We value what used to be considered “soft skills” and are now considered indispensable for healthy emotional development as well as employability. Skills like creativity, resilience, integrity, perseverance and self-motivation. We believe that we are still educating and still parenting using a paradigm that provided the heartbeat for America in the Industrial Age but is increasingly inappropriate for the needs of 21st century America. So, while there is general agreement, among parents, educators and business leaders that change needs to be made, the process has been surprisingly slow and fraught with uncertainty and anxiety.
After The Price of Privilege was written in 2006 I anticipated resistance to change. After all, most of us had been unaware of the psychological toll that was being exacted on our children by our high-pressure, high-stakes educational system. Traveling around the country I found the predictable questioning of data and conclusions. “A little stress is good for kids.” “I worked two jobs when I was a teen, it didn’t hurt me.” “Kids are resilient. They can make up sleep later.” Eight years later these comments are no longer part of the discussion. One in four high school kids has significant symptoms of either depression or an anxiety disorder. One in four college kids is abusing substances. 17% of kids at the Ivies report self-mutilating. There is a 78% increase in suicide among young girls, a 34% increase among teens in general. Parents are aware and educated about the fact that an extreme emphasis on metrics, on perfection, on a narrow version of success, is working against the healthy development of their children. Almost all the questions that I am asked now have to do with how to reverse the disturbing trends, how to create a healthier paradigm and how to work as a community to effect change. While I certainly don’t have all the answers to these questions, research and common sense draw some pretty hard conclusions. Kids shouldn’t be doing 4 hours of homework a night. They need the amount of sleep recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (approximately 11 hours for younger kids, 9 hours for pre-adolescents and adolescents). Being overly focused on content often excludes the necessary development of socio-emotional skills. The effects of unsustainable levels of stress are being seen in the offices of not only mental health workers, but also internists, pediatricians, orthopedists and GI specialists. Kids now report that the greatest stressor in their lives is school.
So you’d think that we’d be clamoring for change. Insisting that our schools pay more attention to kids’ well-being along with educating them with an eye to the needs of the 21st century. You’d think that we’d have reconsidered the value of praise, perfection and insisting that metrics tells the whole story. But, in fact, there is not widespread picketing at our schools, no marches in the streets and only minimal changes in most of our households. We are convinced of the need to change and terrified of implementing it. We worry that if we change too quickly, while others hang onto the old paradigm, our children may be left behind. That our changes may disadvantage our children when it comes to the intense competition we feel awaits them in school, in work, in life. If our son doesn’t join the traveling soccer team at 8, how will he be able to compete at 13? If our daughter doesn’t take 4 AP’s her junior and senior year, how will she get into a top school when her best friends are taking 5 AP’s? Can we really insist that our teen spend the summer working at Target when his friends are off to developing nations building water treatment plants and school buildings? Aren’t we depriving him of both a cultural experience and a great looking transcript?
So here’s the thing: an exhausted, frightened, stressed child is unlikely to be successful in the long run. It has always been our job, mothers and fathers alike, to first and foremost protect our children. To keep them safe. Yes it takes courage to swim against the tide, to make decisions that are not aligned with what appear to be community values, to take a risk and decide that our children are better served by being protected than by being pushed. Over and over in my office I see teens in tears because they fear disappointing their parents with a less than stellar grade or field performance. It’s time for us to step back and reconsider what we have always known. That our children are precious. That they need and deserve to be protected. That their worth can’t possibly be measured in grades or scores. Yes, of course, change is hard. But it’s also necessary. As I told one of the communities I’ve been to several times. “I’m not coming back. You’ve heard the message. Either suck it up and actually change or stop bringing experts in to tell you to change.” Tough message I know. But the best one I can give you.
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.