Two Million Minutes of the Pressured Child

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Last week my neighbors invited me to join them in listening to a guest speaker at their child’s school. As I walked into the gymnasium where he was speaking, I knew I had heard his spiel once before, as a faculty message at my own school.

Michael Thompson is known for his books on child psychology and development, including Raising Cain and The Pressured Child. Indeed, his talk was about the Pressured Child and how parents needed to step out of their careerist schema of school to consider how their children saw and approached school. He gave some very effective illustrations on how mind-numbing and oppressive the school schedule is (“Would you accept a job that doubled your salary but required you to sit through six meetings led by other people every day?”) and how most kids don’t bother competing academically (“After a couple of years, it becomes clear to everyone which two or three people in the class have a chance at becoming valedictorian at the end.”)

He argues that what kids are interested in is development — growing up. As Seinfeld has said in one of his stand-up routines, kids are all about “up.” They want to get bigger, faster, more independent, more cool, more popular, more respected. Makes sense to me — and it’s something that I probably ought to keep in mind as I consider how I can corral my students’ attentions.

Thompson compared school to a long hike — like the Appalachian Trail — something that any able-bodied person is able to do, though at varying speeds, wills, and temperaments. Only a few relish the experience; they have, as he puts it, good fitting shoes. What parents need to know, he stressed, was that they could never fully understand what that experience is like for their children — that the most they could hope is to stand a quarter-step behind their kids along the journey.

He ended his talk by suggesting that parents should gauge whether their children are receiving three things from somewhere in their school: connection, recognition, and a sense of mastery. Beyond advocating for those, he argues, parents can’t, and shouldn’t, do much more.

What’s interesting is just before my neighbors called me up to invite me over to Michael Thompson’s lecture, I was looking at the following trailer for the documentary, Two Million Minutes:

And now you have the strongly persuasive message that our children are not pressured enough, that Michael Thompson’s position is a luxurious one from a position of isolated privilege — a position that seems more and more delusional as the rest of the world claws its way faster and faster to overtake America’s first-world status.

This is a very real tension that I constantly face, both as a teacher, and as a new parent. One side holds up in empathy the interior experience of the individual. It argues for an ecumenical valuation of skills and strengths that defies clear-cut standards of achievement. It prioritizes, instead, holistic well-being and happiness.

The other side holds up the consequences of social expectations and marketplace competitions. It stresses the conformity needed to practically convert private assets to public value. It acknowledges the obeisance one must give to political reality, and prioritizes strategic mobility within that reality.

Overemphasize one side, and one is in danger of coddling children past granularities of meaning and fostering resignation or entitlement to their station in life. Overemphasize the other, and one risks a soulless oppression that encourages cynical ambition.

Framing this dilemma as a tension between two sides makes it sound like what is needed is balance, a compromise. Make sure our schools don’t neglect standards and a commitment to excellence. At the same time, make sure they remain flexible and empathetic to individual student needs. That sort of thing.

Upon reflection, though, I don’t think that’s right. What we have here is not so much a spectrum, but a prism — these two positions are different facets of the same problem. Consider how they both express an anxiety about “the other”. One position ignores it, distancing itself from the systemic inequality and suffering that it is ultimately the beneficiary of. The other position fears it and actively works to maintain that very system. Both are working from a position of self-interest and self-absorption — or, more kindly, self-preservation. One can see why illegal immigration is such a thorny issue in America right now.

As the son of immigrants I remember constantly being goaded to work harder, study more, get better grades. I was pressured to go to the right college and get into the right profession. I remember thinking that my parents just didn’t get America — at least the America I was observing and experiencing. I could see for myself that success wasn’t necessarily achieved in one dogmatic dimension. I got the notion that one might achieve more success simply by following one’s bliss, that with a little luck and hustle everyone ends up all right. I wonder now if we both missed the point. What do I tell my own child?

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3 thoughts on “Two Million Minutes of the Pressured Child

  1. Tom,

    I love your analysis of what most Americans see as a binary education question – to push kids in schoool and cause them “stress” or to take it easy on them and risk their future careers.

    Having grown up in America and traveled extensively around the world visiting schools in over 3 dozen countries, I would like to frame the question somewhat differently.

    Not as “should we stress our kids with more academics”, but rather “are we helping our children allocate their time most effectively to be globally competitive as adults?”

    Americans stress their kids in lots of non-academic ways that we barely mention – primarily in sports but also socially and with after school jobs.

    In sports, every year 1-2 high school boys die in August two-a-day football practices and our local orthopedic clinic is regularly filled with serious high school sports injuries – football, baseball, basketball wrestling, soccer, even cheerleading which is the biggest source of serious orthopedic injury, believe it or not.

    To Indians and Chinese this sports “stress” seems bizarre.

    Americans’ passion and focus on youth sports — and the time invested in training, practicing and playing — contrasts sharply with how Indian and Chinese youth spend their time.

    They use athletics as a way to have fun, unwind, get exercise. They would never spend 20 hours per week for 3 months practicing a high school sport – and then train and be coached in the off-season for the following year.

    They spend that time studying, but not just math & science – they are enjoy art and music all the way through high school.

    They study world history (most Indian students I’ve met know more American history than American students). The read literature drawn from a global library. They understand and enjoy discussing economics. And of course they are fluent in their native tongue as well as in OUR native tongue.

    Yes – Indian and Chinese students work very hard at school starting in kindergarten – but while a few are highly stressed by their parents’ expectations – they are no more stressed than the student athletes whose parents I see at every game screaming at their kids, yelling at the coaches and cursing the referees. Didn’t one US parent actually kill another parent not long ago at a high school hockey game over a bad call?

    To Chinese and Indians – we look nuts.

    What I hope my film will cause American parents to think about is “how their kids are allocating their 2 million minutes of high school.”

    If the takeaway from my film is we need to squeeze more academics into the same time slots, rather than re-allocating time – people will have missed what I saw in India and China.

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  2. Thanks for that important clarification. I really want to see the complete documentary.

    Parents do set time management priorities. It seems to me as much a cultural problem as an individual one — the way we do sports is ingrained into our way of life. And I wonder whether most kids in America have the problem not of doing too much sport but of doing too much nothing.

    Parents (and culture) also influence attitudes, which is what the trailer for the movie seemed to highlight. There’s a kind of American hedonism, a devaluing of the pursuit of learning, that’s disturbing. It’s the stereotype that India and China are just “nerdier” countries.

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  3. As a parent of two (one who is entering the public school system next year), and a professional educator, I am relieved to find that others are feeling the same self-imposed anxiety over how much to “push” our children in their education. I am oddly comforted from time to time by the statistical evidence that the most highly correlated “parenting factor” to a child’s future success is the parent’s own success. It seems that genetics is all that matters. Perhaps that it where our hedonism stems: we don’t push because we don’t think it matters. Of course, none of this explains the religious fervor with which we Americans celebrate youth sports.

    Thanks for helping me realize that I’m not alone.

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