Monday, August 22, 2005
Come On, Give Our Kids a Life!
A columnist writing in The New York Sun saw evidence of this herself while touring a private school in the city. She saw enough "heavy" students to make her think twice about her plans to raise her children in the city. She quizzed the school psychologist about what lies behind the disconcerting statistics.
"I grew up in New York," explained the psychologist in reply, "and after school we used to go to the park and throw the ball around..." In other words, in her day, kids got plenty of exercise. More physical activity, more calories burned up, more melting away of any superfluous fat. And today?
"Today, these kids all have tutors. They finish school, go to the tutor, come home and have dinner, and then it's time for homework and bed."
"Poor nutrition and low activity levels are the most obvious reasons behind childhood obesity," comments Sara Berman, the Sun columnist, "but I can't help but think that for many children in the city, whose parents know all about good nutrition and Little League on Saturday morning, the hours they spend sitting with tutors and in front of computers play a role as well."
Berman adds that when she searched Google for the term "tutors in New York City", she came up with 804,000 results. True, other American cities didn't come even close, but the numbers were significant enough. It seems we have echoes here of the social phenomenon (or should I say aberration?) that I discussed in my previous post. The "superstar" syndrome, powered by an intensively competitive society with a win-at-all-costs obsession, has apparently filtered down to the upcoming generation.
"There is so much pressure on our kids to be great at everything," a local mother told Berman. "When I was growing up, you were good at math or writing or French. It was okay to be bad at something too. That was normal. Today, if your kid is bad at math, you immediately try to find the best math tutor to fix the problem. It doesn't matter that she's also a great writer and captain of the basketball team."
Berman adds that she understands why parents would want to find tutoring for a son who's failing in French, or a daughter who's saddled with the worst math teacher for the second year in a row. "But is it such a problem if your child doesn't get all A's? Isn't there a natural variance in our children's performance? Don't the high schools and colleges expect a range of abilities for each child?"
And even if, she says, parents use the excuse that the competition for college placement is much more intense these days, "the madness of these parents" is partly responsible for that very intensity in the first place.
So what's going on here? Does the way parents drive their kids to higher and still higher levels of academic achievement, much as a jockey goads a race horse to towards the winning post, ultimately produce the productive, polished, well-rounded and well-adjusted citizens their mothers and fathers had prayed for?
I don't know.
Now, if these youngsters are spending part of their marathon spells under tutelage on sharpening their writing skills, I might be inclined to give their efforts my blessing.
According to a report released in June by the USA's National Commission on Writing, state governments spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees. And that's not all: "It's impossible to calculate the ultimate cost of lost productivity because people have to read things two or three times," laments one of the commissioners, and another adds that he shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak.
One suspects that things are hardly much better in the private sector, and that many other countries have similar problems. Clearly, any investment we make to ensure our children will go out into the big wide world well equipped with essential communication skills, written and oral, would be a most worthwhile one.
But leaving that issue aside, are we doing the right thing by our offspring by depriving them of the kind of childhood we ourselves enjoyed? Do we have our priorities right when we allow ourselves to be driven by the compulsion to raise a new generation of superstars? Do the ultimate benefits of placing heavy pressure on the shoulders of our kids outweigh the drawbacks.
It's not only a question of getting sufficient physical exercise, important though that is. Many studies over the past decade or two have demonstrated the negative impact of long sessions in front of a computer screen on the development of a child's social skills and interpersonal relationships.
Perhaps the time has come to give our kids a life.