A great deal is being written about adolescent stress these days, and its concomitant long-term adverse health effects. I would like to examine where this stress is coming from and postulate that stress might be good, notwithstanding the fact that nothing in excess is good whether it is too much work, wealth, fun, sun, sleep, sex, alcohol, drugs or religion. Everything we do must be balanced with one’s place, ability, opportunity and the existential compromises necessary for comity in one’s community. The juggernaut in these group studies is that we are ALL uniquely different. In today’s world especially, we each come from widely different gene pools, different cultures, different religions, with different physical and mental capabilities with different ambitions. What is the right amount of exercise, ambition, homework, food or stress for one person might be too much for another. Public schools obviously, cannot accommodate mass individuality, so everybody is categorized, graded, assigned and pushed from one grade to the next, ready or not, like a herd of Texas longhorns. In an ideal world we would all have our own private tutors like Alexander The Great, Mozart, FDR, Bertrand Russell or the Polgar sisters… but dream on, right?
In her article, “Is The Drive For Success Making Our Students Sick” (New York Times 2016), Vicky Abeles, like others, lays a lot of the blame for adolescent stress on too much homework. She particularly references over-worked medical students in St. Louis and a California suburban high school within the super-charged nuclear orbit of Silicon Valley as examples of over-worked, stressed-out young people. I want to explore the notion that stress is due more to a lack of discipline than to too much homework. I am not convinced that today’s young people are actually doing more read’n, writin and rithmetic than we did fifty years ago.
Let me say right off the bat that there are a myriad of problems with American public high schools that cause unnecessary stress for everybody. Getting rid of the draconian, pre-dawn, anti-circadian start times would probably be sufficient in itself to eliminate most adolescent stress. Are these cold, dark mornings some kind of stubborn carry-over from Nineteenth Century agricultural America? Whatever; I recommend a national “sleep-out” and put a stop to it. Psychologists disclaim it, MD’s have decried it, and teachers, parents and kids hate it. Who is to blame: buses, sports, principals? Find out who “they” are and give them a one-way ticket to Damascus.
Additionally, most schools are too big and impersonal (why are the best prep schools small?), classes are over-crowded (there should be a Congressional mandate limiting all classes to 20 students and schools found cheating on this must be severely disciplined), teachers are over-worked and under-paid, sports are over-emphasized (really?), discipline has been eviscerated by political correctness, affection has been abandoned by insecurity, educational theory has become in-bred (Some of the people with PhD’s in university “education” departments have never taught a day of high school), safety and security are not paramount and the general project is indeterminate; what do we want: college prep, International Bachelorette, vocational or same-ole-same-ole? These are all factors that inexorably contribute to stress for teens.
Needless to say, most students will aver that they have too much homework. And what else is new? Of course doing less homework is like the wrestler who wants to get strong but doesn’t want to do push-ups. Homework is the foundation upon which scholarship is dependent. The teacher who has prepared a discussion about satire and racism and asked the kids to read Chapter 32 in Huckleberry Finn is left high and dry the next day when nobody has read the chapter (because they were at the basketball game the night before) and thought about Huck’s famous reply when Aunt Sally asked if the explosion on the boat hurt anybody and Huck said, “Nope. Killed a nigger though”. No matter what anybody says, homework is important; it is imperative. The kids who did not do that particular assignment will go through life failing to understand Mark Twain, satire and racism. I would also argue that “homework” is what all accomplishers do later in life. Every doctor, teacher, lawyer, nurse, architect, programmer, journalist, editor, psychologist (and a thousand other demanding occupations), does that additional work (whether it is reading a White Paper from the State Department, going over an insurance claim or studying a new medical procedure) at home, on their own time, so get used to it.
Why are some kids good students and others, like me, strugglers? There could be a thousand reasons for a poor GPA, but preparation, training, and experience are key factors for achieving good grades. Without preparation everything will be harder and more stressful. Negotiating the American junior and senior high school is a highly developed skill. Homeroom, homework, standardized tests, bullies, rules, drugs, alcohol, video games, sports, cars, proms, sex, work and sleep deprivation can all conspire to make a teenager feel pretty stressed out. When my parents divorced when I was eight I learned to survive and wash (and iron) my own clothes and deliver papers, make my own lunch, fight, camp out, steal and drink Southern Comfort, and smoke cigarettes but scholarship was not part of that (juvenile delinquent) curriculum. I never was able to catch up. Even in graduate school I struggled with the discipline required for serious scholarship. The point is that we need to prepare our children early for the study skills necessary to navigate today’s hyper-stimulating academic/work environment.
Since I had wrestled in college, my girlfriend affectionately thought I must have been a very good wrestler despite my earnest protests to the contrary. One day we were driving through some small town in New Mexico and the parking lot of the high school was packed and I said, “Lets see what is going on in there”. What we discovered surprised even me because I had never seen anything like it. Six mats, hundreds of wrestlers, stands packed, everybody screaming as 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade kids threw each other around with “moves” I would liked to have used on the mat at Syracuse University. I said, “Now you see why I could never be great at this sport. If you don’t start early you can never catch up”. If your kids are stressed I am going to risk offense and suggest that you probably did not prepare them for the situation they now find themselves in.
I will argue strenuously here that parents should be involved with their children’s homework assiduously from elementary to middle school and probably even through high school. The first time the kid jumps in the back seat with homework in hand, in second, third or fourth grade, the parents should be anticipating this event and celebrate it. (There are those who eschew homework for little kids but I disagree. “Homework” should begin in first grade) “Wow! You have homework just like a big girl! Lets see what it is. Oh, Mrs. Jones wants you to draw a picture of our house. This is fun”! And so the parent, right from the get-go instills a sense of pleasure and then provides paper and crayons for this first homework assignment and when the kid is finished the parent complements the art work and provides a manila envelope in which to protect it thereby showing respect for the child’s efforts.
There are many theories about how to parent (teach) from Aristotle to the Puritans to old Dr. Spock to today’s Howard Gardner. Raising kids is one of life’s great adventures and as one of the greatest adventurers of modern times, Sir Edmund Hilary said, “An adventure is something in which you might get mortally wounded”, which is to say, it ain’t easy. It is going to be a heluva lot of work and you are going to get hurt. Would you decide to sail around the world without a ton of reading and nautical preparation? I recommend learning as much as possible about child development and education. Do NOT assume that you know what is best for your kid just because you think that you turned out okay (because, in fact, you might not be okay). For example, there were child behaviorists in the 60’s that recommended doing whatever “felt natural”. If your kid misbehaved and you felt like spanking him, go ahead and spank the kid. I remember seeing pictures of mother lions slapping their kittens and thinking, “Yeah. Okay. I get it”. But, the fact is, it is NOT okay to use corporal punishment on a little kid (even if certain passages of the Bible recommend such behavior). So even if you were taken out behind the barn and whipped with a willow stick that you had cut yourself, that was then and this is now.
You don’t start reading about the first leg of your trip around the world when you are sailing out beneath the Golden Gate do you? Same with child-rearing. As soon as the pregnancy test comes back positive you should be reading Dr. Benjamin Spock’s (sill) excellent book, Baby and Child Care and Caring for Your Baby and Young Child by the American Pediatric Association. The great American painter Winslow Homer had some excellent advice for young artists: look at as much painting as possible when starting out but then, at some point, stop looking at other people’s work and just focus on your own painting. This advice seems applicable to child rearing as well: read as much as possible and then give it a break to digest all this new information and then, “just do it”. One thing I think is important to consider is, for parents to have a united front. I am not sure — anything is possible — but I am not sure things will work out for the best if each parent has a different idea of how to do things such as discipline, bedtimes, eating habits and so forth. I would surmise it is better to agree on all these things because kids WILL learn to play one parent off against another. For example, since I was raised indifferently, staying up late while my parents made music, I had the stupid idea to let my own kids stay up as long as they wanted thinking that that is what I had done and that I had turned out okay (which would be a matter of debate) so self-regulation must be good. Fortunately, my wife prevailed and the girls had a sensible bedtime assuring at least nine hours of sleep every night. I also thought we (I) should home school the girls. Now, forty years later I probably could home-school a kid pretty well, but back then it would have been an unmitigated disaster. Spanking or no spanking, video games or no video games, desserts or no desserts, meat or soy, television or no tele. . .these are all things you will have to work out and agree on so the coalition stays strong.
I don’t mean for a second that you follow one theory or another punctiliously, sort of like my generation followed Dr. Spock, but at least read what some pretty smart people advise and give it time to digest and then form your own theory to fit your particular circumstances. Read Howard Gardner’s book, Extraordinary Minds to see what things, in particular, Gardner says must happen for an “extraordinary” person to flourish. Perhaps if we make sure those things are present in our own (average) homes at least we will have tried our best. (I must insert a caveat here however. Avoid getting carried away with the “gifted” child syndrome. I have known some real idiots who thought their idiot kids were “gifted”. Quite embarrassing, to say the least.)
A present-day hero of mine is Susan Jacoby, one of America’s leading intellectuals (author of: The Age of American Unreason, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism). She makes the point that when she was growing up in the mid-west, in the fifties, there was a kind of kitschy, cultural atmosphere, which she calls, “middlebrow” in her house with Monet water lily copies on the wall, Mozart playing on the Victrola and a piano in the living room and book shelves lined with Harvard Classics. Her middle class parents clearly aspired to “highbrow” culture for their daughter and these corny efforts, as it turned out, were not altogether unsuccessful, which mirrors the foundation upon which I base much of my argument. As Emerson said, “Genius is energy” and so we must expend as much energy on our children as possible. There is absolutely no way of knowing how things will turn out, but at least we will live out our dotage knowing that we gave our children our best shot if we apply ourselves energetically to their learning.
At some point you might wonder what you can or should do for your children. This is a very important thing to think about and there are cogent arguments to be made for the laissez faire (Platonic) approach or the aggressive (Aristotelian) approach. One thing we definitely know now is that you CAN make your child just about anything you want if you work hard enough at it. We can never know for sure if Wolfgang might have made it on his own but there is no doubt that his father Leopold Mozart worked damn hard at his son’s musicianship. Joe Kennedy certainly “produced” a bunch of politicians. Archie Manning didn’t do so badly with his football boys either. The most stunning example of how a parent can influence a child is Laszlo Polgar’s experiment with his three daughters.
Polgar believed that geniuses are made, not born, and he might have proved that, especially with his daughter Judit who, in 1991, became the youngest Grandmaster of all time and went on to become one of the strongest chess players of the late Twentieth Century. It is no crime to harbor ambitions for your kid. Having said that, there are quite a few people who are repelled by the Polgars and the notion of “programing” our kids to follow certain paths, even the path to college, as innocuous as that seems. In any event, there seems to be a lot of agreement these days that genes account for about half of intelligence and environment accounts for the other half; putting us somewhere in between Plato and Aristotle.
By the way, getting into a good college, or any college for that matter is not my barometer for success and happiness in life. I know that college is just a different path from a whole constellation of rewarding livelihoods such as carpentry (the happiest people I have known have been wood-workers), mechanics, fishing, nursing, welding, ski instructing, web design, real estate, cooking and a thousand other things (I have a friend who makes a very good living playing pool). However, there seems to be a consensus among researchers in the 21st Century, that people with college degrees do fare better in today’s economy than non-college graduates. So, I would frame the argument in that context: if doing something one way gives your kid a (statistically) better chance of happiness than doing it another way, which would you choose?
For example, at risk of alienating some people with my audacity, I offer here a few suggestions of things you can do to ameliorate stress in your teenager-to-be. These recommendations won’t guarantee that your kid will get into Harvard or be successful in life but, if you take them seriously, incorporating your own modifications, they will guarantee that your kid will navigate the American public school system with a minimum of stress.
The “program” starts early my friends. Countless studies have concluded that the most important emotional and cognitive development of every individual on the planet occurs in the home between the ages of: 1 and 5. This is paramount and indisputable. You simply cannot do too much in those first five years. And like everything else, what you do at the beginning sets the tone for what follows. Needless to say, all this early learning must be FUN and positive. Remember the way they train Namu the Killer Whale; everything is positive notwithstanding the fact that it is hard to spank a 12,000-pound killing machine. Keep in mind also that about nine to twelve years of age is another of those ideal times for developing accurate physical skills such as dance or sports. The eleven-year-old has the musculature, coordination and desire to excel at anything he wants to do (given the right coaching).
So, back to “the program”: some behavior modification is going to have to take place regarding your television. We used to call them “idiot boxes” for a good reason and I see no justification for changing that unflattering moniker. The good news is that you have a couple years in which to break the habit, but once Junior is between two and three you should not watch anything but the news, NOVA, RT, PBS, and an occasional sports event or something special such as the Olympics (when my kids were little I was able to get the television to work for the winter Olympics, but for some reason it would stop working soon after the Olympics were over but I was always able to “fix it” again for the summer Olympics. But every time it broke, within half an hour of no TV the girls were back to their cardboard box doll houses, books, painting and sewing projects). TV now and then is fine but routine television is death to intelligence (was there a single ad during this year’s Super Bowl that was not an insult to a mature intelligence?) Your kid must not grow up in front of the plasma flat-screen altar of idiocy every night (the average American kid between 2 and 5 watches about 25 hours of television per week) Get yourself one of those bumper stickers, “Kill your television” (there is a good reason why Howard Gardner has no television in his home).
Secondly, read EVERY NIGHT to your kids when they are tiny and until they are in fourth or fifth grade. There is simply no way to exaggerate the importance of good reading skills. Once you are passed the finger-pointers and Dick and Jane you get to read some excellent literature such as: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Garden, Watership Down and Harry Potter (just barely tapping the surface of kiddie-lit) But, actually, you can read almost anything interesting. My father read Sherlock Holmes to me when I was only seven (maybe that is why I am still afraid of the snakes – The Speckled Band). Snuggled in bed with your kids every night reading must be a ritual just like brushing teeth. And make sure that you read a lot yourself. Remember, despite the fact that they will come to despise you when they are about fifteen (or sooner!), for the first ten years your kids adore you and WANT TO BE JUST LIKE YOU. If they see you reading they will WANT to read.
Thirdly, eat together every night and talk about stuff; dialogue is one of the cornerstones of intelligence. From the time your kid is sitting in a high chair until high school he needs to hear the ebb and flow of intelligent conversation in a civil tone. You say, “Duh; come on Arthur. How stupid do you think we are”? Smart people can be really stupid when it comes to raising children. I thought I was smart and the stupid things I did (like moving from place to place half a dozen times) would make a list longer than the people Donald Trump has vilified. The reason I stress dinners together is that 20 to 30 percent of American families do NOT eat dinner together. Foraging does not encourage conversation. The concomitant dialogue around the dinner table will lay the foundation for articulate expression and the important realization that even people who love each other can have very different opinions about any given subject; the very bedrock of critical thinking.
Fourthly, play games with your kids. Games will evolve into more and more sophisticated entertainments that can be enjoyed by both adults and children. Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Chess, Bucket of Nouns (verbs also work), Categories (JFK’s favorite game supposedly) Pictionary, Charades and Exquisite Corps (which can also be played as a story) and Faux Dictionary can all be played by kids as young as third grade. (Recently, we were playing Bucket of Nouns and I threw in words like theodolite, curmudgeon, oxymoron and raconteur and by the second and third rounds you would have thought such words were part of the everyday vocabulary of these fourth and fifth graders). Increasingly there are studies that suggest that kids who play (cognitive) games do better on standardized tests (did we really need “studies” to know this?). Answering questions in Trivial Pursuit or Categories or making up fake definitions or writing imaginative parts of a bizarre story in Exquisite Corps or putting words together in Scrabble will, inexorably, make standardized tests seem like a cake walk.
Fifthly, I recommend that teens should not have superfluous part time jobs during the week. Their job should be school. Clearly, this does not apply to those people living in such penury that the teenager must help support a family. I am talking about those middle-class teens that are working so that they can get a new pair of skis, a car or cool clothes or whatever accouterments teens think they have to have. I am a huge proponent of part time work that, I know unequivocally, teaches ten times as much as any academic class, but I do not think it is fair to expect a kid to get into a good college if he is sleep-deprived when he takes the SAT because he was bagging groceries at Safeway the night before. Kids themselves cannot be expected to understand these things. I mean, does the average ninth grader really know that he totally needs to start bringing home like straight A’s right now if he totally wants to like go to Harvard (I have known several young teens, persuaded by their parents of course, wearing Harvard and Stanford sweatshirts with expressed hopes of matriculating at those schools). He has to understand that the Jetta today means Jettasoning his future at a good college.
Sixthly. The video games must be strictly regulated. As far as I am concerned, when you chose to have children you took an oath of fealty to the sacredness of children for twenty years of your life (although, truth be told, parenting never stops). Unless your name is Barack Obama, there is nothing on earth more important than your kid. If your kid wants something you must provide whatever it is in the manner that is best for your kid. Period. I am not convinced that a liquid crystal display gadget is the best answer to your child’s plea for stimulation and attention for example. Technology is no substitute for personal interaction. The iPhones and tablets with their stupid infantile cartoon characters running around yelling frenetically provide absolutely no challenge and no opportunity for sentient exchange leaving the poor kid comatose from CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome). There is now ample evidence that the stupid, and often violent content of video games, their addictive nature and the ill effects of hours and hours in front of liquid crystal displays are indeed bad for human beings. Unless you want your kid to end up sitting in an air-conditioned steel-reinforced mobile cubicle in Indian Springs, Nevada piloting a remote General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper aircraft over Afghanistan dropping ordnance on enemy combatants (and innocent civilians) then I suggest a very serious limitation of video gaming.
And lastly, beginning with that first homework assignment to draw a picture of your house, you need to set up a specific, well-lighted comfortable place for doing homework. It could be the kitchen table or a desk off to the side, preferably a room of one’s own. But the routine, the quiet, the help, if needed, should always be there. And I can’t emphasize enough, the fact that if you want your kid to do something, you need to be doing it yourself, so that your kid sees and hears you doing “it”, whether it is music, science, painting, reading or “studying”. To reiterate, our kids want to be just like us (until they become teenagers). Many, if not most, great musicians, scientists, statesmen and athletes came from homes where these things were quotidian; where the kids became what they saw their parents doing. The four famous people I mentioned at the beginning, Mozart, FDR, Bertrand Russell and Judit Polgar all became what they had seen and heard at home.
I think Susan Jacoby’s parents had the right idea: give Mozart, Nietzsche, Impressionism, books, classical music and culture a chance around the house and maybe it will rub off. . and maybe it won’t; but it can’t hurt. Constant love, humor, respect and support are all that really signify. In the final analysis, the ONLY thing that matters is the happiness of our children regardless of what they end up doing, where, and with whom. At the end of the day, all that really matters is that our kids are (relatively) happy, healthy and that we might have been partially responsible in allowing them to follow their “bliss”.