I was one of those kids

I saw The Race to Nowhere last week.  I was tremendously moved by it.  I’m not sure I know what to do, precisely, with my ever-stronger sense of how I want to parent my kids.  There is a doctor of adolescent medicine in the film who says even he, a specialist who writes books about the toxicity of pressure on our kids, worries about how to walk the line between protecting childrens’ childhoods and holding them back.  He worries about the potential harm that his beliefs – supported in his case by all kinds of medical research and a PhD or two – may wreak on his daughters.  I worry too, and I have only my – albeit strong – intuition behind me.

The movie made me feel concerned about Grace and Whit, but the anxiety I feel about them comes from a profoundly personal place.  I was one of those kids.  I still am.  I was “perfect” in the achievement sense of the word.  I got the 4.0 GPA.  I went to Exeter, and Princeton, and Harvard Business School.  I played by the rules, followed the map, achieved everything I aimed for.  My father often comments that it was easy to raise Hilary and I because we went “straight down the middle of the street.”  Be careful, I always caution him: there’s still time!!

I related intensely to the kids in the movie, and to a culture that praises highly performance and achievement.  At one point in the movie a teacher says, in response to parents being surprised when their kids struggle or fall apart or otherwise cave under the pressure: “They all say, ‘but my kid’s a good kid!’  And I always say back, ‘You know your kid’s a good performer.  How do you know they’re a good kid?'”

That’s what I was.  A good performer.  A great achiever.  And you know what?  It didn’t add up to anything.  I’m writing a memoir, in fact, about what it’s like to realize that that kind of life, built on achievement and success and external validation, doesn’t necessarily lead you to happiness.

As Glenda Burgess so beautifully put it in The Geography of Love, “Eventually, I constructed a layered exoskeleton, a coral reef instead of a life.  The structure was there, but the essence was missing.”  This is certainly my personal experience: I realized, in my early 30s, that my model of approaching life, which was all about goals and achievements, was irreparably broken.  I was missing something fundamental; there was an echoing emptiness around the core of my life that eventually I could not ignore.

I think this is what worries me the most about The Race to Nowhere: we are raising a generation of children who don’t know how to tune in, to figure out what the essence of their lives is.  I know.  I am one of them.

Figuring out how to make my way through life without the external guideposts of achievement has been much harder than I ever imagined.  As I’ve said before, I am now navigating by the stars.  And that is much harder than simply being the perfect performer.  So I worry about myriad things that The Race to Nowhere represents: overscheduled kids who have lost their propensity for wonder, exhausted children who are physically harmed by the pressures on them, students who “do school” as opposed to developing aptitude for – and joy in – learning.

Probably most of all, though, I don’t want my children to grow up as deaf to the voice of their soul as I was for so long.  If they want to achieve and do well I think that’s ok – there’s nothing wrong with that in the abstract.  I just want to be sure they know that’s not the only skill that matters, and not to forget to tend to the essence of their lives as they race into the great wide open.


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28 Comments

  1. Posted January 31, 2011 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Oh yes! I’m learning this too now, achievements don’t mean happiness and listening to the soul is something that needs to be practiced. I just stumbled on your blog, but there is so much good stuff here. Thank you for teaching :)

  2. Posted January 31, 2011 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    I am so glad you saw it! I knew you would get so very much out of it… I am hopeful- our super achieving district has been showing the film to teachers and parents and there is an on going conversation- this is what we all need…

  3. Posted January 31, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    Oh my GOD Lindsey. Of course you know…given my recent post on the same idea, that this would hit home and hard for me. I’m actually stunned speechless.

    “I was missing something fundamental; there was an echoing emptiness around the core of my life that eventually I could not ignore.”

    Seriously. I’m crying for the understanding of this. No joke.

    And for the record my friend, you did a much better job of articulating it. Wow. I think I just cracked open a bit.

  4. jj
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    This is such an interesting post, especially in light of the Tiger Mom debate currently raging and then, too, the warnings from President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan that we have lost our worldwide competitive edge because of the failures of our education system and the lack of achievement among millions of kids, many of them disadvantaged and stuck in failing schools.

    I have been mulling these things over in my job as an education reporter, and am glad to be reading a counterweight here.

    I notice even with my friends’ kids, I shy away from saying ‘you are so smart’ or ‘you are so beautiful’ because I want them to know I love them for them, not because of what they can do or how they look.

    I think it’s great to excel at something and the joy of doing something truly well is a feeling I would want for everyone. But tying achievement to a sense of identity is, as Lindsey writes, a burden rather than a pleasure.

    Thanks as always for sharing with us.

  5. Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Wow, what an amazing post. I was also one of those over-performing children who always did well on the standardized tests, joined all the clubs, fit within the narrow, accepted view of success. Like you, I recently realized that this path had not led me to happiness, but instead made me a person who cares more about pleasing others than pleasing myself.

    It also meant that I wasn’t brave enough to pursue passions unless I could excel at them right away or that I thought were deemed unimportant by “the powers that be”.

    I think it’s a long journey away from this path and it requires a lot of change. It’s good to know I’m not alone and I really look forward to learning more about your experiences. And I think your kids are so lucky to have the benefit of your wisdom on this topic!

  6. Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Here’s a twist of perspective. What if this is part of the way we are designed? What if it’s our job to strive and struggle to achieve, to set goals and meet them, to work hard to excel – during the first half of our lives? And then, suddenly, somewhere, something shifts and we have to search for our souls – all of us.

    Having a parent or parents who balance that drive to achieve, who begin to teach us as children to listen to that inner voice, is important. It makes things easier when the shift occurs. Having models that show children a different way rather than feed into the driving force and push even harder for achievement becomes critical. But I’m not sure that we can completely short circuit the process for them.

    I don’t know. I was one of those kids too. And no one taught me to listen. It’s been a hard lesson to learn. But I hope that because I’m learning it and modeling it to them, it will be an easier lesson for them when they face that shift from accumulation to assimilation. But at the same time, I try to let them experience the breadth of life experience and I see some of that same drivenness in them that you describe, that I felt.

    Navigating the rocky shoals of parenthood close to the shores is a daunting thing. I hope at some point we clear the point and they can launch out onto the deep blue sea in a vessel that’s been proven seaworthy. I hope.

  7. Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    I am with Christine, Lindsey… oh my God. This is probably one of the best, certainly one of the most important posts you have written. I cannot wait for your book to be finished…

    “Probably most of all, though, I don’t want my children to grow up as deaf to the voice of their soul as I was for so long. ” So good, so true.

    Just love them, madly, deeply, passionately. Just that will prepare them for anything…

    XOXO

  8. Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    On one hand, incredibly courageous to look it in the eye and confront it. On the other, you really had no choice, did you? The voice within can be deafening. I talk the talk about taking the pressure off my son, but on the other hand want his life to rich and full of hands-on experiences that we’re taught success can bring. Thank you for bringing this discussion to the table. I look forward to the support it will bring me as I navigate these tricky waters.

  9. Posted January 31, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    i feel this in my bones. this resonates on so many levels: personal, professional, soulful (since i have been reflecting on these themes for two decades). a memoir…oh, the joy is my heart is wild today.

  10. Posted January 31, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Lindsey – I haven’t seen the film yet, but I want to. I share a lot of your concerns and am similarly confused as to how to navigate them. The one thing I will say, though, is that the mere fact of your awareness will mitigate a lot of the damage you fear. By understanding the genesis of your own experience, and by working so diligently to prevent that experience for your children you can’t help but give them something different.

    I’ve been meaning to write to you and recommend a book I’m reading. It’s called “The Not So Big Life” by Sarah Susanka. Every time I pick it up I think of you. It’s all about how we fill our lives with the things we think should matter, leaving virtually no space (physical, mental, emotional, or temporal) for the things that really do matter.

    I very much appreciate your voice in the online ether shouting back at our cultural norms. Thank you for your continued example.

  11. Posted January 31, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    What I come away with after reading your post (besides heart-pain for what you’ve gone through – and a really good feeling about how you’ll raise your kids) is:

    such a wonder, such a glow, such (ohmyword! I want to stand up and CLAP!!) joy about the strength we all have — the ability to come back to “navigating by the stars” – to come back to ourselves.

    Because of some things going on in my family, but outside my sphere of influence, I am SO drawn to personal stories that remind me of this. Thank you!!

  12. Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    “Probably most of all, though, I don’t want my children to grow up as deaf to the voice of their soul as I was for so long.” Tears. Of recognition, of fear, of conciliatory agreement.

    As I wobble on my path, learning to listen to the “voice of my soul” (GOD do I love that), I wonder how exactly I’m going to teach my loves to do the same.

    xxooxxoo

  13. Posted January 31, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    You’ve nailed down in words one of my biggest struggles as a parent. I’m completely in your camp, but I struggle so much with the idea that my kids are “missing out” or “falling behind”. Falling behind in what, exactly?
    And that memoir? Girl, keep writing. I can’t wait to read it.

  14. Posted January 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I sent this post to my kids’ Dad…also an Exeter alum. Here is his response:

    “I think there is an element of this in each of us…

    I am troubled/confused/provoked by this article. Who are the people in professions that are demanding? How did they get there? Aren’t we asking our kids to explore and find something that speaks to them? If there is a glimmer of light in something, then help them open the door. How and why they go through that door becomes up to them. I think we are involved and supportive. I think we see potential, are realistic in what we are asking, and involved in good ways. I do think we need to constantly ask if we are doing this well…that is the only way we will get better.”

    admin Reply:

    One thing I want to clarify – I realize maybe I was not very articulate on this point. I am not at all against high standards, or even against achievement per se. I actually respect Exeter a TON for the fact that they still believe in their kids and know they can live up to the demands the academy places on them. I just think it’s tricky when identity gets wound in there … does that make sense??
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  15. Leslie
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I as well. Exactly.

    My struggle is with the senseless, irrational guilt, a looming feeling of failure, a deep-seated belief that I have let them down – the relatives, the teachers, Those Who Had Expectations of Great Things. A disappointment. This is how I’ve ‘turned out’.

    Never mind my own sense of coming into a life of balance, or that I may be finding a bit of peace or even happiness… Somehow I give more weight to the external expectation, whether real or imagined, than my own internal voice.

    It’s quite silly, really.

  16. Posted January 31, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know – I sit and ponder about the ability of a teenager, or even young twenty-something to really know themselves. To be self-aware and understand what they want out of life holistically. To be pushed, however, into the belief that achievement is the ultimately goal, is a disservice to them.

  17. Posted January 31, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Lost in all the “Tiger Mother” furor is the fact that many of us kids pursued achievement for achievement’s sake all on our own, without any parental pressure.

    Like you, I was all about “winning” the game–I was even interviewed by my high school paper where I was quoted (accurately) as saying the immortal words, “If someone does better than me in a class, I take it as a personal insult.”

    Fortunately for me, I started developing a more nuanced and introspective view of life when I was an undergrad at Stanford (a nurturing school that encourages people to diversify a bit by socially discouraging hard-charging cutthroats–Amy Chua would be horrified).

    I ended up taking a bit of a detour back into the extrinsically motivated world because of the dot com boom, but was fortunate enough to come to my senses shortly after turning 31:
    http://chrisyeh.blogspot.com/2005/12/meaning-of-life.html

    I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to prevent kids from absorbing the achievement culture; my parents were very much focused on letting me do what I wanted–they even offered to support me if I wanted to take time after graduating to pursue a writing career. But despite all this, I kept charging hard until I realized for myself the futility of measuring myself on external metrics.

    Just love Grace and Whit as best you can, be a good role model, and hope that they can realize the truth before you and I did.

  18. Posted January 31, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    I love this post and what you raise here. I definitely claimed the “achievement” badge to proudly wear as my marker in life. And I have found, over time, it doesn’t make a full life. I’m working on striving less and BE-ing more. xo

  19. Posted January 31, 2011 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Lindsey – I so know where you are coming from – the graduated top in the class, went to the colleges expected to go to. Except after that, I started a family immediately and threw myself into that next. It is just recently that I have found I need to re-find myself.

    I have learned to let my children set their own goals and I support those. This has taken me six kids but I think I finally have it down. It means that I do not deal with pushing music lessons, AP classes, etc. I just support what the child wants.

  20. Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Just like you, I strive for all of this for my children… and also for myself. As I seek a reprioritization (of my standards, my “to do” list, my desires, etc), and struggle with this shift as well as make progress with it, I wish it all the more for my children. But how to teach it and lead by example when it is an everyday work in progress for the teacher? Perhaps that is it… teach it by being honest about the struggle and authentic in the revelations with ourselves and with our children. Perhaps by demonstrating the journey we are on, we shall teach our children most effectively. And maybe there is no way to get “there” without a bit of inevitable struggle that we cannot spare our children from, no matter how hard we try and will it and wish it.

  21. Posted January 31, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

    This was so beautiful. I too was very achievement oriented and am hoping my children aren’t.

    You shouldn’t worry about yours. Kids look to what we do and they are going to see you listening to the wind of your soul. That is priceless.

    Much love,
    Pamela

  22. Posted February 1, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Hi Lindsey,

    Firstly, hugs for you and your authentic vulnerability (we’ll have to work on the self-negation though :)).

    Perhaps your experience is akin to battle trauma where you were sent to fight for a “good cause” (strong America, manifest destiny, personal wealth and the getting of happiness) only to find the reality of trench warfare is more like zombies in uniform (be it military or business).

    You come back shell-shocked and the zeitgeist tries to get you back in the game (concealing from you and me, as it does from itself that fear is the driving engine of commerce, and war is included in “commerce”). This is not subterfuge, it is lack of consciousness. What I hope is that more of us can wake up, gently and with decreasing fear—and it is precisely real connections that can tame fear (which is my focus this year, so I join with you in spirit to stop the undeclared war).

    We can all tell by the comments that this is an issue that touches on our emotional buttons, and that we are not alone in these fears, pains and confusions.

    I guess we all have our thoughts on this (I know i do, including a year ago post: Put the homework down: http://bit.ly/fsvb9h; and my own two cents on “Race to Nowhere” after I saw it, which also stirred a fair amount of discussion: http://bit.ly/frkg5r)… yet I suppose I’m even more inclined to suggest some sort of virtual group hug—as I’m increasingly convinced that it is our fear and loneliness that turns striving for excellence into veiled war with each other, which is really veiled war with ourselves.

    Sure let’s be “great” if that means using our smarts, skills, creativity and love to the fullest extent possible, but let’s also keep in mind that we’re in this together and dedicate our growth, our soul-making and our parenting to all our collective kids and each other—then the real pleasure of being alive unfolds, rather than the grim and fear-drenched march for continued existence of our progeny at any and all costs.

    With much love, BD

  23. Posted February 1, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    This hits close to home. I definitely relate to the idea of performing, both for approval and because I wasn’t always sure who inhabited my “coral reef.” And these two things are clearly related–the more we perform, the more we lose touch with our inner voice, our intuition. I worry about this with my kids, too. Because some of it seems genetic in my experience and training (especially the perfectionism). But a fair amount is learned and either supported or discouraged by the environment. So I hope to be able–for my sake and my kids’–to express what is authentic and true, rather than what is expected.

  24. Posted February 2, 2011 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    i am very interested in seeing this movie; however, even without seeing it, i find myself with questions. having worked in independent schools for years, i am familiar with the culture and the questions i believe it raises. good questions and important ones. however, what i think about often and what i am trying to figure out with my own kids is how much of kids’ time these days goes to electronics. would they be so tired and feel so stressed, after having stayed up until 2 am doing homework, if they weren’t simultaneously checking texts, wearing the ipod, surfing the web, playing games on their phones, etc. i think we have lots of choices as parents, and we can set up lives that have balance and richness in them. we can encourage our kids to think and read and sit with us and talk about what matters most to them. i am also finding that the largest challenge i feel as a parent may be the need to accept who my kids are, rather than trying to insist they be someone else. finally, there’s the whole question of how to motivate kids and help them to be productive and to see themselves as capable of making meaningful and generous contributions to the world — i did find myself, when reading about battle hymn of the tiger mother wondering when amy chua had ever asked her daughters to do anything for others — sometimes i find that people with endless achievements aren’t always so community minded or generous with their talents. you always give me much to think about!

  25. Posted February 3, 2011 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I love this post because as the daughter of a strict Indian father I can so relate to the need to achieve.

    I just found your blog and must say that I love your writing style. Your “About” page alone blew me away! I am looking forward to reading more of your words!

  26. Posted February 15, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    I like this post. My experience is similar in some way and led me to mentoring teens. I was not a 4.0 student but went to a country day school in New Jersey and then Deerfield Academy and The Colorado College. After finding myself on the wait list for med school three times I gave up… I emotionally couldn’t handle it. It took me almost ten years of batting around after that for me to get my $%^& in a pile. Our society places so much emphasis on scholastic achievement that the development of the whole person is missed. That is why I think mentoring is so valuable. It helps teens develop their emotional muscle. It helps them develop strong internal beliefs and make choices based on those beliefs. Much of my blog http://boulderteenmentoring.com/blog speaks to helping parents connect with their teen so that parents can act as mentors to their own kids. Muscles strengthened in isolation do not help us when it’s time to demonstrate coordinated movement. They must be trained for movement if we want to be able to move with grace and power. When raising kids, their development must focus on how their mind, bodies, emotions and spirit integrate so that they can move and adapt with our ever changing world.

    BTW my loves your blog. I can see why!

    Cheers,

    Henry

  27. Posted April 28, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    “If you have love in your life,
    it can make up for a great many things that you lack;
    and if you don’t have it,
    no matter how much else you have,
    it’s never enough.”
    ~unknown

  28. Thursday's Child
    Posted May 2, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I think what she was trying to say is down with EMPTY achievement. Struggle and success without wanting the goal will, despite reaping the monetary and other intangible benefits,feel hollow and profoundly disappointing.

    It’s also possible that the other emptiness felt is a good place for God to fill.

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