“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
–Henry David Thoreau
Earlier today I read a post a friend had shared on Facebook about a sixteen year old in Orange County committing suicide last weekend. Notes the child left revealed pressure from school had led them to take their life. Is this child alone in feeling this way? How many more kids go unseen and unnoticed? How many stress and anxiety disorders don’t make the news. How many others don’t even get noticed by parents? As a parent, this rattles me to my core. I can’t imagine the unspeakable anguish the parents must feel right now. A child lost forever.
School today subjects many kids to unreasonable pressure. It sabotages family life. It robs them of creativity and imagination. It robs them of time for personal interests or to simply to be with their own thoughts.
The pressure is becoming worse every year. We’re seduced into thinking that if our kids just work harder, get smarter, improve their GPA, get into a better college and become prosperous that it will all lead to a happy, satisfying life. Scratch away the pretty exterior and you’ll find kids that are exhausted, bored and lost. Perhaps even suicidal.
As I type the words “school makes me feel” into Google the top three suggestions that appear are stupid, empty and sad. One of the top reasons for kids to be brought to a family counselor is anxiety related to school. The symptoms show up in many ways from insomnia, eating disorders, loss of interest, anxiety, depression, physical complaints, fatigue, social isolation and self harm to behavioral problems, anger and destructiveness. It’s often the brightest children who are most sensitive to the wrong that’s being perpetrated on them. They often lack the maturity to understand and articulate their feelings so it shows up in the form of behavior problems.
When did we stop valuing “well being” over grades?
When education is focused on grades and competitiveness, children can’t help but feel enormous distress. Kids who come home with stellar grades and honor roll receive praise. We puff them up to believe that this was the desired result of all their “hard work.” What were really imposing is our own expectation. It’s an enormous burden to carry.
Regardless of any well meaning reassurance from parents or teachers, a child’s self worth is highly impacted by grades. In school, the child becomes less human and is regarded more as a factory product that is subjected to a quality control system of testing and grading. “Grades” may be more appropriate for beef than children. The declining mental health of many children is direct related to school. After all, school tout their number of “college bound” students as a major marker of the quality of their education. There is no measure for the number of physically and emotionally healthy adults that result from their education.
The amount of homework is only one of many systemic problems. Grade school kids come home with nightly homework that approaches 2-3 hours as they get into middle and high school. Even an adult with good paying job would resent coming home to an additional 2 to 3 hours of work at night. It disrupts sleep, family life and our kids mental health. For many parents the bulk of their relationship with their child involves badgering their child to do their homework and dolling out various rewards, threats and punishments if they don’t. Parenting has been reduced to playing the role of deputy for the school system.
Why are so many parents willing to sacrifice their children to a toxic and dehumanizing system?
According to research professor, Dr. Peter Gray, Ph.D “Because of increased uncertainty about future employment, parents worry about their childrens’ abilities to make a living more then they did in times past, and this contributes to their increased tendency to view childhood as a time of resume building. Somehow, parents believe, if they can get their children to achieve high scores on tests, and get them into the most prestigious schools, they can protect their children’s future. They are wrong, of course, but the perception persists. They become convinced by the rhetoric that their children will fail at life if they don’t get high grades and get into a good college. Parents are expected to play the role at home that teachers play at school, pushing and prodding their children to do the things the school system has decided they must do.”
When faced with low scores on academic achievement tests the knee jerk reaction is to argue for more longer hours and more homework. In Japan for example, students perform as well as their Korean peers at math despite a drastically shorter school day. In high-scoring countries like Finland and the Netherlands, the focus is on highly individualized support for students. What kids want is to feel like they have a say in their learning. We don’t give them that. Children need less school, less homework and less pressure.
For twelve years we do what were told, we comply and follow the rules. Some will argue that they themselves did it and turned out okay. But you don’t have to think too deeply to see the fallacy in that argument.
So can we stop placing pressure on our kids? It’s damaging them. For some, like this child that thought the only way to end their pain was to commit the worse kind of infliction, I offer you this…
You mean more than your grades. You are worthy of life. We need you here to do great things. You are a special person that has much to offer the world. There are many who love and care for you. If you are struggling with suicidal feelings, please reach out to someone.
If you’re a child, and unhappy about the demands placed on you in school, do something about it. Demand your family time back. Insist on no homework. Involve other students, be a voice for the masses. There can be no system without you. It cannot exist without you. Educate yourself. Find mentors and people that will support YOUR DREAMS. Commit to something worthwhile. It’s your life.
If you’re a parent that places unnecessary pressure to compete in school, please stop. The education you think your child is receiving has little to no relevance to the future world. To see what school is really for, watch the brilliant TedxYouth talk given by Seth Godin here.
This game is not worth playing anymore.
Letters from Patrick Turner
“The young person who is alone on the seashore or in the forest and hears music; those people who have the knowledge that the music must be followed- must stay with it. I’m sure that in our world, where emphasis is put on success, the song is heard and forgotten.” Joseph Campbell
Having a good ear is essential to any musician. It’s what separates exceptional musicians from amateurs. Intuition plays a big part, as well as acute awareness to sound, pitch and tone. It’s this same kind of awareness that were tapping into when were following our bliss. Were being sensitive to what moves us, much like the many musicians that felt the call at some point in their life. A spark was ignited, and from that day forward they were hooked.
Our family is a musical one. My husband plays the piano and violin. Both of our children play too-the youngest plays the violin and ukulele, the oldest plays guitar, ukulele and is a classically trained singer. They do it for the love of it- it’s in their DNA. The hours spent practicing scales and repertoire without any acknowledgement or fame doesn’t matter. They are playing, not for the admiration, but for the will inside them to be better for themselves. I’ve witnessed during their practice when time stops, that they’re in a kind of trance like zone, creating their beautiful music. The bliss experienced when studying their craft can’t be put into words.
I use the music analogy because it’s a powerful one. When we think about success we often don’t associate the idea with happiness. In our culture it’s become two separate entities. Something like, you’re only happy until you’ve reached some level of success. Only then when you’ve become what our society deems successful, are you happy. This is where we’ve got it wrong. Instead of pushing and prodding our children to “play it safe”, get good grades, get into college, do something because of the money “success”-we could and should be fostering the idea of following the music in ones heart- the passions and desires that don’t care about the money, that don’t worry about what they might be, that aren’t wrapped up in the trappings societies have placed on us.
I’ve often said that the world needs all kinds of people. We need, more than ever, children brought up to value their own worth, trusting in who they are as individuals, exploring what their life might look like when they “follow their music”.
This is a beautiful quote by David W. Orr,
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
It’s a shift in consciousness. Everyday we hear the perils of our planet and our humanity. I can imagine a world where people turn inward, and re-evaluate their role in society, their importance on future generations. How we raise our children now will influence tomorrows great leaders and thinkers. The growing dissatisfaction in education for many young people is coming to a crossroads. Many students feel trapped in a school system that does little to support them and their engagement to the work being done is extremely low. It has little relevance to them. They can’t hear the music…
“The worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival – the issues now looming so large before us in the twenty-first century. It is not education, but education of a certain kind, that will save us.” -David W. Orr
Some of the most “successful” people I’ve met are those who have given an extraordinary amount of time and effort to creating a world that has harmony, personal freedom, time to do things they enjoy, high integrity, a deep sense of purpose and above all, humility.
So what are we to do?
What dreams and wishes could we all fulfill if we never abandon the music? What if we never betray our deep seated passions and truth? What if we re-evaluated everything we knew and were told and taught about success? Would we be happier? I believe we would. My role as a parent is to be a supporter of dreams, and encourage my children to make their own meaning in life. The change happens only when we re-educate our hearts and minds and make something that matters… more than mere success.
Live Oak Park in Fallbrook, California is one of our favorite places. Living in Southern California has its perks- beautiful weather year-round, mountains, deserts, oceans all within an hours’ drive, and beautiful parks like this. With 27 acres to explore, we always find something fun to do. On a whim we decided to pack up a picnic and go play.
Live Oak Park’s oak trees were once a food source for local Luiseno Indians, who are believed to have spent time here as much as 1500 years ago. Know where to look and you’ll find their “Indian kitchen”, an 18 foot long bedrock mortar where they ground acorns for food. Pretty cool!
When we take the time to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, like a picnic, our hearts are full, our belly’s satisfied and our spirit is at peace. What will you do today to bring happiness to your life?
When you look at great, influential people of history, people who’ve made significant contributions to the world in which we now live, we have much to thank them for. I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s, Leonardo Da Vinci, An Autobiography. We cannot underestimate or deny his genius- wildly imaginative, passionately curious, visionary, painter, sculptor and architect. But what about poet, musician, paleontologist and unschooler?
Leonardo was born illegitimate, without privilege or affluence. He never received a formal education. He could barely read Latin or do long division. He did, however, become one of the most inspiring, clever and brilliant human beings to discover, through his curiosity, how to learn. Leonardo took his learning very seriously. He spent much of his youth outdoors, where he marveled at the natural world and explored ideas and concepts that were of interest to him. One thing Leonardo was curious to know more about was the tongue of a woodpecker. He studied this in great detail. There was no reason he needed to know this. It was simply a curiosity. We can all be a little more curious about life, and what were capable of.
We might all take a lesson from Da Vinci. His intense observation, wild imagination and experimentation are what fueled him. This is something we can indulge in ourselves and our children.
We should be so bold as to not just take “received knowledge”, but we should be willing to question it, to be imaginative and think differently. One brilliant passage, where Da Vinci’s free thinking attitude challenged the people who ridiculed him for his lack of formal education says,
“I am fully aware that my not being a man of letters may cause certain presumptuous people to think that they may with reason blame me, alleging that I am a man without learning. They strut about puffed up and pompous, decked out and adorned not with their own labors, but by those of others…
They will say that because I have no book learning I cannot properly express what I desire to describe- but they do not know that my subjects require experience rather than the words of others.”
For those that say unschooling does little to equip young people for life, I say, Leonardo Da Vinci’s extraordinary life is proof that it works. When children are curious and interested, and feel they are learning something important to them, their creativity and their ability to apply imagination to intellect will soar. The greatest gift we have is our mind. The innovators of tomorrow start with the curiosity of children today. We must be willing to think outside the box in education.
Our efforts should be in indulging our childrens’ curiosity. We should be inspiring them to to think about what they find worthy, what they want to spend their time exploring and pursuing and let them do that. Let’s give them the time and the space to explore their world like Da Vinci once did.
In the words of Walter Isaacson, we must be relentlessly curious and creative, we must treasure knowledge for its own sake, retain a childlike wonder, observe, see things unseen, go down rabbit holes, get distracted, procrastinate, think visually. Let your reach exceed your grasp. Indulge fantasy. Create for yourself. Collaborate and be open to mystery.
Albert Einsteins handwritten advice, given as a tip to a bellboy back in 1922, recently sold at auction for $1.56 million dollars. The humble note, translated from German reads,
“A calm mind and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”
Albert Einstein’s “theory of happiness,” is a prescription to find joy in the simplicity of our lives. It asks us to pursue practices that bring us peace and to be wary of those practices that cause us great distress and perpetual tension.
We’ve been sold on the idea that happiness is in direct proportion to how much money we make, that our worth is in our status. Our culture’s “busyness” and “constant restlessness” is driving us farther away from true happiness. Just look at the basic needs we need to live modestly- a roof over our heads, food in our belly, people to share it with.
What if we decided to put more emphasis on the small things that make more of impact on our well-being? What if we showed more appreciation towards what we already have? What would happen if we practiced gratitude in every little thing we did? Not only do I think we would have a calmer mind and gain more freedom, but we’d also be happier people living in more harmony with nature.
I think it’s a worthy step in the right direction, do you?
One can choose many paths to take in life. We have the unique ability to flex our power in making choices and decisions. As a young child, we grow and learn naturally. Our curiosity is a fantastic teacher. We may choose one toy over another or we may prefer to bang on the kitchen pots and pans over building mud houses in the sand box. Our power of choice is strong, and our parents allow us this freedom, until they don’t. Choice and freedom slowly start to erode somewhere in childhood, usually by the age of 5- when we enter compulsory education and the probationary life begins.
Our choices are now limited and narrow because now we are “expected” to participate in school. What we need now is to be taught. By an expert. Who knows more than we do. But didn’t we show our parents that we were and are capable of learning and growing on our own? What suddenly changed? Did we give any indication of short comings in our development? Why is school then the answer?
Life in school, is like being on probation. Probation is defined as “the process or period of testing the character or abilities of a person and subject to a period of good behavior under supervision.” We punish, guilt, shame and emotionally manipulate them when they don’t oblige us. We ask them to conform, follow directions, not ask questions, and perform to unreasonable standards and testing, year after year until they graduate. This way teaches children to doubt their own minds and their worth as a person when the grades don’t measure up and it creates adults who will then tolerate emotional manipulation and abusive relationships because that’s been their model. If we are to raise free thinkers and confident individuals, we must create an environment that provides a healthy model that benefits the child’s well being, personal integrity and autonomy.
We have seen first hand what happens when a child is given freedom to learn on their own, follow their curiosity and study their interests at their own pace. They build the bridge of their choosing to cross. By doing this they take responsibility for themselves at a much younger age. Being personally invested in the process makes a huge difference! Alfie Kohn, American author and lecturer in the areas of education, parenting, and human behavior said,
“The way a child learns how to make decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.”
Let’s choose to get out of the child’s way and allow them the space and time to develop their talents and inclinations and encourage them to express who they are as individuals, in an environment that will not stunt their passions and curiosities and spirit.