Are We Pressure-Cooking Our Kids?


The Washington Post doesn’t have a Parenting section, although one might be as, if not more, useful than a Sports section.  But there was an insightful, funny, comforting article about parenting recently in the Health & Science broadsheet.  It was called “A Pre-College Snooze” (great title) and was written by mom Rebecca Lanning.Instead of cataloguing her son’s amazing academic accolades and impressing us with his college admittances, she declares that her son is so exhausted by surviving high school that he needs a “nap year” instead of the popular gap year.

How refreshing.

I recently celebrated an uncle’s birthday with family and friends. At the dinner, I sat next to a 25-year-old who’d come in via train from the death-grip parenting mecca most people refer to as New York City.  He told me about his new girlfriend.  I asked about her job.  He started to laugh.

“She tutors three-year-olds who are trying to get into New York private schools because their parents are convinced that the right pre-K leads to the right high school and then the right college. She drills little kids about what they should say in the interviews.  How to do better on the IQ tests they have to take.  She makes a ton of money.”

He went on to describe her bad days.  “Sometimes, the kids just cry.  They don’t want to practice the answers any more.  They just want to play.  Or take a nap.”

How horrifying.

I don’t understand how or why, from my parents’ generation to mine, the world of parenting has turned upside down.  These days, well-meaning parents replace three-year-olds’ naptime with prep sessions for pre-k; we drive our older kids so relentlessly towards achievement that they require a 12-month nap by the time they are 18.

Is all this uber-parenting really good for our kids, or our country?

I wonder what it does to the insides of a kid to worry about getting into pre-kindergarten.  I worry what it does to the insides of a kid to worry about getting into college.  This onslaught of pressure and competitiveness has got to be warping kids, individually and collectively.

The nap-year mom explained that her son’s exhaustion was in part caused by his learning differences, which made even regular school feel like a triathlon.  She offered a revealing, disturbing quote from Einstein:

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will believe its whole life that it is stupid.” 

Sometimes it seems we, as a cohort of achievement-obsessed parents, are treating our kids as fish who need to climb trees.  With enough pressure, we can force our kids to do anything.  But is that good parenting?

When my 15-year-old daughter was changing schools in kindergarten, she had to sit for the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence. The test, known colloquially as the Whip-See, is individually administered by a certified diagnostician.  Some schools require the WPPSI as a measure of cognitive functioning of children ages two to seven; it is probably one of the examinations paying my New York pal’s girlfriend’s salary.

My sweet little curly-haired girl took the WPPSI when she was 4 or 5.  She was smart, sure. She knew how to read and write a few words, how to put neon orange high heels on Barbie, how to score a goal in peewee soccer.

She was also unusually strong-willed, a quality the test was not designed to measure.

My daughter refused to speak throughout the entire two-hour ordeal.  Not one word.  I think she nodded and shook her head a few times.  I was imprisoned in the waiting room, watching through a one-way mirror, helpless to cajole or pressure her into cooperating.

A fine parenting lesson.

As we walked out of the testing center, I thought to myself:  I don’t care what level of intelligence her scores show or don’t show.  Any kid who can stay mute for two hours in the face of a pleading administrator and a near-hysterical mother in the waiting room is going to do just fine in life. That day, I realized that my job as her mom was not to pressure her, or my other children, to conform to standardized tests and standardized norms.

Because I’d fail.  

My job as a parent has turned out to be, largely, to get out of my kids’ way. To rejoice in their talents, to make sure each one ate well, got enough sleep, abhorred cheating, stealing, lying and hurting others, had shoes that fit, found a hobby or sport they enjoyed, and woke up each day in a stable, loving home.

Essentially, not much more than to make sure they got naps when they needed them.

Maybe I’m a disaster as a parent.  Maybe I should have gone all military when my kids proved immune to pressure to achieve in the ways our society expects.  Maybe I’m wrong that these competitive, test-taking, grade-grinding skills are only one measure of children’s aptitude.  Maybe I’m just lazy because I don’t want to review my children’s homework each night (or do it for them).

I sure hope I’m not.



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