Suffer the little children…

Suffer the little children...

Suffer the little children…

My son graduated from high school last summer and oh boy, was he thrilled. Or should I say, relieved. Because the truth is that high school today is the new college/university. Extraordinary volumes of work and levels and standards that will take you back to the bad old days of post-secondary studies. As the parent with the unpleasant job of listening to the complaints, watching the struggle to understand incredibly complicated material while keeping up with a cadre of seemingly superhuman students trained to only accept marks in the 90s, I did my best to reassure and support. And I got a good glimpse into the trickle down of some of the worst effects of today’s version of the grasping for status and success.
It hit me this morning when I read an article describing new measures American high schools are taking to help kids deal with the growing issue of student stress. Interventions like bringing in therapy dogs; running mid-day yoga classes and — wait for it — recesses! All in the hope of counteracting some of the growing anxiety and attendant pathological effects (mental illnesses and who knows what else) affecting high school kids these days.
It didn’t start with high school, of course. We’ve all heard about Tiger Moms and aspiring parents pushing their kids from infancy, from early-reading Montessori schools to rigorous schedules of after school lessons and extra tutoring. It’s well meaning, I suppose — an attempt to provide the golden advantage that will open doors to opportunities … in other words, an upper income lifestyle and all that this promises. But it’s also borne of a grasping anxiety driven to new heights in a world of global competition and the not-so subtle message that the bar is higher than imaginable, the pond now as large as the ocean and the fish are willing to sacrifice everything for their spot in the sun.
By the time my son got to high school, I was surprised that he seemed to spend every night and weekend studying. I had expected the social thing to kick in as it did when I went to high school. I waited for the partying, the hanging out, the neglected homework, even the sneaking out. Nothing. What I learned was that there was simply no time for that and no expectation from my son and his peers that there would be. Instead there was anxiety, fatigue, self-doubt, confusion, and more than anything, a sense of resentment that grew with each year. I read and was incredulous at many an assignment, essay questions that rightly belonged in an undergraduate philosophy program years into the future when these students might have the requisite basic life experience and academic foundation, to reason through the complexity demanded. The academic load seemed like a further punishment I could only liken to my university days. What was the point?
My son and I discussed it. I told him what I thought was going on and could offer only my moral support and the consolation that at least he wouldn’t face a huge adjustment in expectations when he finally went to university. This didn’t seem to provide much comfort at the time. By the time my son graduated, he’d developed a bitter disdain for what he’d concluded was a mindless approach to learning in a neurotically competitive school culture. He announced that he was taking at least a year off and that made sense to me.
Is it really so surprising to read about teen anxiety and other hallmarks of today’s youth culture like meanness, bullying, narcissism and perpetual immaturity? Overly orchestrating young lives in a mad, relentless race to ensure our kids will ‘have it all’. It’s enough to drive you to drink.

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