Storm Clouds Ahead

The teenage years are a huge black storm cloud we're driving our kids into.  Can we turn away?

The teenage years are a huge black storm cloud we’re driving our kids into. Can we turn away?

You know that feeling when the weather where you are is perfectly fine, but you’re approaching a wall of black clouds?

That’s what I feel like when I see my boys (9, 5-1/2, and 4) approaching their teenage years. Life is going to suck, and I don’t think I can do much about it.

A recent article entitled “My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me makes this clear. In it, writer Karl Taro Greenfield decides to do his 13-year-old daughter Esmee’s homework alongside her for one week. He ends the week exhausted and stressed. Keep in mind that he’s a college grad and accomplished professional writer, and he’s doing 8th-grade work, albeit on an advanced academic track.

What got Greenfield to try this experiment was seeing Esmee do three or four hours of homework per night, often past midnight, and wake up cranky and bleary-eyed the next morning.

Esmee’s mantra is revealing of how she’s handling this lifestyle emotionally: “Memorization, not rationalization.” So, at 13, she’s come up with a hard-nosed survival strategy. Don’t think, just cram.

A daily survival mantra for a kid that age? That doesn’t sound like a fun childhood to me. It sounds miserable.

Esmee’s homework load is typical for students her age in academically-focused programs, and high school students spend even more time on homework. If they also participate in extracurricular programs like sports, these teenagers don’t have any free time at all in a typical day, and must often cut their sleep time short to finish everything.

Furthermore, far more teenagers are suffering from emotional problems today than did teenagers of many decades ago. The most authoritative longitudinal study on this topic finds that psychological disorders increased by a factor of five between 1938 and 2007. The authors of this study blame this huge increase of psychological problems on the fact that children today seem to be less intrinsically motivated, and more motivated by extrinsic factors like grades, test scores, and college admissions.

Does it have to be this way? Most parents of teenagers think it does. They take modern childhood at face value, and figure out how to cope with it. “College admissions is more competitive than ever,” they say. More fundamentally, they see most other parents and teenagers buying into this lifestyle, and they’re loathe to swim against the tide.

This is all very strange to me. Unlike Esmee, I did practically zero homework in 8th grade. Later, as a high school junior and senior I did some homework, but I also remember partying almost every night, yet I somehow got into an elite university and did very well there. And no, I wasn’t born into a genius family. My dad is my only close relative who went to college, and he was a C student at a mediocre university.

What I did have back then that Esmee and almost all of her contemporaries don’t have was a passion for learning. I loved Calculus so much that I did all my “homework” during home room and between classes (i.e. I never took homework home), got all “A’s,” and passed the AP exam. An aspiring economics major, I read the Wall Street Journal every day for fun. I reveled in my role as editor of my high school newspaper, muckraking against what I thought was a corrupt, ignorant school administration.

I had a big dose of intrinsic motivation. Most psychologists, such as Daniel Pink in his bestselling book Drive, agree that this is a key to both success and happiness in life.

I would guess that most parents, even those who buy into the miserable lifestyle of Esmee, understand that intrinsic motivation can lead to a successful, happy adulthood. However, no one knows how to instill intrinsic motivation in a child, so pushing kids to do lots of homework seems to them like a more certain path to success.

Honestly, I can’t say for sure that my wife and I won’t give into the pressures surrounding us and join the homework/misery bandwagon. For now, we’ve escaped it. Our oldest child, third grader Marco, does zero homework, and he participates in no “academic enrichment” activities outside of school.

He voluntarily reads challenging books for 30-60 minutes every night, which gratifies us, but other than that, he’s not a particularly motivated, focused nine-year-old.

He’s nine, for crying out loud. I wasn’t even motivated and focused at Esmee’s age of 13. That started to happen a year later, when I was in ninth grade in high school. For many accomplished adults, their inspiration and focus comes even later.

I’m sad to say that, even if we manage to keep Marco and our other kids from doing the volume of homework that Esmee does at her age, they probably won’t be able to escape the vortex of teenage misery. A 2008 study shows that happiness, or lack of it, is highly “contagious.” In other words, the emotional states of people who you’re surrounded by have a great impact on your emotional state.

Think for a moment – how does a teenager who isn’t doing a lot of homework avoid the stresses of all his or her friends who are working their butts off and are perpetually sleep-deprived?

Some parents would say, “I’ll choose a private school for my child that gives less homework, and thus generates less academic stress.” However, if this school of choice isn’t close to home, doesn’t commuting to and from school in traffic every day introduce another form of stress? And besides, not having any friends who live close to home isn’t great for emotional well-being, either. Yes, lots of kids who commute far away to private schools have happy lives, but there’s no denying that commuting adds stress to their lives.

In short, overwork and stress is endemic among teenagers today, and these problems reach all teenagers, not just those who buy into this culture.

So, it’s very likely that we’re setting up our kids for a great deal of stress and unhappiness in their teen years. This breaks my heart.

Arriving home every day at dinnertime to see my boys playing and being ecstatically happy is the supreme joy of my life. I fear that those days may be over soon.

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