When my children were young, I used to read to them from The Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett. We loved all the fables and parables but there was one story that resonated with me the most, The Magic Thread. It is a cautionary tale about living in the moment and appreciating all the struggles and joys that come with each stage of life.
In the story, Peter, a restless young child, is given a ball with a piece of thread hanging out of a hole. Whenever Peter is bored or struggling, he pulls the thread and his life advances. He quickly moves from child to teenager, from married man to old man. In the end, he regrets not living through all the ups and downs of life and appreciating the people and the experiences he missed because he was in such a hurry. Our current culture of moving children through the education system as fast as we can reminds me of this story.
Pull the thread and have them start academic learning in preschool, even though their brains and bodies are not developmentally ready. An Atlantic article by Erika Christakis entitled, The New Preschool is Crushing Kids, describes how young children are “working” more, but learning less. According to Christakis, “Expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.”
Pull the thread and have them read at a younger and younger age. This, of course, ensures us that they are intelligent even though children learn at different rates and it isn’t until age seven that the brain is fully ready. Today, they are expected to start reading in kindergarten at age five. According to Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia, 30% of teachers in 1988 believed that children should learn to read while in kindergarten. In 2010, that figure was at 80%.
Pull the thread and move them ahead in math. I remember parents routinely advocating for their children to be placed in the “advanced” math class, while concurrently having them tutored in math after school. Jo Boaler, Stanford professor and founder of youcubed.org, says math is creative and teaching by memorization does not provide the fundamentals necessary for most students to advance. By middle school, two-thirds of students are falling behind.
Pull the thread and have them take AP classes — the more, the better. Once they reach high school, taking AP classes is considered the gateway to college and the mark of a smart student. These college-level courses have time-consuming content that students are required to learn in preparation for a standardized test at the end of the year. The more AP classes, the more time spent studying after school alone and the less time there is for social development and experiences. The sheer volume of content encourages memorization over learning. AP classes are now most typically used to boost GPAs and meet requirements on college applications. They were originally designed to help lower the cost of college, but that is not proving to be the case, with 86% of top colleges restricting the number, type and/or scores (4 or higher) of AP tests.
Pull the thread and have them be the best in a sport or other extracurricular skill. As early as preschool, free play and downtime are replaced by structured activities. The pressure to advance and improve their abilities quickly means specialized coaching and more practices. Whereas 20 years ago, we might have had one to two practices and a game a week, kids today are expected to devote five days a week to practice, plus part or all of their weekends to games or performances. Persistent physical injuries and chronic exhaustion are now considered a normal price to pay for participation. The intensity levels are the main reason 70% of kids will quit organized sports by age 13, a time when team interaction could prove advantageous to their social support and development.
We keep pulling the thread and how is it working for us? Are our children more advanced than previous generations? Unfortunately not, and by all indications, they are sicker both mentally and physically. It is shocking that we must increasingly diagnose, label and/or medicate students to help them make it through the education system. They are now less prepared for the rigors of independent college life and their mental health crises are following them into adulthood.
Their brilliant academic and sports achievements belie a hollowness in their being. We now have the most anxious, depressed and suicidal generation of children in the history of the world. Rapid advancement through the education system has denied them the struggles and experiences that give them resilience and fulfillment in life. The learning that comes from struggling and failing is essential to both personal and academic growth. Not to mention, the vulnerability created by the struggle is what facilitates human connectedness and helps develop an authentic sense of self.
By pulling the thread, we believe that we are giving our children an advantage in life. But, treating them like robots that can be programmed for success with quantitative inputs has ignored their needs as human beings. Advancing them before they are developmentally ready and with an emphasis on the cognitive parts of their brain, has left little time and space for the non-cognitive social and emotional parts which are essential to their health and wellbeing. If we truly want the best for our children, we need to stop pulling the thread.