Have We Turned Our Children into Emotional Gladiators?

The last of my three daughters graduated from high school this year. As I reflect on our family’s experiences within the culture of compulsory education, I feel like we have emerged from a modern-day Roman Colosseum. The moment school begins, students step into an arena where they must battle their peers for personal achievement and cultural validation. Sometimes the win comes from a test score, grade or sports trophy. Other times it comes from gaining admittance to a preschool, private school or college. They must distinguish themselves in a culture of sameness by being better than everyone else. They are forced to become “emotional gladiators” as they continually step into classrooms, sports fields, and stages to fight for the win. The prize is college admissions. But the personal and financial cost of this prize has been too high, affecting the quality of their lives well into adulthood. We have pushed them into the arena before they are neurologically, emotionally or physically able to handle it. When the history books of today are written, they will not be kind to us.

We have come to believe that there is a formula for success and we can just program our children to follow it–regardless of their unique individuality, life circumstances or interests. We are so focused on the linear trajectory to college that we aren’t even seeing that the promised outcomes are not being realized by the majority of students. We ignore the fact that the world has drastically changed and our current system was designed to train factory workers in the industrial era. 

We can’t see this because we are watching our children’s every move and ensuring that they stay in shape for the competition. Mistakes are not tolerated and bruises are masked. We bolster them with tutors, therapists, labels, and medication to keep them going. We blame teachers when they don’t perform to our expectations. Or worse, we blame them–they must not be trying hard enough or they are just lazy. 

Neuroscience shows us that their brains have not developed enough to handle the expectations we have placed on them. The executive functioning part of their brain will not be ready for the overwhelming amount of data coming their way until they are in their mid- to late-20’s, if at all. Although we tell them their hard work will pay off, the results are outside of their control thereby setting them up for a sense of failure. The chronic stress and anxiety wear on them as the rounds of competition steadily increase with their advancement through the age-determined grade levels. 

The race for ever more perfect grades and scores keeps the arena lit day and night with students sacrificing sleep, relationships and experiences for data input that will be used to fill in a bubble and then forgotten. We have built our homes inside the arena to ensure our children stay competitive. With the focus on academics, the basic social skills needed to lead a fulfilling life have been cast aside. These skills are predominantly developed young, through play, but the arena does not allow for that. 

Johann Hari, in his brilliant book, Lost Connections, describes the sense of isolation that comes from competing rather than collaborating, “Bees evolved to need a hive and humans evolved to need a tribe. For the first time in history, we have disbanded our tribe and the isolation is painful. We are wired for connection and collaboration. It is how we survived all these years.” The arena is not a normal habitat. 

Students trained to compete will have a difficult time getting off the unhealthy treadmill. A recent article in The Atlantic titled, How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition, describes the results:

Elite students desperately fear failure and crave the conventional markers of success, even as they see through and publicly deride mere “gold stars” and “shiny things.” Elite workers, for their part, find it harder and harder to pursue genuine passions or gain meaning through their work. 

Relational intelligence is necessary for work and survival during this economic metamorphosis, yet “task intelligence” is how they’ve learned to stay in the arena. The intensity of time required to finish the never-ending tasks leaves a void in the lives of students–resulting in mental and physical illnesses.

This is a crisis and the solution does not lie in trying to repair the outmoded arena. It lies in building collaborative social and educational infrastructure outside the arena. It involves personal and collective responsibility–for ourselves and to one another–rather than a reliance on government and corporate institutions. We need to create environments where our children can develop into whole, well-rounded human beings, where their individual uniqueness is valued and encouraged. 

My last child is leaving the arena, but I’m not. I am staying in. I am committed to advocating for those still being thrown into the arena. Their value and their worthiness should not be dependent on whether their grades and test scores are ranked at the top or whether they go to college or not. We need people who want to be caregivers as much as scientists, who are artists as much as mathematicians and who like working in the trades as much as programming computers. It is time to make the arena a relic like the Colosseum in Rome. Our emotional gladiators need the rest. 

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