Thursday, November 29, 2012

Race to Nowhere - Misleading sensationalism

Last night I had a chance to watch the movie "Race To Nowhere" at a sponsored event through my son's school.  It is a documentary about kids drowning in homework, stressed about grades, and over committed in after school activities.  I found it to be deceptive though and misleading.  One finishes watching thinking that every kid in America is getting all A's and has ulcers because of it.  Three quarters of the way through I began to wonder if college admissions and the competition required for top schools would be addressed.  That is when one (only one and for about 30 seconds) UC college admissions counselor came on.  Her contribution to the film was to say that, "Of course, we are going to take the students with the best GPAs."  She claimed that UC gets 40,000 + applicants and they accept 6,000.  The average weighted GPA for accepted students is a 4.3!

Experts in the movie (psychiatrists, education specialists, teachers) talked about how the pressure to get a 4.0+ GPA and have countless extra curricular activities just so that our kids will get into good schools and make lots of money is hurting them.  They say that money is not everything and will not make them happy.  I agree, in principal, but the studies show that people with money are generally more satisfied with their lives than people without [here is one of the studies:].  So, maybe it is worth some extra effort?  We are considered kids for 18 years of our lives and adults for another 60 after that.  Doesn't it make sense to give our kids a chance at a happier 60 years at the expense of some hard work earlier on?

Of course, the movie goes on to highlight the well known college dropout success stories to prove that our kids do not need all A's to be successful or rich.  But how realistic is it that our sons or daughters will grow up to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs?  Consumer Reports listed the statistic that college grads are  likely to earn $570,000 more than a high school graduate over a lifetime.  On top of that, college grads are less likely to be unemployed.  And, here is another fun stat to share with the next person who tells you that Bill Gates dropped out of college. 84% of the Forbes 400 (the richest people in America) graduated from college.  What about CEOs?  99% of the Fortune 500 CEOs have a college degree.

Towards the end, one educator talked about bringing kids out of school and into the real world who are happy, motivated and creative.  "What more can you ask for?" he asks.  How about competitive?  Our happy, motivated, creative kids will not be happy for long when they cannot get a job.  I don't mean competitive in the sense that they should always be trying to win.  Although, there is a place for that as well.  I mean that our kids should be able to compete for what they want.  When my daughter sends her resume to McKinsey & Co. I want her to have a chance to meet them.  Not have her resume screened out because her GPA was a 3.2 and she needed a 3.8.

One topic that was touched on in the film that I do agree with is that grades are not important all the time.  They have a role in our current society as a measure of discipline and an easy way for colleges and companies to screen through piles of resumes and applications.  But, actually learning the material is what school is supposed to be about.

I did come away with the intention of changing some of the ways I interact with my son and daughter about school.  They still need to strive for good grades but I think it is OK if they discover an interest early on and focus on it.  If my daughter excels in math but hates social studies, I want to give her a chance to build on that strength as long as she does the minimum for her other subjects. I think this will increase her enjoyment in school.  She may work just as hard but when you are doing something you are interested in it does not always seem like work.  As I have mentioned in previous articles, companies and colleges like kids with a focus.  Doing one thing really well and showing a passion for it may be more impressive on an application than another 4.0.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Consequences - Where to draw the line with our kids

Parents are often talking about consequences with their kids.  More often than not, these discussions regress into threats that follow the all to familiar script of,  "If you don't do what I am telling you to do right now, you will be punished!"  According to Dr. Medhus in her book, "Raising Children Who Think for Themselves", this approach only teaches our kids to be afraid of us and does not prepare them to make their own, well thought out decisions in the future.  Her advice, is to let our kids make their own choices and they will learn what is right and wrong by dealing with the consequences of those choices.  The well worn example of the child sticking his finger into a flame is wheeled out to prove her point.  We can protect our child from getting hurt by reaching out and pulling them back from the candle before they are burned.  But, won't the boy or girl have a more memorable learning experience by burning their finger and will therefore be more likely to remember that fire is hot the next time?

Thinking for oneself is a highly sought after skill by employers.  If the boss can count on your child to solve his or her own problems at work then the boss will be less stressed.  We don't want our kids constantly looking to their peers and co-workers for direction without some sort of internal compass to help them judge what is best.

Where I disagree with the good doctor though is in the application of her consequences method.  She recommends pulling back and letting our kids make their own mistakes in situations where the actual consequences are irrelevant to our kids and worse those mistakes might have a lasting impact on their lives.  Specifically, homework and studying for a test.  If my daughter does not study for her test she will have to face the consequence of getting a bad grade.  What exactly is the consequence of a bad grade for an 11 year old?  Nothing!  It means she can skip studying for a night and chat with her friends instead. The test is finished in less than an hour and she can go on with her life.  It is all good!  By not studying, she is learning that she can be more popular and have more fun.  As grown-ups, we know that homework, tests and ultimately grades, are important in this society for getting into good schools and passing screening when applying for a job.  Many college kids don't get that until it is too late.

So, sure, we want our kids to think for themselves but we don't want them to shoot themselves in the foot while they are doing it.  There are plenty of situations (every day!) where our kids can make their own decisions and face short term consequences that will help them learn.  But, for the decisions that will affect their future we owe it to them to be more involved and yes, to make threats occasionally too.