Reflection on “Race to Nowhere”

Downtime, Anyone?

Random House dictionary defines success as:  a favorable result that one has tried or hoped for. What is the success we hope for our children? We usually answer, “I just want my child to be happy.” A major component of this “happiness” goal is that our children have options and not be limited by poor decisions. But what does that mean? Do options equal “happiness”? Does a smooth, uncomplicated, sickness-free life equal happiness?  If so, we are to be pitied because that is an unattainable goal. There are no lives like that. Life’s journey is a tough one and we need to equip our children to thrive amidst the questions and the challenges.

The Race To Nowhere documentary shines a light into the darkness of our achievement culture. In the interest (and hope) that our children will be happy and have unlimited opportunities, we encourage them to study harder, enroll in challenging courses, get a tutor, take SAT/ACT prep classes, perform community service, go on mission trips, be on several sports teams in the same season, participate in theatre productions or performing arts, attend summer skills or drama camps, do off-season conditioning, take ______ lessons (fill in the blank with: piano, violin, voice, pitching/hitting, shooting/hoops, soccer, etc etc etc), be a leader (somewhere, anywhere) and, by the way, get a job to show responsibility. When do they … sit… uninterrupted?

I believe one of the tools critical to success is the ability to evaluate and creatively solve issues. Without it, everything appears insurmountable. The failing grade, loss of a friend, bullying, questions of sexuality, a traffic violation, financial shortfalls, or family brokenness take on a devastating terminal feel. But … we all teach “problem solving”! So why are our children not regularly using their newly minted skills? Their over-scheduled no-downtime life prevent the space required for productive problem solving. (True, we parents also solve many of their problems for them…topic for another blog another week). With no time to reflect or ask questions of others or seek spiritual guidance, the options and possibilities appear limited or even non-existent. Without pause or ponder, our children charge head first into decisions not reasoned to a logical conclusion.

So, what is success for our children?  An emotionally and spiritually healthy young person is able to work patiently through life’s difficulties with hope and resilience. As a contributing member of the community they have the emotional stamina to also reach out to others in need. But we often cultivate a harried, breathless existence that is counterproductive to this success.

Redefining “success” is difficult. We can redefine of ourselves…but how does that work when the colleges, sports teams, performing arts, AP classes, parents and peers continue their demands?  How do we help our children create space in their lives to allow time for thoughtful reflection when problems arise? Race To Nowhere producer, Vicki Abeles, notes that “change takes time and courage. We can approach this challenge in many ways.

“First, as parents, none of us want to risk our kids’ future yet we need to value the health and resilience of our children over the stress and pressures driven by high-stakes testing, inflated GPAs and the focus on building resumes in high school. We also much remember that there are many paths to a successful future — success is not determined by the name of the school one attends. And ultimately when it comes to college, the focus should be on finding the right fit, not a “name brand” college.

“Second, teachers, administrators, parents and students in a school district or community can come together and identify what their true goal and purpose is at all levels of schooling — elementary, intermediate and high school — is it to prepare students solely for the college application or for the college experience and beyond?”

How are we preparing our children for life after high school?

“Is this all there is?,” asked a college graduate after working about six months into her first job.

“What do you mean?” Unsure about the content of her question, I responded.

“What else is there? I have always been working toward something… the next test, the next project, the next game, the next year in school, graduation. Now it just work day after day and no one notices.”

Our over-achievement, goal-focused culture does not develop the healthy young adults that we believe we are raising. May we be able to pause and consider the needed addition of downtime in our lives… yes, this will require subtractions from the calendar. How courageous are we?

(December 1, 2010)


About Sharon R Hoover

Serving the church for over twenty years in discipleship and mission ministries, I've walked alongside many people travelling and exploring the journey of faith. Add in my own crazy path and I hope my writing will offer glimpses of life worth sharing.
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