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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Epidemic

Isn't it amazing how just when you need some serious encouragement, you will open up a book and there it is, just the very words to set your mind at ease?

Even if it goes against their instincts, [parents] feel forced to buy into dog-eat-dog competitiveness lest they hurt their child's chances for success. As a result, kids have become commodities to be sold to the next school or the next enriching activity.

Since scaling back on our schoolwork, becoming more Latin-focused is how I prefer to think of it, my kids have been worried that they are not learning as much. "“We’'re really messed up, Mom,"” is how Sarabelle put it and even requested a return to school so as to get a real education. Our present schedule includes math, English, history, and Latin; no extraneous busy work. Next year when we start Classical Writing, we will also be including logic again. To them, they are not doing enough, and were happier when I was firing workbook after workbook at them, cramming at least five other separate courses into our day. We still read great literature aloud in the evenings, they still have swimming lessons and just finished their Presidential Fitness Award training, we still love to listen to classical music and watch and discuss historical programs on television. They just don’'t believe it counts.

The situation was compounded this weekend when our friends from the east coast came over with their daughter. The kids, who had attended the same Catholic school together years before, compared notes. A was busy studying for final exams! She is taking Social Studies and Science! She had definitions to memorize! “Mom, I’'m never going to get into college if we keep this up!”

There’'s a gremlin on the wing of my plane. I pulled the shade down and have been trying to remain calm. When I mention it to the other passengers, they tell me not to worry about it, ignore it; it'’s all in my imagination. But now my kids can see it too, and they are beginning to panic.

I began The Epidemic: The Rot of American Culture, Absentee and Permissive Parenting, and the Resultant Plague of Joyless, Selfish Children wondering where I'’ve gone wrong when my kids get a little sullen or disobedient and how to fix it. Oh, for a book that could help me master that one withering look of Nana’'s, the one she used from the second floor landing, looming over her poor flatland Cracker grandchildren like an Amazon, when she warned us to GET OFF THOSE STAIRS, NOW. One time, that'’s all she had to say it. We never climbed up and down those steps again unless it was to use the bathroom upstairs, and then only with a nervous questioning look in her direction.

I finished this book a little more secure in the knowledge that I'’m not so far off track. I know college isn'’t for everybody and that a real education is about enriching your soul as much as your mind, but I have had a hard time actually backing off and not pushing them in that direction. Yes, I still secretly prefer they go to Oxford or Yale, but I'’m working on it.

The author, child and family psychologist Dr. Robert Shaw, outlines items a child needs to reach his potential: "...a strong bonding experience and continuing intimate and loving communication, routines and a disciplined environment, and moral training." If any of these critical elements is missing, you are in for trouble. He also advocates severely limiting electronic media. Let’'s see, that’'s: Check, working on the loving communication part; check, although we could use a little more follow-through in the discipline department; check; and check. But the biggest factor, he believes, is downtime. This is what is seriously lacking in so many children’'s lives these days and interferes with their centeredness, the ability to discover who they are and what they really desire.

No parent wants her child sitting around all the time with nothing to do and no one to interact with, but eliminate the opportunity altogether, and your child will never get a chance to develop her own identity. An identity will be projected onto her by adult-driven activities and ideals...


Parents hate to admit that they are pressing a preconceived career path on their child. Yet they go from pumping Mozart into the womb to plopping infants in front of brain-exercising videos to taking toddlers to gymnastics classes and foreign language lessons. As these children progress through elementary school, they receive private tutoring in everything from soccer to reading to violin. In high school the roster of activities is carefully constructed to round out their resumes for college acceptance. Why? As parents say: "“I just want her to try everything and see what she likes,"” "“I want her to have everything I missed out on,"” and “"Everyone'’s doing it, and I don'’t want her to fall behind her peers."”

These parents think they are doing the best for their child, but in reality, the pressures of our toxic culture have clouded the issue. Parents have been made to feel that they are neglecting or depriving their children if they don'’t push them as far as they can go in every direction.

Ah hah. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Dr. Shaw explains that children are being alienated from themselves, whereas the Columbine gunmen, who he uses at the beginning of the book as a worst-case scenario, were alienated from themselves and society. So you may not end up with a school-shooter, but because the kids are receiving the message that the reward is more important than the achievement and lacking in moral training, you may possibly end up with another Enron executive down the line.

In an excerpt from a Harvard article entitled, "Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation?" Shaw pinpoints the true heart of the epidemic as a failure to implement a more relaxed and self-instituted life for their children:

Parents and students alike could profit from redefining success as fulfillment of the student's own aims, usually yet to be discovered. Burn-out is an inevitable result of trying to live up to alien goals.

This should blast that nasty gremlin off.

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