Stress vs. Fiction

This morning my twelve-year-old daughter will take New York City’s Specialized High School Admissions Test, which is the only criterion for admission to eight of the city’s top public high schools. About 30,000 eighth- and ninth-graders take this test every fall, competing for about 6,000 spots. The test is like the SAT used for college admissions but more devious; it includes logic questions that you’ll see nowhere else except the law-school admissions test, as well as an absurd exercise called “scrambled paragraphs” in which you have to put five sentences into the correct order based on tricky little clues. For many questions, two of the multiple-choice answers seem equally correct, but the arbitrariness of the exam is deliberate — if all the questions were clear-cut, then too many students would get perfect scores. So the only way to make sure your kids excel at the exam is to enroll them in test-prep courses that teach them the tricks for scoring higher.
So here we have a good example of something that was designed to be perfectly fair (because your admission to the elite high schools depends strictly on your test score) but in practice turns out to be completely unfair (because most of the good test-prep courses are wildly expensive). But let’s forget the fairness issue for the moment. I’d like to talk about the stress caused by this screening process. In addition to this weekend’s test, my daughter is scheduled to take two more admissions exams next week, both geared to the specific needs of two other highly regarded schools. She also has to assemble a portfolio of her best writing to prepare for an interview at yet another high school, and she’s going to play piano, participate in a dance class and submit ten of her best artworks as part of the audition process for New York’s performing-arts high school (the one made famous by the movie Fame). Doesn’t this seem like a lot of stress to put on a twelve-year-old? (She going to turn thirteen in two weeks, but still.)
And here’s the worst part: this is just the beginning of the rat race. Over the next few months we have to start looking for summer internships for my son, a high-school sophomore. To get into the best colleges now, it’s not enough to have good grades — you need to demonstrate that you have passionate intellectual interests and achievements. And if you’re admitted to a prestigious college, the race only intensifies. Last month I visited Princeton, my alma mater, for a Career Services event and was astonished to see dozens of college freshmen there, all asking me anxious questions about job prospects in the media industry. These kids had been attending college for a total of four weeks and they were already worried about what they would do after graduation.
There’s no question that the pressure on kids today is much, much worse than it was when I was a teenager in the 1970s. I never went to any Career Services events in college. I didn’t even know where Career Services was on campus. I have no idea why the stress has intensified so much, but it probably has something to do with globalization and our increasingly inequitable society. Fewer well-paying jobs are available these days, so the competition has grown fierce.
By now you’re probably wondering if there’s any connection between this rant and the business of writing fiction. There is: I believe that as economic strains and time pressures increase, the opportunity for leisure reading is decreasing. My daughter still reads good books in her English classes — The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Jungle — but she has so much homework she can’t enjoy any books she chooses on her own. She’s so exhausted by bedtime (which is usually 11 pm or later) that I can’t even read to her while she lies in bed. And if this is true for twelve-year-olds, how can older kids find any time to read? How can they indulge in fantasies and mysteries and thrillers and develop a lifelong love for fiction?

I don’t see a solution to this problem. Does anyone?

23 thoughts on “Stress vs. Fiction

  1. Hmmm. You do understand that you’re not required to participate in a rigged game?

    What you describe is a small sub-set of the total population. It’s the same cultural mindset that is seen in some Little League baseball, travelling soccer and softball, and beauty pageants. In some communities where academic pedigrees are as important as accomplishments, the race is to have the kid get into the best pre-schools or their futures will simply be ruined.

    I don’t think the kids build the societal pressures but sure react to it, whether it’s sports, arts, academics, etc.

    The solution? Decide not to play that type of game. There exist plenty of options for kids today, and the best of them are frequently off the university track.

    As far as pleasure reading, video games and other entertainment options are a greater threat.

    • I lost two lengthy replies to this. So I’ll go shorthand. Thank you Paul for the dose of MY reality. We have simply opted out of this sort of thing with our two kids. We are all happier for it and they are thriving.

    • Mark– Like Basil, I agree with Paul. Since you’re a Princeton alum, your kids would apply with an advantage as legacy students. I happened to be at Old Nassau a week ago. Very beautiful, very prestigious–but playing that game means making sacrifices, jumping through some goofy hoops. Only a kid who insists without pressure on playing it should do so. And that kid needs to know how arbitrary the selection process can be.

  2. I was home-schooled. I studied no standardized curriculum, so, when the time came to graduate, my only option was the GED. I placed in the top ten of over 5000 participants. I went on to attend a small Bible college where I graduated at the top of my class. When I left I had no debt and an engagement ring. *Insert good humored jokes here.*

    But before graduating, I learned computers. Not in a class but in the computer lab of antiquated donations. These old machines ate fellow students’ papers on a regular basis. When one of mine was swallowed up, I went in after it and a passion of the PC came to life.

    Today, I build websites. I create 3D models for resale. I build computers from scratch and dive into customers’ machines when they go haywire. And I get paid to do it.

    My point is this. If a child’s focus becomes so linear that they truly believe they cannot succeed in life without certain accepted societal parameters being met, they are in danger of getting stuck. Stuck living in their parents’ basements. Stuck in a job that they hate. Stuck with a mortgage. Stuck with a 101 possible neuroses brought on by the need to control something in an uncontrollable world.

    So where did I learn how to be the very best at everything I set my mind to? From the Swiss Family Robinson, Anne of Green Gables, Captain Nero, and four brave hobbits in a world that was far too big for them.

    Clearly you live in a culture I am unfamiliar with as it relates to my personal experience, but I have a daughter who is the same age as yours. She’s home schooled just like I was. She takes piano lessons and participates in 4-H.

    She wants to attend the University of Edinburgh, and I believe that her hard work and tenacity can get her there. How do I know, because I learned that that is what defines the human experience. I learned that the will to overcome every obstacle is the pathway to success.

    I have 100’s of authors of classic and pulp literature to thank for that knowledge. I believe with all my heart that the common man with a well read book stands in equality beside the man clutching a hard earned diploma.

  3. Mark, you probably don’t want to hear this, but I agree with Paul.

    We don’t have to overburden our children with activities to the point that they don’t have any time to enjoy life. My wife and I chose to limit our children’s extracurricular activities to one activity (of their choice) at a time. And you know what, they turned out okay: architect, design artist, teacher, IT specialist in the military, and mechanic. We gave them plenty of opportunities to explore the possibilities, and they each chose their path with no pressure from us.

    We were looked down on by other hovering parents, but that’s okay, too. We’re proud of our children. And they’re enjoying the path they chose.

  4. As tricky as all this sounds, it’s completely the opposite of the system used by the last (socialist) government in England which proclaimed that everyone should be allowed to go to university regardless of their intelligence. And as logical or fair as that may sound, the end result is that there are tens of thousands of people all carrying identical degrees, often with very low pass grades, but still no closer to being employed. I failed a much older test (the Eleven Plus) taken by every child in England, which set the course of our futures, and as much as I hated the idea at the time, a university course obliviously too difficult for me, have deprived someone of superior intellect a chance until until the next even more preposterous law came into being. My point is that everyone is not equal, in terms of intelligence, and the best slots should be given to those able to fulfill themselves.

    • That’s interesting Roger. I friend of mine who went to High School in Yugoslavia in the 80s had a similar experience. They took a test at age 15 (10th grade) and how you scored on that test gave you guided options for careers. He said his scores recommended him to become a ship’s captain. If you chose those options that you basically qualified for, the state paid for your education. If you opted to try something else, which you were free to do, you were on your own.

      In his case he a life at sea, while he was technically very apt at it, was not appealing. He moved with his mum to the US, joined the Army, met his wife in Korea and is now an executive for Samsung America.

  5. Also agree. It’s a rigged game, so why put your money on the table? It’s the mindset that says if you don’t make a certain amount of money, or have a job that wields a certain amount of power, or you don’t live in the right city or dress in the right clothes, you lose. It’s the same thinking that says if you don’t know your credit score, your percentage of body fat and the names of all the Kardashians, you just don’t count. There’s more to life than that. Who said, the problem with the rat race is, even if you win, you’re a rat?
    I encourage your daughter to aim high. But I also encourage her to decide what she wants and why she wants it, and to live HER life, for herself, not to try to meet other people’s expectations.
    My dad used to say, “It’s more important to like the life you have, than to have the life you want.” It took me a few years, but I finally understand what he was saying.

  6. Id recommend selling up, buy a yacht load with books, piano etc and take your kids on a world cruise which will cause them to gain huge skills in self reliance, adventure meet amazing people and end up with lives out of the rat race. I know a Florida family who did just this. Circumnavigated South America, 5 kids in a 60′ yacht. Spent years in Tahiti until all were fluent in French. We met them in Tonga and eventually they sailed to NZ where their kids have graduated university and gone on to become successful adults. Note: I had time to write poetry and novels as a teen – when are your kids gonna have time to think about creativity?

  7. Wow. I agree and applaud everyone’s comments so far.

    Here on the west coast there is an option to participate in the prep school drama or not. For our son, who just graduated from a public high school, we chose to encourage team sports and good grades (including AP classes as a junior and senior) while he carried on the tradition of attending my husband’s HS alma mater. He was recently admitted into a Division 1 school that resides across the lake from us.

    In high school, as a senior he was captain of the football team, captain of the track team, and carried a 3.67 GPA and was a candidate for student-athlete of the year. He just made the Division 1 Crew team for the university he now attends. For him, team sports is a huge part of his life where he’s leads and excels. And for him, this carries over into his academics. People say to us, “you must be so proud; what a good job of parenting you did.” But I’m not sure how much we have to do with his success and achievements other than guiding him toward the things that held his interests.

    High school is hard from a social standpoint to say nothing of the academic pressure placed on these kids these days, but it appears our intuition in balancing things out have helped him onto a good life path. So. In my humble opinion, I would start there and stop worrying about what everyone else on the east coast is doing and guide your daughter toward what SHE wants to do. Reconcile YOUR desire of probably wanting her to go to Princeton with what SHE really wants. There are OTHER schools, sweetie. It’s a big world out there beyond NYC.

  8. Our perfect solution was for me as a mom to step down from my career in graphic arts in publishing and instead freelance from home while homeschooling our four kids k-12. Are they as competitive as their public schooled counterparts? I don’t know, but I think they’ve developed more normally under less stressful situations. They don’t just study for tests. They study to learn. We made sure they had plenty of time to read, and they love it. They still have good friends and are involved in extracurricular activities, but they consume books voraciously, collect their favorites, and even enjoy writing their own stories sometimes.

    We live in Illinois, so our home school is considered as valid as any other private school, and we issue our own diploma (no GED with its stigmas). I also encourage my kids to obtain a practical physical skill in addition to a more intellectual skill so they have two career sources to fall back on. We also encourage them to start their own businesses. My oldest daughter is in the Air Force as an EMT right now, since her passion is a medical career, and her twin has completed Bible college and is now considering a career in education.

    Instead of jamming our kids through a career choice early on, we’ve allowed them time to explore their interests for awhile after completing high school before committing to a path they may later regret. I’ve seen so many people invest huge amounts of time in money later to find out they can’t find a job in an area or don’t really like it. Each of our kids is completely different in his or her interests, but this system has worked well for us.

    (P.S. My husband’s solution is for you to leave the east coast.)

    • Beth’s husband gets it, though his solution is probably not feasible. It’s hard for us folks outside the NY/Boston/DC bubble to understand the pre-teen academic rat race. In Sacramento, nothing comparable exists. Good high schools, both public and private, are easy to get into. My kids’ homework loads average 2 hours or less per day.

      But in NY it’s different. I don’t know how I would handle parenting in that pressure cooker.

      Which is just my way of saying, I feel for your plight, Mark, because there is no obvious escape other than to move. And that is probably not on the table. The other commenters who advise you not to “play the game” live safely outside the bubble. Much harder to follow this advice if you’re in Manhattan.

    • You make a good point, Amy. I grew up in suburban Alaska and rural Ohio, and have lived in Alaska most of my life. As an adult I did spend 5 years in the DC metro area though and you’re right, the entire educational and life goals philosophy is different. My wife is from Korea, moved here as an adult, and their whole educational culture is similar to the US East Coast cities. She had a hard adjustment to doing it differently, but now has homeschooled our boys since ’96 and says she can’t imagine going back.

      The hardest hurdle I think is a philosophical one. If that game is all you know, and all your acquaintances know, then the entire concept of what some of us have mentioned here is alien, and even weird. Watch the movie ‘WaterBoy’ and you can get an idea of how weird those in the game think we homeschoolers are.

      For someone living in a prep school world trying something different, even if it is probably better for the health and well being of the children in the long run, would be even more stressful than continuing to play the game.

    • Very true, Basil. My sister-in-law is Korean, and they are culturally wired for super achievement with nothing less being acceptable. (Love Paula Yoo’s YA book ‘Good Enough’ which gives humorous insight into this.)

      Probably leaving New York isn’t feasible, but I do remember my good friends in college who came out of the New York City area. It was like they were exploding from a pop can which had been shaken up. That’s the way they approached college life at first. For me, growing up in rural Wisconsin, I was a little stunned by their intensity at first. I ramped up a little and they toned back a bit and we ended up meeting in the middle somewhere.

  9. Wow, I know why I like TKZ….these comments are right on.

    Like Wren above I became a pretty well paid IT guy not by going to college for it (I went to Bible college as well) but by training myself after injuries cut a military career out of the question for me.

    Like many said here we homeschool our sons. My oldest dropped out of college after three semesters when he realized it was only going to get him in debt and not help his career a bit. At 24 he’s making over $60k as a cook on an oil platform and gets a week vacation every month. Once he qualifies as a chef, that salary can burst through the roof. Best thing is, he loves his job.

    My 2nd son just learned today that if he wants to go to the Alaska University system it will be free, thanks to his SAT scores & GPA. He wants to be an engineer and UA Fairbanks where he wants to go has some of the best engineering programs in the country.

    Our 3rd son is just a year older than your daughter and wants to be a robotics engineer. His scores on all the state tests are in the 95 percentile. But he gets to sleep when he’s tired and work at his own pace. He even gets to chase down interesting rabbit holes he discovers and make the math and science he loves so much make sense before he’s got to move on with a herd of kids that are just checking off boxes on inane tests and forgetting most of what they learned by the time they get home.

    They’re all likewise musicians, and the younger two are competitive swimmers as well.

    But they have none of the long term stress you’re talking about here. And they all get to read pretty much anything they want. I even go out of my way to find authors they’d like and encourage them to write as well. It’s all part of their schooling and education. That is, the fun stuff is part of their curriculum.

    Rather than making ‘who’s got the more expensive pedigree’ the goal, we’ve focused on ‘who’s got a better handle on their own soul’ as a goal.

  10. Hey Mark? You there?

    You should really join your own conversations sometimes, ya know? In the time you’ve been at TKZ I can’t seem to find any replies from you to the comments.

    Makes me wonder if you even read what folks are saying after you drop your soliloquy on us. Or are you just an AI programmed to post articles every other week?

    C’mon man, we don’t bite …. hard.

  11. Sorry, it was a crazy day. They started the test late, so I had to stand around in the cold rain for two hours along with all the other anxious parents. Then I came home and took a nap! One useful point to add: the problem with the New York schools is that they vary so much in quality, so if you don’t go through all the hoops your kids can wind up in a really lousy school.

    FYI, my daughter says she thinks she did well on the test. But we won’t know the results until March! Crazy, right?

    • Hoping the best for her.
      Cold rain sucks, but for the kids the suffering can be worthwhile. I have the opposite hardship today, sitting on a hard wooden bench in an 80 degree indoor swimming arena for six hours watching a son at state semi finals.

      …okay…it’s not cold rain…so I guess it ain’t so bad.

  12. I felt compelled to respond to this blog. I ask the question why is it so important for a 12 year old to be accepted in one of the “best” schools in her area?
    I grew up in gentler times; attended college after I was married and raising three children. I believe that children and young adults will find success through their own interests and initiative. they don’t need all this asinine testing, just loving and supporting parents that believe in them and their abilities. I would not want to be that 12 year old–too much of a load at that age. She will succeed if she wants to. Give her time to be the child that she is.

  13. It’s been a great conversation on a important issue. What a loss that kids no longer have the time to enjoy reading. During our home school days, we gave our kids 30 minutes of nonfiction reading and 30 minutes of fiction reading time. The first 30 minutes usually had to do with something they were studying or a cool nonfiction book they had found in our library. The second 30 minutes was for pure enjoyment and they could choose what they wanted for reading, but they would have read all day if we had let them. We also read to them a lot. I’ll never forget the time I was reading Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to my kids during our lunch each day, and my five-year-old (the youngest of the kids) looked at me so seriously when I finished a chapter and said, “But, Mom, what is Eleanor saying?” We also used a lot for free public domain works to listen to when we weren’t available to read to the kids.

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