Deep in the woods, lying in a hammock swaying back and forth, I daydreamed while watching the sun disappear and reappear between the tree tops. It reminded me of sparklers on the 4th of July and the joy I felt running free with lights flickering all around me. My oldest son rested high on a rock above the world engaged in a serious game of Pokémon. My youngest son nestled in another hammock, while my wife sat on a rock with a book next to the river, always wanting to be as close to water as she can. The thunderous roar of the river rushing by drowned out any worry while the scent of autumn filled the air.
We had just finished hiking. If perfection exists, it was one of those perfect moments. As we sat there basking in the faint autumn glow of the late afternoon sun shining through yellowish green leaves, I thought about nothing but that moment and about how much I loved each member of my family for who they are, not who I want them to be.
Hiking is my happy place. I love walking down a trail, unplugged, with my focus only on one foot in front of the other – in the moment. It’s challenging in this fast-paced, fast food world of convenience and instant gratification to be in the moment.
Teachers and parents today focus so much energy in past or future oriented thinking. Teachers seem to either be constantly behind grading papers or planning a lesson for the following week, while parents are scheduling upcoming activities or “discussing” a low test grade from earlier in the week. Our attention and cognition are so often divided between the past and the future; it’s a challenge to be in the moment.
We created this world we live in. The media propagates it.
We hear ad slogans, such as have it your way or image is everything. If your child attends a public school, they are constantly being prepared for standardized tests. The common core in some ways has replaced the common good. Then after school they are being shuttled from activity to activity. What messages do our children assimilate from all this constant preparation?
You see, in our awareness we have a threshold. Our thoughts are inundated with subliminal messages that enter beneath that threshold, yet still affect our thinking right below consciousness. A child scores average on a standardized test and now this average label may follow them and subconsciously impact their self-concept, or your concept of them. It has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Your son is playing recreation ball while his friends are on travel teams. Your daughter likes music but her friends have been taking lessons for 5 years and she is behind. Standardized test reports come home from school and your child is not in the 90th percentile. You feel the internal struggle that you need to somehow do more. Our children pick up on that. They begin to internalize this message as, “I’m not good enough.”
I’m working on another story, The Cult of Achievement, about how much pressure we put on kids today to achieve. I’m not saying achievement is a bad thing. I push my children and my students. What I am saying is that as parents we need to be conscious of the messages we send and receive below our awareness threshold. They have the potential to shape our children. We need to be careful we don’t rush to prescribe more and more practice and test preparation to fix perceived weaknesses.
Have you ever stopped and wondered what all this practice is for?
I’m going to make a strong statement that may strike a nerve. I know it did for me when I first thought about it. I think most of this hyper achievement focus comes from us projecting our own ego onto our children.
Maybe as parents we were not the best athlete or in the top 10% of our class…or maybe we were and we expect certain things from our children. But you know what? That is not fair to them. Positioning them to succeed where we may have succeeded or failed is for us. It’s not for them.
Schools today are so focused on catching up to Finland’s reading scores or Singapore’s math scores, while states are competing for federal funding and districts fight for property tax dollars. The point of NCLB was to close the gap for low performing students and schools. As we bring the bottom up, we lower the ceiling for intellectually curious kids. Now that we have the common core, we say we are raising standards for kids. Yet who has time for natural curiosity when we are so focused on district and state comparisons?
If we were really being honest, we should hear the common core advocates admit, “Sorry, education is not about your child anymore. We are in a race with China for national supremacy. Please make sure your children are ready for the test.”
Hopefully I did not lose you at this point by diving too deep or through my inability to keep my sarcasm in check. Just like you have to equalize when diving, take a deep breath and think about this. Are we really doing what’s best for kids by testing them to death or running them around to non-stop practices?
The two most prevalent psychological problems are anxiety and depression. Depression stems from focusing too much on what happened in the past, while anxiety is excessive worry about the future.
Today, more and more children are dealing with depression and anxiety than ever before. A friend of mine who is a child psychiatrist mentioned to me recently that she was seeing more and more 5th graders for anxiety. I read an article recently by a child psychologist who treats children after they were rejected from their parent’s first choice preschool. Really?
To be honest, as a society I’m not sure we can stop this Cult of Achievement as it is like a train running down the tracks of life at high speed. But we can individually make a choice to either board the train or take a different path, to focus on our students’ end of the year tests or their questions today.
Walking along a trail in the woods helps me refocus my mind on the here and now. I don’t struggle with the past. My issue is that I tend to live in the future – always trying to control the path.
When I walk in the woods, if I look too far ahead up the path, I will stumble. If we are so focused on preparing our children for the future, we may miss those teachable moments that help them discover their calling.
When we returned from our weekend hiking, my wife and I were in our room unpacking. We heard our youngest son upstairs crying. We have a monitor in his room because he takes medication for seizures.
When my wife went upstairs to check on him, he was sad that our quality time together as a family was coming to an end. His reaction made an impact on me and I thought about that for a while. When we set aside our constant planning for the future and just spend time with our children in the moment- it is powerful to them.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. I am by no means suggesting that we can live every moment in the present, but I do think the present is in a constant battle with the past and the future in our minds. I also think we are projecting more anxiety onto children today than we ever have before. It comes from a good place – we are planning for the future success of our children and our students – however, we need to be aware of the moments that matter, because they carry the potential to change a life.
I remember vividly my high school government teacher asking to speak with me after class one day. I had been daydreaming in class and didn’t finish my assignment. I fully expected to be in trouble. After class, he looked me in the eye and said to me, “Adair, you have so much potential. If you decided to apply yourself, you could do amazing things.” He was trained to discipline me. It was school policy to give me a bad grade. He made a choice that day; he chose to see my potential and plant a seed.
I wonder how much more prepared our children and students would be for the future if we stopped planning so much for their potential success and spent just a little more time celebrating their God-given potential, seeking out those teachable moments.
My walk in the woods reminded me of the power of the teachable moment. We all have tests and activities to prepare students for this week and we will again next week. Let’s commit to seeking out ways to help our children discover the gifts they have now.
In the grand scheme of things, that will mean more to their development than getting a few more questions correct on next week’s multiple choice test.