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By Jennifer Moses
March 1, 2016
IDEAS
Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.

Confessions of an innumerate: though well aware of the risk to my academic career, as a teen I refused to struggle with math, so much so that my mother, afraid that I wouldn’t get into college, forced me to spend several hours a week with a tutor. Several hundred dollars and endless long boring hours later, Mom realized that math and I weren’t meant for each other.

Go tell that to today’s hyper-anxious win-at-all-costs parents. OK, that’s a little harsh, but really, if the Tiger Mom of yesteryear was ferocious, today’s ambitious parent is not only flat-out panicked, but also willing to spend a lot of money to get her kid placed first in line.

But why wait until your tot is potty-trained? At FasTracKids, a program with more than 20 locations in greater New York alone, you can enroll your 6-month-old in a “signing” class to increase their vocabulary while giving their parents “fun techniques to communicate with your baby.”

Infant linguistic skills leave you cold? No worries, or at least not if you live near Issaquah, Wash., where you can enroll your tot in a program that “uses an arts-based teaching structure….allowing children to think and solve problems creatively. “

I know: it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But as absurd as such early-learning programs appear to be (babies and parents have been communicating with each other just fine since the dawn of millennia without organized intervention; toddlers don’t need help with creativity), they have a point: to “prepare” your fledgling Einstein, first, for Kindergarten, and then for elementary school, then middle-school, and finally high school, at which time the drive to shine brighter than the next guy gets really wonky—or at least it does if you live in a certain kind of well-off status-minded sliver.

It’s no secret that in high-octane educational environments, kids are routinely engaged in a whole battery of activities meant to enhance their competitive edge: early enrichment is the least of it. Sports, music lessons, SAT camp, a slate of AP classes—or, for those who drag their heels (as I did) tutoring and, perhaps, a stint or two in summer school. Not that any tutor, teacher or program will do anything for the kid who isn’t motivated, or at least open to intellectual growth, to begin with. It’s time and money down the drain.

That said, even for those stellar, stand-out kids who not only drink but actually gulp the parental Kool-Aid, things couldn’t be more fraught. I know plenty of kids who routinely juggle AP classes, varsity sports, clubs and community service, while packing their pre-college resumes with everything from getting a pilot’s license to more summer internships than I ever personally had jobs. Amusing, perhaps, but there’s a serious downside. Not to put too fine a point to it, but unconditional love doesn’t give a fig about whether you’re in the top 10% of your high school graduating class or how many extracurriculars you can pull off on five hours of sleep. However, if you’ve been raised to believe that you’re only as good, and as worthy of love, as the bragging rights you can give your parents, things can get pretty dark pretty fast: substance abuse, anxiety, depression, psychosomatic illness—the list of ills that disproportionally afflict the affluent and successful student is dramatic, and very very real.

The alert reader will notice two basic themes. First, superstar achievement typically comes with a pricey price tag. But the more pertinent theme, I think, is that while pushing a kid to succeed may backfire beyond a parent’s worst nightmare—the “suicide clusters” among highly-successful students in Palo Alto come to mind—such parental tactics more often either do nothing at all (such as in my own case) or, for better or worse, actually reap the targeted reward: admission to the highly-competitive college of the collective parental dreamscape.

Question: Then what?

Answer: It starts up all over again. Is it any wonder that in 2015, more than half of all undergraduates reported being plagued by overwhelming anxiety?

Look, I’m not even a little bit anti-go-for-it. Bright ambitious kids thrive on challenge, and, obviously, for the kid who wants it, tutoring can help, sports can lead to lifelong friendships, and typically pricey summer enrichment programs can result in, for example, Latin fluency. (Yes, there are modern-day Latin speakers.) But you have to let the offspring choose it, and do it, for and by himself. Even small children don’t want mommy to tie their shoes for them or dress them if they can do it themselves. I still remember the day I tried to force my 3-year-old daughter to wear what I wanted her to wear. And yes, my own choice of outfit matched, whereas hers involved clashing styles, patterns and even socks. I relented (she screamed louder than I did), and she hasn’t let me dress her since. Thus I learned that it’s not the outcome that matters, but the effort. If she can do it for herself, let her.

In other words, back off. Let the kid twist his ankle; flunk the test; not make the cut; be denied entry. Meanwhile, love your kid for who he is, warts and all, and nurture that kid with all you’ve got, which as often as not means deploying the word “no.” As in “No, I’m not going to take you to the Mall.” Or “No, you can’t have that.” Or: “No. Because I said so, that’s why.”

Because if they really want it—whether it be entrance to a certain college, proficiency in French or enough cash to buy a coveted pair of boots—they’ll figure out a way to do it themselves. That’s called resilience, and when push comes to shove it’s the one thing that makes a difference between a fully lived life and one that isn’t.

Even Mozart, famously the son of the world’s biggest control-freak, didn’t really take off until he told his dad to take a hike, and left Salzburg for Vienna. As for me, and my own worried mom, after eleventh grade, during which I barely managed to pass Algebra II/Trig, I never did set sight on a math book again. Somehow or another, though, I got into college, and 40 years later, I’m still learning.

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