When the documentary film “Race to Nowhere” sold out a week before the screening at Derby Academy in Hingham, Mass., school head Andrea Archer was not surprised. “I was determined to find out how we had gotten to a place ... where our kids were physically sick because of the pressures they were under,” said California mother Vicki Abeles in the film.
When the documentary film “Race to Nowhere” sold out a week before the screening at Derby Academy in Hingham, Mass., school head Andrea Archer was not surprised.
Since its release last year, this film about the harmful effects of stress on students has become must-see viewing in communities where the push for success and the pressure to attend top colleges is strong.
“We were expecting that kind of turn-out because of the topic,” said Archer. “Most reviews have concluded that the film is not balanced, but if you’re a conscientious, high-achieving parent, it’s the thing to see.”
The film presents a disturbing view of childhood and adolescence: overstressed students who become physically ill and emotionally depressed and cheat or take prescription drugs to get good grades. The film has the opposite viewpoint of the much-talked-about book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” whose author, Amy Chua, contends that unrelenting pressure is necessary to excel.
“I was determined to find out how we had gotten to a place ... where our kids were physically sick because of the pressures they were under,” said California mother Vicki Abeles in the film.
Students today have lost initiative and pleasure in learning because of the emphasis on standardized tests and seemingly endless hours of homework, according to the film. Even the ones who succeed in academics and extracurricular activities feel overwhelmed or undermined by pressure to do more.
“Everyone expects us to be super heroes,” said a high school senior in the film.
Archer thinks the movie presents an extreme view, though it does challenge adults to look at both the overt and subtle ways they communicate that success is the measure of worth.
“The movie would suggest that there are no resilient kids out there, and they’re all falling apart because of the pressure,” said Archer, whose independent school teaches children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. “There are plenty of resilient kids. But it gets people thinking about what is the right balance for kids.”
The film offers no suggestions for a healthier life, instead just a litany of examples from kids, mental health professionals and academic professionals to illustrate the harm.
After the screening, one parent expressed a common dilemma when she told post-discussion leader Michael Thompson, “All of us are here because we’re trying to do the right thing. Everyone wants their child to keep up.”
Thompson, a psychologist who consults for independent schools and is author of the book “The Pressured Child,” offered a dose of reality and perspective.
“American students have high stress because they are expected to be not just an academic success but to be successful across the board,” Thompson said. “But in every school, 50 percent will be in the bottom.”
The criteria for success should not be whether a student is on top, he said.
“How do you know if your child is having a successful school career when your child is in the bottom half of the class?” Thompson asked. “He’s successful if he has a growing sense of mastery, is recognized for something at school, has friends and a connection to a teacher or other adult. I’ve met kids who don’t have a sense of connection, and I worry more about them.”
The average kids still will go to college and do just fine, said Thompson.
“The idea that the good life is only attained by people who attend a handful of colleges is a tyranny,” said Thompson, saying that students have access to 3,564 colleges, of which only 200 have competitive admissions.
Archer is sympathetic to the pressures parents face.
“Particularly, parents in affluent neighborhoods hear so much about how competitive the world is, and this striving for college can drive them nuts,” she said. “When parents have the ability to give their children opportunities, it’s easy to get caught up in the race. They want to do what they feel is going to help they’re children, and they’re in a position to do so.”
Both Archer and Thompson said parents need to pay attention to the fit between the student and the expectations.
“What I took away from the film is that parents have to know their children and what motivates them and stresses them,” Archer said. “And then parents need to monitor themselves. Some children thrive with a really competitive environment and lots of extracurricular activities, while others do better with less pressure and more down time.”
Instead of pressuring kids to compete and excel, Archer thinks parents should encourage their children to work to the best of their ability and help them develop resiliency. That means allowing them to fail, so they can learn from it, and fostering self-motivation, rather than giving rewards like money for achievement.
“Resilient kids feel like when they bump up against something that is difficult, they have enough skills and emotional strength to deal with it,” she said. “Self-motivated kids enjoy learning, rather than seeing it as job.”
In e-mails to Archer after the event, many parents said Thompson allowed them to take a deep breath and step back from the race.
“His overarching message was that you can back off a little bit and your children will do fine,” Archer said.
Jody Feinberg may be reached at email@example.com.