All over the US children are returning to school after the long summer break. Madeline Levine and Vicki Abeles, writing in the Washington Post, examine whether the process has become too commercialized and whether, in the rush to make easy buying decisions, parents are neglecting what children really need.
The last couple of weeks parents have faced a televisual assault from back to school commercials:
“Hey Parents!” the teacher in each spot calls out. “…Here’s what they’ll need!” The scenes burst into a tableau of fluorescent-clad kids banging on instruments and conducting lab experiments as a teacher belts out the myriad “must-have” school supplies they’ll need for September.
Abeles and Levine argue that while the child of course requires markers, notebooks, a calculator, and perhaps even a new backpack, these aren’t the most important things to develop academic success. Advertisements that show kids filled with boundless energy and suddenly looking forward to the term ahead because they have a shiny new folder are just marketing. What the child really needs — what will best prepare kids for a positive academic outcome — is nurturing parental and community support.
Abeles, director of the education documentary ‘Race to Nowhere’, and Levine, author of books on parenting, say that school has become an extremely stressful part of childhood as pressure is piled on from an earlier and earlier age. It’s not uncommon for parent and child to feel as if there is a chain: To get a good job one needs a top-tier college; to get into a good college one needs good grades from a top High School; to get into that high school one needs to have attended a good middle school; and access to that middle school is predicated on being accepted into a top elementary school. For those who attend weaker high schools, there is a constant fear that they won’t be able to get into a decent college and will struggle to find a well-paid job.
There is unrelenting pressure to succeed, and children are at risk of burnout and depression that a new folder won’t help them avoid — but that family support can:
To truly bring pep back into the step of our students as they return to school this fall, we don’t need to shower them with merchandise. Instead, we need to create for them a community in which the authentic measures of adult achievement are adequately valued. We need to commend mental and physical well-being. We need to praise the ability to demonstrate empathy and to maintain friendships. We need to teach the capacity to exercise self control. In doing this, we will drive our children’s enthusiasm for independence; their resilience in overcoming minor failures; their creativity and resourcefulness in the face of disappointment or challenge; and their defenses against depression and anxiety.