Dear Mr. Dad: I’m really worried about my 9-year old daughter. She’s very smart and does well in school but lately she’s become obsessed with grades. A lot of her classmates have private tutors and she’s feeling more and more pressure from her teachers to study all the time. It’s gotten to the point where she doesn’t play with friends, rarely reads anything that’s not assigned, and almost never does artwork, which was something she used to be passionate about. Worst of all, she just doesn’t seem happy any more. Is there something we can do to get her back the way she was?
A: One of the most frustrating tasks of parenthood is to get our kids to do their homework, so being in a position where you feel that your child is studying too much, feels weird, doesn’t it? But you’re absolutely right to worry. Our obsession with grades and performance (in and out of school) has gotten too far out of hand. And the consequences are pretty severe.
First, it may actually be having the opposite effect than the one we hope for. A number of recent studies have found that the qualities that are most correlated with success in life are innovation, collaboration, and creativity. And the best way to nurture those qualities is to allow people unstructured time to think. Some of the classic examples of this include: Google, where employees can spend as much as 20 percent of their time on projects that could benefit the company’s customers. Google says that about half of its new products (including Adsense and Gmail) come from that 20-percent time. And Microsoft has its Garage program that gives employees a physical space—and permission—to work together to develop side projects. Branding expert Dan Schawbel says that 99 percent of Garage projects either ship as part of a Microsoft product or remain internal. Unfortunately, schools’ insane focus on grades leaves kids little or no time to let their minds run free. As a result, they’re becoming less and less creative.
Second, the focus on grades is literally making our kids sick—and worse. Young people today—and by “young people,” I mean kids from elementary school through college—are five to eight times more likely to have symptoms of anxiety and depression than they were 50 years ago. Worse yet, the U.S. suicide rate for kids under 15 has quadrupled since 1950, and the rate for young people 15-25 has doubled, according to Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn.” Gray also points out that anxiety and depression levels are very much associated with how much control people feel they have over their own lives. “Those who are in charge of their own fate are much less likely to become anxious or depressed than those who believe they are victims of circumstances beyond their control.” Schools that are laser focused on grades over all else are definitely not allowing kids the freedom they need to thrive.
Now, as for what to do to help your daughter, start by talking with her teachers and the school administrators. Explain the downside of the pressure they’re putting on kids and encourage them to lighten up. But don’t expect much change. Your best approach is going to be to help your daughter understand that there’s a lot more to life than grades, and that by giving herself the freedom to play, draw, or just hang out with friends, she’ll actually do better in school and in life.