Sad, but true: Public school has terminated my boys’ childhood.
Why? Because they’re both well-behaving young men who listen to their parents, and try to respect their teachers; they believe in working hard in school, setting high goals, and the rest of those middle-class values that we’ve been drilling into their young, highly absorbent minds since their early steps on this questionably habitable planet.
Are we killing our teenagers’ spirits?
Ages 14 and 16, my own kids, and many of their peers are so possessed with grades, GPA, SAT, ACT, ivy league vs. “regular” colleges, and future career choices, that I sometimes feel as if they’re missing out on some very essential aspects of life: life itself.
Now, you may ask, What’s wrong with highly motivated highschool students, who realize that their future may depend on good education? Principally nothing’s wrong with that, but hidden in this very question is the key to what irks me: It’s all about The Future, and not enough about The Present.
Think about it: What’s so great about kids? Why do we all (well… many of us) adore and enjoy them so much? Children are all about being in the present. They do it naturally, not in some Buddhist, spiritual manner, because the present moment is all they know or care about, and for them it’s all about sunshine and giggles. Of course, I’m not wishing for my teenage boys to regress to the careless toddlers they used to be, but I did not expect their paradise to be so utterly lost, and so soon in their fledgling lives. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen them giggle.
While there is a difference between my freshman and junior sons (mainly due to age and personality differences, Thing2, the younger one, can sometimes still behave like the young boy that he is), lately I’ve been a somber witness to their gradual descent into a state of anxiety that is a direct result of too much work, not enough sleep, and worrying about their future. Does this sound familiar to all of you debt-ridden, overworked grownups out there?
I grew up in Israel. I delayed my maturing until my mandatory military service, with its proverbial mustached sergeant that I always knew awaited me at age 18, eager to “turn me into a man.” With the next war always looming, future was vague at best, and I mean it in the sense of, Will I even live to see my mid-twenties? I could not practically plan a day beyond those three long years serving as a paratrooper in the IDF. But this is a long story for a different time. The point is that I remained a child, a teenager, throughout highschool (and if you ask my wife, far beyond that, too), and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I skipped school a lot, went with my friends to the beach, got horrible grades, and then marched into the military. The day I became a civilian again, at age 21, I had no clue what I wanted to do when I grow up. What followed was my lost decade, during which I took my time, tried different things, and drove my parents crazy with worry, but in the end it all turned out okay.
I realize that we live in a different world, and that in my time I may have taken the concept of laid-back to the extreme, but is it too much to expect some balance in my children’s life? Do they have to start adulthood at such a young age?
Thing1, at age 16, and by his own choice, is taking three Advanced Placement classes. That’s three college-level courses in US history, chemistry, and statistics. The rest of his classes are geared toward college-level by next school year. He comes home after school, which may be as late as 7:00 pm during swim season, gobbles up dinner, washes off the chlorine, and launches into homework. Yes, he still spends too much time with Facebook, YouTube, Call of Duty and the likes, but there’s a solid 2-4 hours of work nightly, studying for quizzes and exams, finishing a project or reading 10 lbs. text-books. Between 11:00 pm and midnight he finally goes to bed, where he tries to spend some time with his mammoth book of SAT prep.
He is irritable, anxious, feels isolated as he’s got no time for social life, and tired. Don’t get me wrong, he is still a spirited young man, ambitious, and strong, but I can’t help asking myself: How long would he be able to continue like this before he cracks under the pressure, or simply loses his sense of joie de vivre?
I’m posing many questions to which I have no answers. I’m proud of my boys’ sense of commitment and responsibility; I’m worried that they’re burning out and missing their years of wild fun. But in the end I have to remember that I have very little control over who they are, and the choices they make in life. Maybe the best I can do is tickle them once in a while, so they don’t forget how to giggle.