Let Us Not Praise Our Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My name is Judy and I am a praise junkie. That is, I blanket my children with lavish compliments like, “you are the smartest, you are the best, you are second to none.” It turns out that I haven’t been doing my kids any favors with these endearments. In fact, there’s a raft of research over the past couple of decades that shows that unfocused praising of children puts a significant dent in their self-esteem.

Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has been at the vanguard of studies about kids and praise. Dweck’s research grew out of a pattern that has been tracked for over 20 years—gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) were very unsure of their academic abilities. This perceived lack of competence caused them to lower their standards for success and to underestimate the importance of putting in effort towards a goal.

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But I’m not the only parent out there praising away. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s crucial to tell their kids how smart they are. My highly unscientific poll puts the number of fellow parental praise junkies out there at closer to 100 percent.

Why the constant praising and what do we do about it? I suppose we praise to reassure our kids and ourselves that they are not only wonderful, but also resilient—able to handle any challenge that comes their way. But in truth constant assurance has the opposite effect. The proof is on the ground. Ten years ago Dweck sent four research assistants into fifth-grade classrooms throughout New York City. The assistants administered a series of puzzles to two control groups randomly divided. The children in one group were praised for their intelligence as in “You must be smart at this.” The other group was lauded for their efforts as in, “You must have worked really hard.”

In the next round, the two groups were asked to choose between a difficult or easy test. The results were astounding. Ninety percent of the children who were praised for their efforts chose the harder test. The majority of kids praised for their intelligence chose the easier test. Commending a kid for his intelligence not only made him shy away from exerting effort, it also made him risk-averse.

The phenomenon of praising a child too often goes back to the 1969 publication of the Psychology of Self-Esteem. That landmark book asserted that high self-esteem was essential to a person’s well being. The notion trickled down to our kids; criticism was out and praise, even if it was undeserved, was now in vogue. I can remember soccer games that my children played when they were little where goals were not counted and every kid got a trophy. I was thrilled for my children, but was I and the other well-meaning adults around them doing the right thing by eliminating competition?

Dweck doesn’t think so. Her research has uncovered that high self-esteem is not necessarily connected to good grades or career success. It doesn’t reduce alcohol abuse or reduce violence. But Dweck isn’t advocating to jettison praise altogether. She found that fine-tuning praise, so that it’s specific and sincere, was very effective. To that end, her research further demonstrated that kids over 12 were suspicious of general praise from a teacher and took it as a sign that they weren’t doing well in class.

Fear of failure is another conundrum that results from overpraising. A well-meaning parent may gloss over a child’s failure by encouraging her to do better next time. The subtext of that message is that failure is so unacceptable it can’t be acknowledged. A lot of the psychology literature shows that responding to failure by trying harder instead of walking away from it suggests that there is more than willpower at work. Encouraging a child to do better next time can rewire a brain to respond more positively to failure. And a brain that learns to try harder instead of giving up is not as dependent on instant gratification. Nothing will short circuit the brain’s response to failure faster than frequent rewards—it’s a sure fire way to set up a kid’s brain for an actual addiction to constant incentives.

So what have I done about my own praise addiction? It seems to be less toxic than I thought.  My praise and criticism of my children’s performances in school has always been nuanced. But yes, in the long run I think almost everything they do is great. For example, the other day Anna asked me what I thought of an article she wrote for her college newspaper. I told her what I specifically liked about the piece. But I’m not completely cured. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she forgot to insert a couple of commas

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Sticks and Stones: Emily Bazelon’s Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Emily Bazelon has written an important book in which she contends that many of the root causes of bullying in schools can be defeated. She takes schools to task through the stories of three teenagers who experience the extreme toxicity of bullying.

Monique McClain is an African-American middle school student in Connecticut whose woes began in that incubator of bad behavior—the school bus. As seen in Lee Hirsch’s affecting documentary Bully, the bus is literally the vehicle where violence and cruelty mushroom like a noxious cloud. Monique experiences the random nastiness of two eighth-grade girls, which has a domino effect off the bus. The bullying is so bad that she eventually withdraws from school. After her mother and grandmother vociferously advocate for Monique, she’s permitted to enroll in a magnet school. Was Monique bullied out of her school or was she rattled by the everyday girl drama that young teenage girls conjure? In Bazelon’s view it was a bit of both.

Jacob Lasher is a gay boy from upstate New York who endured taunts and physical aggression, but also played the part of the provocateur. Although he may not have seen it that way, Jacob’s strong identity as a gay boy educated his teachers and the clueless superintendent of his school district about gay teens and the risks they face. A 2009 survey found that 85 percent of kids who identify as LGBT (Lesbian, Gay Bisexual or Transgender) reported that they had been verbally harassed at school. Forty percent had been physically harassed because of their sexual orientation and 20 percent had been physically assaulted.

Jacob’s story also explores the psyche of his tormentor Aaron. Aaron is what is commonly referred to in psychology literature as the bully-victim. Bully-victims are as prone to depression and suicide as their counterparts. They hope their extreme behavior changes other kids’ perceptions of them, making it clear that they don’t want to be picked on. Jacob eventually prevails in a lawsuit against the school district, which forces teachers and administrators to implement safety measures for LGBT kids.

Through Jacob’s story, Bazelon makes three crucial points about mitigating the effects of bullying for gay kids. Parental support is essential in shepherding these teens through a tough time. She also notes “we have to hold two ideas about gay teens in our minds at once—they are more at risk, and yet most of them will be okay.” Her final point is something that I fervently believe in—that a Gay-Straight Student Alliance in a high school can be one of the “strongest bulwarks a school can erect against anti-gay harassment. LGBT students at these schools tend to experience less victimization, skip school less often and feel a greater sense of belonging.”

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Bazelon’s book grew out of her extensive reporting for Slate about Phoebe Prince’s suicide in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Phoebe, the third teenager profiled in the book, was a pretty freshman at South Hadley High School who arrived earlier that summer from Ireland. She immediately attracted the attention of the captain of the football team and the ire of his on-again, off-again girlfriend. Phoebe’s popularity with older boys miffed other girls at school too. A few of them began a campaign of harassment that ended in Phoebe hanging herself in her bedroom closet.

I wrote about Phoebe Prince’s death two years ago. At the time I called the South Hadley administrators and teachers criminal for the way they ignored Phoebe’s distress. Bazelon went to South Hadley expecting to find the “black hearted monsters” that I portrayed in my column. Instead she found shades of gray and she reports on the case through the point of view of one of the six teenagers initially indicted on criminal charges for Phoebe’s death. Like her peers, Flannery Mullins underestimated Phoebe Prince’s vulnerability. Although I stand by much of my initial impressions of the bullying that played a part in Phoebe’s suicide, I learned from Bazelon that many factors contributed to Phoebe’s tragic death. She had a history of depression and cutting and she easily fell into high-risk relationships with boys prior to arriving in South Hadley.

In Bazelon’s view “an overzealous prosecutor decided to reduce all the complexity [of the case] into one clean narrative: Phoebe Prince was bullied to death.” What I didn’t take into account in my article was Phoebe’s difficult past, the fluidity of teenage relationships as well as the reality that the correlation between bullying and suicide is complicated. It’s true that kids who are bullied are more likely to think about or attempt suicide. But in the end it comes down to a chicken-and-egg question. Are kids who are depressed more susceptible to the effects of bullying or does bullying cause kids to become suicidal?

Then there is the relentless, 24-hour world of the Internet, which presents a challenge to schools. At Monique’s former middle school, there was a concerted effort to report inappropriate pages to Facebook to little or no avail. At a private Catholic girl school, Bazelon reports, an extraordinary example of peer mentoring in which senior girls helped freshman and sophomores prune their Facebook pages.

A Pew Center Survey from 2011 estimates that 15 percent of teens that are ages 12 to 17 said they were harassed on-line. With 800 million users, Facebook is the largest social networking site in the world. Reports estimate that 20 million teens and preteens are on Facebook and one million of them took the time to report bullying and harassment on the site to little effect. Bazelon visits Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley and discovers that the site has done shockingly little to keep kids safe. “As a parent,” writes Bazelon, “I wish I could tell you that FB gets it, that it’s a company willing to forego short term profits for the sake of safe-guarding the privacy and well-being of its young users. But I can’t.”

A negative comment on Facebook or texting an inappropriate picture cannot only spread like wildfire, but has a kind of permanence to it that can follow someone forever. Despite the overwhelming problem that the Web perpetuates when it comes to bullying, parents still have a big role to play in deterring their children from doing the wrong thing. Bazelon reports that for a 2009 study, researchers asked middle school and high school students what would prevent them from bullying on and off-line; parental discipline was first on the list.

Bullying may never go away. But I firmly believe that schools can and must transform their cultures into ones in which bullying is unacceptable. Teachers and administrators would do well to begin with the adage that, “If it’s mean, then intervene.” And as the subtitle of Bazelon’s trailblazing book says, developing character and empathy in our children is the strongest antidote to bullying.

A Men’s Campaign to End Violence Against Women – White Ribbon Day by Judy Bolton-Fasman

My Dearest Son:

I have no doubt that you will grow up to be a good man because you have been raised by the best man I know. That is why it is so important to me that you know that today is the Sixth Annual White Ribbon Day in Massachusetts. Men, like Dad and your uncles—and other men from various walks of life—will converge at the State House to declare publicly that each of them is accountable to end the ongoing violence against women.

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Accountability can seem daunting to a young teenager like you. But don’t be scared by accountability in life. Relish it. Instead, be alarmed by the lack of accountability, particularly when it comes to treating women with full human dignity. I know that you think a lot about human rights for all people, and one of the most fundamental rights in this world is for women and girls to be safe in their communities and their homes.

You’ll be interested to know that the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) was created in 1991 by a small group of Canadian men with a focus on what men could do to end domestic violence and sexual assaults. The first White Ribbon Day grew out of their campaign to commemorate the second anniversary of the murder of fourteen women in Montreal at the hands of one man. Today, the WRC is active in 60 countries and according to Jane Doe, Inc.—The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence—more than 5 million signatures have been garnered all over the world in support of WRC’s mission.

We’ve been on the Jane Doe site together and I saw how affected you were by the fact that anyone who is abused can quickly click out of the site without a trace of a visit if he or she is discovered looking for information. That safety measure opened my eyes too. WRC calls on all men to stand up against crimes against women, and yes it is a crime to be controlled and frightened into submission. Autonomy is one of the greatest gifts that you can cultivate in your children.

WRC is very clear that this is a men’s campaign where the focus is promoting positive male role models. This means that the campaign is for you, for your future. Your father and I don’t want you to live in a world where women are afraid for their lives. We don’t want you to live in a world where you feel hopeless and helpless to help the women around you.

Your father is a gentle man and that is his greatest strength. That kind of role modeling is the most precious gift that he can give to you. I know that you understand that there are all sorts of boys. Strength and thoughtfulness, bravery and sensitivity, artistry and athleticism are not mutually exclusive. Men are so pressured not to show a softer side. I hope and pray that by the time you are a grown man, society will reward men’s difference instead of humiliating them into ill-fitting stereotypes.

There is a formal pledge that you can take through WRC to end all violence against women and men alike. And there is that white ribbon you can wear. You may wonder why the color white. In all of the reading I’ve done about WRC’s commitment to healthy relationships, gender equality and raising boys with a new vision of masculinity, I haven’t specifically seen an explanation for why the color white was chosen. White has a lot of traditional associations that connote a fresh start. White is also the result of mixing all the colors of the rainbow. It’s every color, which is a rich metaphor for acceptance. White is also deeply illuminating, which is what I hope you will be—illuminated, educated, proactive and ever so gentle on this White Ribbon Day, and every day.

This piece was originally published as an op-ed in the Boston Globe’s The Podium

 

 

 

Parenting a Child Far From the Family Tree by Judy Bolton-Fasman

“Parenting is no sport for perfectionists,” writes Andrew Solomon in his rich tome, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. Solomon’s 700-plus- page book—an 11-year undertaking—is a vivid portrayal of children who are born or grow up in ways that their parents never expected. The book is also a memorable catalogue of how parenting can be one long mystery tour that often mixes utter desperation with boundless joy.

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Consider the heart-breaking example of the mother of an autistic child who, Solomon reports, has only spoken four times in her life. But each time her response was “appropriate to the situation.” Given that brief glimpse into her daughter’s psyche, the mother frets that her child’s soul is trapped in her body. How many of us have felt that way when a child has lost his way or becomes a stranger to us?  How many of us have turned to our partner after we brought home our new baby and said, “Now what?”

What to Expect When You’re Expecting always struck me as an ironic title for an advice book for pregnant women. There is no primer for what happens when the doctor sees an abnormality on the twenty week sonogram and your child may be a dwarf. Or amniocentesis shows an extra copy of chromosome twenty-one and your child has Down Syndrome. Maybe your baby is closing in on turning a year old and doesn’t look you in the eye. He hasn’t uttered a word yet. That happened with Adam. We were lucky parents. It turns out that he was severely far-sighted. At ten months he wore his first pair of glasses and a few days later he crawled on his own.

But parenting isn’t just about happy endings. It’s often about the little victories within the bigger battles. Solomon is intimately acquainted with what happens when a child doesn’t meet parents’ expectations. He was dyslexic as a child and came out of the closet as a teenager. Far From the Tree grew out of a 1994 article that he wrote about deafness for the New York Times magazine. In the course of researching and reporting, he realized that issues surrounding deafness were not unlike the challenges that he faced as a gay man. A few years later, he saw the same pattern after watching a documentary on dwarfism. He eventually expanded his theory on identity and outsider status to include Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, children conceived during rape, and children who become criminals.

While this may seem like a hodgepodge of various conditions and situations, Solomon unites them by distinguishing between vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identity is handed down through the generations such as religion or racial identity. If a child’s parents identify as black in all likelihood so will that child. Horizontal identity arises from a break between the reality of a child’s life and the parents’ experiences. For example, a deaf child navigates the world very differently than her hearing parents. I found it fascinating that Solomon included prodigies alongside conditions that have otherwise been stigmatized throughout the centuries. The mother of a child who entered college at the age of nine was as bewildered as the parents of a disabled child.

Solomon explores family dynamics, seeking common ground among families who find themselves with children they never expected. Most of the parents were grateful to have the children they had. What might have been initially frightening or insurmountable for these parents had been transformed into a deep, bedrock love for their children.  In a recent interview on Salon.com, Solomon noted:

“I found that there is so much that [these family’s] experiences have in common—that process of accommodating, accepting, loving, even celebrating a group. It didn’t matter whether we were looking at what the child did, as we were in the crime chapter; or how the child was born, in the Down Syndrome chapter. That was consistent. And it had a lot in common, in my view with the experience I had negotiated as the gay child of straight parents. And so I think that sense of difference is actually something that almost everyone has in common, rather than something that isolates people.”

In Solomon’s view reproduction is an imprecise term. On the very first page of the book he talks about having children as an act of “production.” We just don’t know who or what we’ll produce as parents. And if we have toss aside perfectionism for imagination and acceptance, the one thing we’ll get in return is realizing that love for a child is like no other love in the world.

You Are Not a Test Score: Some Advice for the College Applicant

With much anticipation and a shot of dread, it’s time for some families of high school juniors and seniors to enter the college sweepstakes. Once a kid is knee-deep into her junior year of high school, the mostly self-imposed requirements to apply to colleges come fast and furious: SATs, SAT tutoring, subject test tutoring. AP classes, exams – midterms and finals. Everything is magnified in search of the Holy Grail at the end of sending out college applications—acceptance to a school you actually want to attend or bragging rights to the kinds of schools that accepted you.

Applying to college in rarefied circles—solid to upper middle class—is a virtual blood sport. The grueling psychological competition is explicitly and humorously laid out in a book I really liked called Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College. The author, Andrew Ferguson, is a self-deprecating realist who manages to poke fun at, as well as take seriously, the business of shepherding your child to the threshold of his college dorm.

The fact is that 70% of high school seniors in the United States will go to college. Most of those seniors will not have cured cancer, written an opera or started a Fortune 500 business by the time they apply. They’ll be just like the zillion other candidates they’re up against at Fancy U. But bear in mind that 80% of college kids will happily matriculate at non-selective colleges—schools that offer automatic acceptance if you meet the minimum requirements. As my father used to say, “You can get a great education anywhere.”

The rest of us well-meaning parents will shell out thousands of dollars for at least one of the following: SAT tutoring, regular subject tutoring, college coaching and application preparation. Here’s how it works at one extreme: An application boot camp can cost $14,000 for four days of marathon essay writing and interviewing strategies. If you’re willing to empty out your 401K you can hire a private counseling service. The Cadillac of private college coaching can run up to $40,000.

SAT tutors in the Boston area can charge up to $200.00 an hour to prep a kid for “the test.” I’m glad I don’t live in the New York metropolitan area. SAT tutors in the Big Apple charge up to $425.00 an hour. In a New York Times article reporting on the fierce competition for perfect grades in high school, an anonymous parent at a tony private school in New York admitted to paying up to six figures in a given year for extra help in regular school subjects. That doesn’t count the steep tuition she already pays. I think my husband may be sitting on a pot of gold. Over the years he has saved us a bundle by tutoring our children in everything from calculus to biology.

Ferguson is at his wryest when he talks about the kitchen people—the folks who gather in the kitchen at a party to share war stories about their kids applying to college. In these clandestine conversations a parent would rather reveal the annual family income than her child’s SAT scores or GPA. Speaking of SATs—this is a test originally administered after the First World War to veterans with college aspirations. Somewhere along the line the SATs garnered the power to make or break a college career.

I could go on about the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. This is the list that admissions offices love to vilify yet secretly pray for a top 20 spot. There’s the college essay, which demands an epiphany so wise, so rare, that most 17-year olds simply don’t have the emotional maturity to have earned it.

Overwhelmed yet?

In the spring of junior year, usually with a guidance counselor and with grudging parental input, a student creates “the list” of schools to which she might apply. The list is usually a mix of colleges for which a kid is a leading candidate and schools that are designated as “a stretch.” As a parent you may look at up the admission statistics for your alma mater and shake your head in wonder at how you ever got into college.

At the core of every college application, job interview or personal relationship is the fear of vulnerability. Yet it’s vulnerability that gives us courage and compassion. Vulnerability begets connection; it keeps us honest. Vulnerability is important to show whether it be in the college essay or the alumni interview. Be human. You are multi-dimensional. And yes, you are not a test score.

I can remember Anna telling me that she didn’t need a campus full of valedictorians to feel academically fulfilled. During the process she was also also wise enough to demonstrate to her mother that lists, whether it the US News & World Report or the college lists she generated–should be used sparingly and mostly for things like groceries.

 

 

How Children Succeed: An Interview with Paul Tough

Parenting books – love ’em or leave ’em. Most times, I leave them after perusing the table of contents. I don’t like the one-size-fits-all approach that so many of them take. But Paul Tough’s excellent new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” rises to the top of the parenting book pile for its deep exploration of failure and the ways in which it builds character in our kids.

First a word about character. It’s as unique to each person as her DNA. Tough offers the revolutionary concept that character, unlike DNA, is not fixed or completely innate in a person. It is, in a word that recurs throughout “How Children Succeed,” malleable. I confess that I was initially very uncomfortable with the word malleable for its implication of weakness and undue influence. But read Tough’s book and you quickly learn that malleable is an asset.

Tough talked about character in a recent interview with [start ital.]The Advocate[end ital.], citing a chain of charter schools called KIPP and its dedicated founder David Levin. KIPP schools dole out report cards for academic performance and character assessment. “Dave is doing new and important work,” Tough said, adding:

“He has a new vision for character and it’s quite scientific in that he’s trying to figure out which character strengths make a difference in a kid’s success. And at the root of his research and thinking is the assertion that character is … a set of qualities that [enables] kids to change themselves and qualities that parents and teachers can instill.”

Tough presents living examples of low-income kids who have had the opportunity through mentoring programs, family members or discerning teachers to pause and look inward to shape and reshape their character. Kewauna Lerma was such a student. On the fast track to derailing her life, Kewauna did an about-face during her junior year of high school. She still lived at the poverty level on the South Side of Chicago, picking fights at school and struggling academically. But a spark was lighted inside of Kewauna through a mentoring program and encouragement from her mother and great-grandmother.

“Kewauna,” explained Tough, “became motivated to be a different person. It was very telling that she changed in that it came from her clear vision that she had of herself. That vision was further clarified in the program she was in as well as by her family.”

There is no question that kids mired in poverty have it tougher than children of affluence. But Tough admirably teases apart the hazards of having it too good without falling into the “poor little rich kid” syndrome.

For wisdom on the challenges faced by kids who seemingly have it all he turned to Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the tony Riverdale School in Riverdale, N.Y. – a well-off section of the Bronx. Randolph was initially the subject of a [start ital.]New York Times Magazine[end ital.]article that Tough wrote last fall. In that article, Tough explored Randolph’s claim that failure and character lead to academic success.

Advocating for failure is a radical step for a head of school where the majority of the class goes on to Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges. But that’s exactly what Randolph did when he came to Riverdale in 2009. Tough noted:

“[T]here is this way that certain high-pressure academic environments can stress kids out. They are on this treadmill versus climbing a mountain. At KIPP kids are climbing a mountain and it’s a bigger challenge than staying on that familiar treadmill. I think that’s why KIPP kids get out of college with more success and character. It’s the way you get on a life path, not the actual life path you end up on, and that makes all the difference.”

Tough points to the documentary “The Race to Nowhere” as a prime of example of affluence undoing kids. Vicky Abeles, the mother of three kids who were scorched by the heat of extreme academic competition, framed her film as a cautionary tale. I’m not a fan of the film because I think it’s slanted toward sensationalism. Tough thinks it’s a helpful example of the importance of establishing a good relationship with failure. “Affluent kids,” he said, “are in suspended animation throughout college without every hitting road bumps. Then they hit an obstacle in their 20s and they don’t have resources to deal with it.”

I think that Tough is on to something big here. We talked about post-college choices that kids who have graduated competitive colleges have made. He asserts that ironically their fear of failure steers them toward investment banking and management consulting jobs.

I wonder if our adult kids’ pervasive fear of failure hasn’t returned them to their childhood bedrooms, dissatisfied and unemployed. Yes, it’s a tough economy out there, but have we made them afraid to take chances, to bypass meaningful engagement and social justice opportunities?

Which brings me back to where I started. Perhaps character is not destiny, that it’s malleable enough to forge the kind of future that can fulfill our kids.

The Race to Nowhere

Vicki Abeles means well. She is a mother who wanted to give her three children all the advantages she never had as a child. As a result, she and her children weathered long school days followed by a daily onslaught of extracurricular activities. Sound familiar? But somewhere along the way her best intentions went awry and she realized that she and her children were running in, what she descriptively calls a “race to nowhere.”

Out of frustration, Abeles picked up a camera and made a movie, her first, about the never-ending marathon in which we have inadvertently sponsored our children. The resulting film, The Race to Nowhere, alternates between a cautionary tale and an overreaction to what happens when kids and parents are trapped by their own ambitions.

When it came out two years ago, Abeles’ film was screened in various upscale locations followed by question and answer periods. The high-achieving Boston suburbs where I live are the perfect laboratories to test Abeles’ theories. In the question and answer period I attended, a group of educators in the audience said how unfair it was to adjust their lesson plans simply for the sake of delivering high MCAS scores. “It is,” said one of the women, “like putting the cart before the horse.”

There are no surprises in Abeles’ film. Dedicated teachers are thwarted by school boards. One exemplary English teacher felt so beleaguered by the Oakland, California school system that she left teaching altogether. The woman openly wept on camera about leaving her students to fend for themselves in a mediocre school system.

The camera pans to a Stanford University freshman confessing that he regurgitated information for tests in high school only to be woefully unprepared for his freshman year of college. Then there are the befuddled parents and students who have no idea how to get off this exhausting treadmill. Fewer activities, an adjusted academic schedule? If only it were that easy.

In the middle of all this angst is a heart-breaking interview with a mother whose 13 year-old daughter Devon committed suicide after getting a bad grade on a math test. I think back to a column I wrote about Amy Chua, the original tiger mom, wouldn’t accept anything less than an A from her daughters. The Tiger Mother roars and her cubs fall into line. And yet I have to believe that it was more than poor test results that tragically sent Devon over the edge.

I worry about my children and the academic loads they carry. Anna was a three-season athlete in high school and often didn’t get to her homework until after dinner. Nothing annoyed her more than when I ask her how the homework situation is. She’d tell me the work is there and she would get through it no matter how long it took. Most nights I didn’t think she had an unreasonable amount of homework for a student as committed as she was. Yet I still fret about sleep-deprivation and the onslaught of emotional challenges she’s beginning to face as a college studentl.

Adam is no stranger to buckets of homework. His school prides itself on creating young men of character and discipline. Part of cultivating that persona is a full curriculum. For example, most nights he’ll be assigned up to 25 math problems. Although I hate homework as much as the next parent, I don’t think his assignments are busy work or aimed at “survival of the fittest.”

Sara Bennett is among those advocating education reform in Abeles’ film. She co-wrote a treatise with the self-explanatory title: The Case Against Homework. Like Abeles, she was a concerned parent who saw her children struggling against the overwhelming tide of worksheets and reading assignments in middle school.

According to Bennett’s research, a child needs to do only 5 math problems to catch on to a concept. Tell that to Amy Chua whose older daughter was once bested in a math competition. Chua’s solution was to have her daughter complete 200 (no there is not an extra zero) math problems a night for 10 days. That’s 2000 problems. That’s a lot of math. That’s a long race.

I wasn’t surprised to see Wendy Mogel make a cameo appearance to warn about the myriad ways our kids are stressed out. For Abeles and company, Mogel’s latest parenting book, The Blessings of a B-, is an island of calm in the madness of running after perfect SAT scores and padding resumes to resemble the CV of a Nobel prize-winner.

As parents we all too often walk that tenuous line between encouraging our children to be their best and demanding perfection from them. What goes loudly unsaid throughout the film is that entrants in the “race to nowhere” are more often than not socioeconomically privileged. All I can say in the face of these tense times is to hug your kids often. Set a realistic course that takes them towards a fulfilling, healthy future because the alternatives are too upsetting to contemplate.