No more pencils. No more books. No more teachers’ dirty looks.

I came home last night to a distraught daughter. images

I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my leather recliner with a book, and disappear for a few minutes after my long day, but, instead, I found myself in that same chair, with my 8 year old third grader cradled in my lap, as she wept and wept.

Why, you ask was my little one crying? Did someone pick on her at school? Did she skin her knee? Is she the target of all the bullying we’ve heard so much about lately?

No, no and, no. But she is a victim.

She is a victim of expectations and perfectionism. She is a victim of standardized tests and insane expectations. She is a victim of a generation of extremes. Either the kids feel like they need to be perfect, driving themselves in their need to achieve: academics, athletics, community service–or, they go to the opposite extreme and skate by doing as little as they possibly can (except maybe in the athletics department), spending most of their time on their phones or playing video games.

sleepI see it everyday at school. Granted, my school is an extreme. The kids drive themselves to exhaustion in their effort to outrank each other. They give up their passions and they give up their sleep. They put their dreams on a shelf to get dusty, and, eventually, to become forgotten altogether. They forsake their childhood while still children, and exile the high school experience to the dusty corridors of “If I only had the time . . . ”

Or they do nothing. They exist. They come to class, do as little as possible, and spend every spare second on their phones. They feel like the very fact that they dragged their lazy bum out of bed, and sat that same bum into one of my chairs entitles them to a passing grade.

Okay, so maybe that is a little unfair. After all, some kids do fall in the middle. Some kids have found the balance of the pendulum. But truly, the vast majority seem to fall into one extreme or the other. Over achieving or lazy bum.

I am not a stranger to perfectionism. I most certainly was a perfectionist in my youth. My class was very competitive and I wanted to compete, so I drove myself. I joined everything there was to join from choir and basketball to forensics and theater. I was big into community service. I was so busy competing that I forgot to play. I rushed through college in four years, testing out of whatever I could so that I could finish first. I rushed into adulthood and responsibility. I was that kid. The kid who was all work, all acievement– and no fun.

But today . . . today it seems so much worse.

My perfectionistic nature drove me to my perfectionism. My exceptionally gifted class drove me to my perfectionism. School itself did not drive me to this unhealthy balance. State testing was something we did, but no one paid a whole lot of attention to the results. I did not always feel as if I was compared to the others in my class. And, truthfully, there really wasn’t any feeling of expectation until middle school. Yes, we were encouraged to do well, but it was not a competition. We did well, so that we would learn what we needed to learn, so that, when it counted, we would be prepared.

cryingAs I listened to my daughter cry because she scored low on her reading istation test. As I listened to her weep, because she was “Terrible at spelling! Terrible!” As I listened to her tell me she wasn’t as smart as the other kids, I felt anger stir. I was indignant. I became livid.

My daughter is in third grade. She should be playing. She should be happy. She should be carefree.

She should not be weighed down by school. She should not feel like she is competing for her academic future. She should not even be thinking of her future in anything but abstracts term! School should be fun, a place of learning and growth–academic and social growth–not of stress and pressure.

She has hours of homework most nights. She has more homework than some of my high school students. She’s eight.

My daughter reads–without me having to remind her to do so. She loves to write–she is always writing stories. She practices her flash cards–because she likes to.  She is very bright–but she is worried, already, that she is not good enough.

I have a problem with this. I have a problem with my daughter who will likely be a straight A student all the way through her academic life already feeling the pressure of school. I have a problem with these standardized tests that expect all children, no matter their birthday, and no matter their developmental speed, to achieve the same levels at the same time. I have a problem with a system that makes these children feel not good enough, because a certain skill might take them a little longer than it takes someone else. With this, I have a problem.

It’s bad enough that, day in and day out, I see so many gifted students forsake their love of art or music in the name of success.

I found it so telling that, when I asked my students at the beginning of the year what they wanted to do with their lives, 90% of my honors kids said they wanted to do something in the medical field. Success means math and science to them.

As it did to me back in the day. It’s what the smart kids do. It’s what their parents tell them to do. What the counselors encourage them to do. It’s what society expects them to do.

I was going to be a doctor too . . . until I realized that I hated math. Until I acknowledged that, though I was good at it, I hated biology. Until I realized that, I would rather make less money doing something I loved, than make more money doing something that I hated.  Just because I was smart enough to be a doctor, did not mean that I was supposed to be a doctor.

easelIn a million ways I see my students’ love for the arts. I read of their love for music and dance. I hear of the artists with abandoned easels . . . the dancers who’ve retired their dancing shoes . . . the athletes who have abandoned the courts.

All in the name of success.

In the name of perfectionism.

To be the best.

Because they are smart enough to do it.

Even if they don’t want to do it.

Just because they can do it.

Almost daily, I tell my daughter that she does not need to be perfect. Every day, I tell her her best is good enough. Every day, I remind her that there are things more important than school.

Yes, I am a teacher, and I say this.

I lived this. I see so many of my students living this. I don’t want my daughter to live this.

ChildsDreamI don’t want her to give up her childhood while still a child. I’m not ready for her to stop dancing yet. I’m not ready for her to be anything, but who she wants to be. Not ever.

I don’t want her to take on the stress and pressure of unreasonable expectations. I want her to LIVE–not simply succeed.

I want her to play. I want her to dance. I want her to soar.

There is time enough for her feet to be firmly planted on the ground.

For today–for now–I want her to live in the clouds, in the land of dreams, where anything is possible, and where her best is good enough.

I want her days to be about friends and dolls. I want her childhood to be filled with songs and swings. I want her evenings to be filled with pretend worlds and wild imaginings–not with math and science. Not with spelling. Not with tears.

I look at my high school kids, and I wish that so many of them knew what I know now.

I wish that they knew that they need to forge their own path, not the path their parents think they should take.

I wish they knew that medicine is not the only road to success.

I wish they understood that there are more important things than money and success, and that all the money and success in the world are not enough to make them happy if they’re doing something they hate.

I wish they understood that high school is as much about memories and moments as it is about books and homework.

There is time enough to be adults. They don’t need to let their childhood go so quickly. They never need to let go of their dreams. Nothing is worth that. Not even success.




8 thoughts on “No more pencils. No more books. No more teachers’ dirty looks.

  1. You make many good points here. I, too, am very concerned about the pressure put on kids to excel at EVERYTHING at all times. About the emphasis on standardized tests. (I’ve had kids in my Sunday School classes ask us to pray for their testing in the coming week. That they’ve been made to be that worried about it is just so wrong.) Kids do have way too much homework from an early age – schools are so concerned about their achievement numbers that they take away free time and imagination (little or no recess and so much homework that free play in the evenings is a thing of the past). And I’ve seen the “I must be a doctor or scientist” phenomenon way too often. Interestingly, all three of our kids were “identified gifted” and are dedicated to the fine arts. The oldest did choose to be a scientist and is working on her doctorate in biology. But she continued with piano and viola for relaxation and enjoyment. Our middle child chose to go into teaching but also continues to work at her singing with private voice lessons and participating in university choirs. Our youngest, who spent his early life certain he’d be a physicist or aeronautic engineer, changed paths and is 100% dedicated to a career as a vocal musician and vocal music educator. So we’ve got a whole spectrum right in our family!

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. 🙂
    Amy at

  2. Good morning Professor Graham, this is Lloyd Jacobs from General Psychology C05, I understand your position, I would hate to come home to an innocent child, crying, and feel like they aren’t enough for society. Today I feel like people in general, young and old are lacking a sense of personality. Humans have become robots and perform to meet societies needs. It is important to save the youth, therefore adults must practice Positive Reinforcement. In chapter 6 of our text book positive reinforcement is to strengthen a response and making it more likely to occur. The more we as people encourage the inner child to show, the more likely we as people are to dance and celebrate.

  3. Professor Graham, I am in complete agreement with your statement that children do, in fact, believe that they need to focus solely on books and put aside the extra curricular activities in order to achieve the successful live their parents have desired for them to live. It’s shameful, in my opinion to ask a child to put their passion on a back burner to only do as society see’s fit. I have personally known many people who have given up the passion of wanting to pursue music or writing because they came from a family of doctors and anything but medicine wasn’t a true career bath, but a hobby. This can relate to things we have talked about in class with when we talked about the nature vs. nurture debate. We do and think as we are nurtured to do so.

    -Niyanta Marfatia Gen. Psych 2301 C04

  4. This article was meaningful to me because I share the same views about school and standardized tests for children. The expectations that individual children are required to learn everything at the same time and speed as everyone else is ridiculous to me. I plan to homeschool my kids in the future due to all of the reasons you have listed in this blog. This post relates back to our lesson in intelligence, where we learned about all the different types of intelligence that exist. Standardized tests do not test emotional, musical, athletic, or artistic abilities, and lead children to believe that the skills they have to offer the world are not necessary. This article also reminded me of savant syndrome. Children with savant syndrome will probably score very low on IQ tests, but have amazing abilities in other areas! I remember watching a video of a man with this syndrome who flew in a helicopter over New York City and then painted a giant mural of what he saw. The photo was completely accurate and simply amazing. His artistic ability and photographic memory should be valued and nurtured, as should everyone’s strengths, rather than be pushed aside to focus on something that will make the most money in life. Money just won’t bring the type of happiness that following one’s dreams can.

    Jessica Bell – class C04

  5. Dulcie Church Gen Psych C05
    In the school system we see a lot of teaching that is provided to help a kid do well on a test. My English class some of Sophomore and senior year was solely focused on how to do well on the ACT. We see creativity leaving the classroom and I think that’s a shame. SO many students could succeed in the arts but because so much focus is put on the business and medical jobs they are scared to peruse that field. I know some people personally who have gone into a business major because they were afraid of not getting a good job or making their parents happy with a job with more likeliness for success. Children need some positive reinforcement to go into a major they like. To go for the creative major if that’s what they truly love to do. The positive reinforcement could lead the child to do what they love instead of going into something they feel is necessary.

  6. Hello Professor Graham. This is Brittany Blakemore who is in your PSYC 2301.CO3 course at 10am. I completely agree with your argument. Kids should be kids without having to worry about whether or not they are going to succeed in life. I also agree with what you said about how not all children should be expected to reach the same goal due to the differences in age or maturity. Some children just are not ready for some of the concepts being taught. Their brains have not developed enough for them to comprehend the skills, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. They simply need more time to grow and develop so they can reach these goals. This relates to the norms we mentioned during the lecture. Norms is the normal or average performance. This is part of the problem. Like previously stated, children do not need to be compared to the group to determine whether or not they pass. This should help give an idea of where they should be, but not discourage them when they do not score average or above average. Children need to be encouraged to do their best and to learn at their own pace. Children have the intelligence, or the global capacity to think rationally, act purposefully, profit from experience, and deal effectively with the environment; however, testing is taking away some of the most important factors which inspire children to learn including, art, music, and other motivational learning tools. Hopefully some day soon, teaching will go back to the fun, creative learning styles which helped children easily remember what was being taught.

  7. I find myself wishing i could go back to high school pretty often these days as a first time in college student. I remember after my first day at college my dad asked me how it went- I almost immediately broke down and had an anxiety attack. I was up to my ears in overwhelming stress and fear. If it was only the first day and i felt like this what was going to happen to me on the day of my first exam or during finals week? I was so overwhelmed with the idea that in order to succeed I was going to have to be on my A-game at ALL times. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but come on who can honestly say they are motivated to go to school and study every. single. day. Grades have been the number one stressor in my life lately. It’s the first thing I think about in the morning and the last at night. My interpretation of my stress has sometimes caused me to forget to eat, lash out at others, and cause mild depression. Going from high school to college has been a huge life adjustment. What is super fun and eventful for many of my friends is incredibly hard and stressful for me. So i definitely understand the pressure you’re daughter is under, let her know she is not alone!
    Jasmine Homer Gen Psych CO3

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