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KIWI magazine

No matter how old I get, September always feels like the beginning of the year to me. Maybe it’s all those years in school that have my senses trained to gear up once Labor Day ends, or maybe it’s the impact of the Jewish year cycle starting over again with Rosh Hashanah each fall. And being a pediatrician and a father, I’m reminded daily about back-to-school rituals.

I’ve noticed, more and more over time, that the focus of back-to-school has a real “back-to-work” feel. Every year in late August and early September, we start to get lots of calls about headaches, stomach aches, trouble sleeping – symptoms of anxiety. Sometimes the worries are social – starting middle school or high school – but most of the time, it’s nervousness about academics and a busy fall activities calendar that prompts phone calls from parents.

A recent New York Times Well column, “School Curriculum Falls Short on Bigger Lessons,” poses a provocative question, “Now that children are back in the classroom, are they really learning the lessons that will help them succeed?”

That’s really the crux of the issue. What is the purpose of school? Child health and development specialists across the country are worried we’ve gone off track.

“What are we really trying to do when we think about raising kids?” asked Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, an expert in adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We’re trying to put in place the ingredients so the child is going to be a successful 35-year-old. It’s not really about getting an A in algebra.” (The New York Times, “School Curriculum Falls Short on Bigger Lessons”; September 5, 2011).

What is success? In typical American fashion, we’ve lost sight of the long-term goal. We as a society tend to take the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?” approach. It’s true in sports, in politics, in economics and alas, now, in childhood. Starting early in preschool puts us ahead for elementary school, where more and more kids are tutored even if they are on grade-level. Middle school grades determine high school placements, and college prep begins in 9th grade, not 11th as it used to be. And so on.

We are so focused on THIS TEST that we lose sight of the whole child. What about non-academic strengths? Shouldn’t we be emphasizing “well-roundedness?” The parallels with health care are notable. “Why prevent tomorrow what you can fix today?” is our mantra. We should be concentrating on creating wellness through healthy lifestyles, promoting good nutrition, fitness and sleep/relaxation instead of a pill for each ill. It is the same for our children as students. The teachers who had the greatest impact on my life were not the ones who gave me the best grades. They were the ones who connected me with the wider world and challenged me to grow as a person. Our children will not always remember their standardized test scores – but they will remember those moments when they were challenged, and struggled, and learned, and grew. Success can be defined not by the grade given but by the lessons learned. We should create a system that values those achievements.

Dominic Randolph, Headmaster at Riverdale Country School, echoes these sentiments in an interview for the New York Times Magazine (“What if the Secret to Success is Failure?”; September 18, 2011;).

“Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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