A journey, not a race

Before her 12-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a stress-induced illness, Vicki Abeles was not a filmmaker. But after watching her own middle school-aged children struggle with the anxiety and fatigue that has become so common with kids loaded with academic and extracurricular demands, she began a journey of questioning, researching, and learning that culminated in her directing the 2010 film Race to Nowhere, a documentary featuring real students “pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing and the relentless pressure to achieve.” Eight years later, she’s an outspoken advocate to challenge the way we prepare kids for success, and to bring about change in American schools.

Her recent piece, “An Ivy League Acceptance Doesn’t Spell Success,” is one of those where I just can’t pick a favorite passage and would rather just paste the entire text here. But what I liked most about it is that she doesn’t just make an argument—she actually gives parents actionable steps they can take to help inspire their kids to lead happy, fulfilled, and successful lives.

As parents, many of us are under our own pressure from all the messaging that the world has changed since we were in high school and that any student who isn’t at the top of the class with an Ivy League offer of admission in hand will somehow be at a life disadvantage. We don’t want our kids to be left behind. We don’t want them to later be disappointed by dreams they can’t reach because they—or we—just didn’t push hard enough when it came to grades, test scores, and getting admitted to prestigious colleges.

But Abeles isn’t arguing that kids shouldn’t work hard, that education isn’t important, or that we should all collectively embrace student disengagement in favor of full-time frivolity. She’s arguing that what’s being accepted as normal in many communities is hurting not just our kids’ mental and physical health, but also their chances of being successful in a world that cares about qualities far beyond grades, test scores, and the relative prestige of a college attended.

And for the naysayers who insist that Abeles is missing the mark, I’d only remind you that I work with former admissions officers from Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Caltech, UCLA, MIT, and a host of other highly selective schools. And every one of them would make similar if not identical recommendations to Abeles’s for their own Collegewise students, and for their own children.

Our kids can’t enjoy a journey to anywhere if they’re constantly engaged in a race to nowhere.