Last week, I was privileged to chaperone a class trip to the New York Philharmonic with my son’s fourth grade class. The kids were so excited to see the performance, and as most children on a field trip, the time on the bus was a highlight of their day. Having known most of these kids since Kindergarten, I was happy to talk to them during the bus ride. These kids were so smart and so well-spoken that I actually looked forward to spending time with them.
But the turn our conversation took really concerned me. As we sat in a tremendous amount of pre-Super Bowl New York City traffic, the kids chattered on about their school work, their upcoming New York State standardized tests, middle school options – and even where they wanted to go to high school and college. Wait, what? These kids were nine – nine! – years old, and they were (very seriously) discussing specialized programs at the high school and college level.
I know I should be impressed (and relieved) that the students were taking their education so seriously, but I had to take a deep breath before asking them why they were focusing on such important decisions this early in their academic career.
They answered me one by one, explaining that the grades they earn now, including their upcoming State tests, would eventually impact their ability to get into a specialized middle school, high school, and college of their choice.
They were very knowledgeable and passionate about their goals, but underneath, I could sense they were a little worried and overwhelmed. How could they not be? I was panicked just listening to them, and I was thirty years older!
My son was actively involved in the conversation, and I was surprised to hear him speak to his peers in a way that he does not speak at home: he was passionate and sure, ready to take on these challenges. Conversely, at home, my son spoke about how “stressed” he was with his work load, complained that he was worried about achieving the necessary scores on the standardized tests, and sometimes shared that he just wanted to have some time to relax. Many nights, he had trouble sleeping, and would wake in the middle of the night worried about some project or test. I could see that he was weighed down, and it worried me.
I often wondered if we were putting too much pressure on him – I was so sensitive to that myself given my own competitive nature growing up – but I came to realize that a lot of his pressure was induced by himself, his peers, and their own competitive personalities. And he was right about (at least) one thing: he had absolutely no time to relax. After listening to his friends on that school bus, I knew I had to intervene to make him understand that he had to put it all in perspective, and that he had plenty of time to achieve his goals, while having some fun along the way.
So, I wrote him this little note, and left it on his pillow:
Remember how special you are because of who you are, not because of your grades in school or your accomplishments in your after-school activities.
Have confidence that you will achieve your goals because they are the goals that you are truly passionate about, not the ones that other people tell you should have.
Choose schools and subjects to study, and even your career, based on what will fulfill you and give you purpose, not based on what you think your parents or your teachers think you should choose. Know and love yourself.
You and your friends are all different and special in your own ways. You all have something to contribute to the world, so remember that what may be the right choice for your friend may not be the right choice for you. Be supportive of your friends, but don’t follow their lead; follow your heart.
Know and accept that you will change your mind at least a dozen times about what you want to study or “be” when you grow up. Focus on being happy and bringing happiness to those around you. Enjoy the journey and be kind to yourself as you make mistakes and change your mind. Be open to new ideas and experiences.
Remember to have fun! Run around, play outdoors, and be silly . . . no matter how old you are.
Rest peacefully knowing you are loved no matter what grades you achieve, what schools you are accepted into, or what career you choose. Always remember that you are loved unconditionally.
I’m not really sure a nine-year old boy could truly appreciate the message I was trying to convey to him – he sort of shrugged, said thank you, and hugged me – but I did notice that he saved the paper in his desk drawer, so maybe the message resonated with him. And maybe one day he’ll pull it out again when he really needs it.
Thinking back on my conversation with those fourth graders, I’m hopeful for our future, and I’m quite sure these kids will make our world a better place.
But I think focusing on the present is important, too, and kids need to be kids.
They need to be educated, yes, but they also need to play, and run, and use their imaginations, and just be – because we all know how quickly adult responsibilities, and sometimes even regrets, creep up on us. The goals will always be there, but their childhood will not. So here’s to helping our kids achieve a healthy balance.