I hear many complaints that our kids are out of control—that they spend too much time playing video games, watching reality TV, and experimenting with sex before they are ready. Why is this happening? The experts usually conclude that we expect too little of our kids.
My view is that we expect too much. And maybe we expect the wrong things.
Middle-class kids are studying more and playing outside less. Studies show that in the last twenty-five years, time spent on schoolwork has risen by 50%!
I remember well my own children’s high school experience. They and their sleep-deprived classmates devoted their days to homework, lab reports, soccer practice, and student council meetings. They took multiple AP courses and raced from one skill-enhancing program to the next. And virtually every student in their class enrolled in at least one grueling SAT prep course, sometimes at their own initiative and sometimes at the urging of their go-getter parents.
Don’t get me wrong. Of course we want our children to set high academic goals and to work hard to achieve them. But must we set our kids on this course before they even enter middle school? When was it decided that children had to perform brilliantly at school right out of the gate, and that everything was riding on it? And at what point did we start sending the message that they must excel at everything they do, and that education is a game to be won?
The results are predictable. All of this pressure leaves our kids in a panic. What if, after all their effort, they don’t get into “the right school”?
As you read the college guide in this issue of Reform Judaism, consider the trap so many parents fall into by emphasizing résumé building more than character building. Are we doing enough to spark the moral imagination of our children and to teach them that the acquisition of knowledge is second to its use? Are our temples, youth groups, and camps helping our kids, amidst all their busyness, to nourish their souls?
For centuries, we Jews have passed on our faith and way of life to our children. Doing that today means talking with them about relationships, love, and justice; it means offering them worship and learning and a Jewish community united by a covenant of shared fate and destiny. There is nothing easy about this, but the surest way to fail is to prioritize exams and grades above all else and to make getting into the right college the measure of their worth. Our children deserve better, and with the support of our synagogues and our tradition, we can provide it.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
President, Union for Reform Judaism