What are the 3 steps that can help you get rid of your addiction to the achievement culture?
When it comes to parenting, and I am sorry to say this, India is a nation driven by a heartlessly mutilated and visibly skewed notion of achievement. Our parenting priorities began to shift along with the sudden economic liberalisation in 1991. Until then, government jobs were the only ‘decent’ career option available to achieve. Then, liberalisation came along and changed the game forever. India brewed a desi version of the American Dream at home. A new caste system emerged to replace the old one, with doctors and software engineers claiming the topmost position in the privatised food chain and MBAs moving into its middle, pushing teachers and artists down to the bottom of the line. Free play died a slow death, intergenerational play almost disappeared, and learning began to sound like an act of being pressure-cooked to perfection. The number of students committing suicide shot up to 10,159 in 2018, from 1380 in 1991, not to forget the alarming rise in depression among children. In short, parenting gradually turned into a struggle to hurry children to achieve. And then, out of the blue in 2020, a pandemic hit us.
The pandemic set the ground for a far more sinister learning culture to thrive.
Before the pandemic, much of Indian middle-class parenting was about driving children from one after-school 'special class' to the next. After a long and tedious day at school, we forced our children to spend their time taking a variety of short courses, ranging from mundane remedial tutorials to innovative art programs. Children were busier than the Chief Executive Officers of multinational conglomerates, running from the Basketball Coaching site to the Vedic Maths Class to the Abacus Class to the Art Therapy Class to the Dance Class to the Music Class to the Robotics Class and so on. A 2020 report by the National Statistical Office, Delhi, confirmed that this roadrunner culture had dragged our parenting approach down to its most aggressive low. NSO reported that in 2017-18 alone, Indian families spent closer to 'Rs 25,000 crore a year on giving school kids private tuition.' Remember, this was apart from the money they had to spend to pay ‘the mandatory’ school fees.
The pandemic brought in an operational shift in schooling along with it. Formal schooling moved online. Parenting in our country followed up on that shift, falling for something more sinister and damaging than the largely unorganised 'private tuition sector.' Heavily funded and celebrity-endorsed education technology startups began popping up on the Indian schooling landscape, promising to help parents develop kids into every famous person possible, ranging from a Baby-Albert-Einstein to a Teenage-Sunder-Pichai.
During the early days of the pandemic, I particularly remember noticing a bizarre marketing pitch for a lesser-known online class that claimed to teach kids to be metacognitive in less than 7 hours, a set of skills that even adults take years to master. A closer look at their marketing language helped me learn that they misunderstood a few Time Management Skills like Pomodoro Technique to be Metacognitive Skills. They hoped to teach these misconceptions to hapless kids, betting on the next 25,000 crores the Indian parents were waiting to spend. It could also be that they already knew techniques like Pomodoro are not even remotely connected to Metacognition and promoted the course as an opportunity to learn how to learn anyway. I am sure a few parents might have fallen hook line and sinker for this metacognition gimmick, like they fell for the learning kits and the online crash courses. Parenting, during the pandemic, thus turned out to be only about moving children from one after-school online class to another and subscribing to one learning app or DIY learning kit after the other. All of them made tall claims that firmed up the foundations of the achievement culture further, offering quick fixes and rushed solutions to the 18-years-or-more-later personal success challenge!
Why do parents get addicted to the achievement culture and what are they forgetting in the process?
Most parents actively engage in promoting the achievement culture only because of the fear of missing out. What if this learning kit can positively impact my child's brain development? What if the videos available on this learning app will allow my child more concept clarity than the hoards of videos available on YouTube for free? What if this online coding class is good enough to get my child closer to that dream job in Silicon Valley? What if my child does not achieve by not signing up for this course, not subscribing to that app, or not buying the other learning kit? Won’t my child get pushed down to the bottom of the new caste system ladder, if I do not hurry them to achieve?
If you look through history, it is evident, as clear as daylight can be, that most famously successful people, the high achieving ones, learned independently, in their own time, and at their own pace. Bill Gates developed his taste for software, spending time in the school computer lab on his own. There is no reference yet to Sunder Pichai taking crash and burn coding classes when he was young and in India to beat everyone in the race to head Google. Could anyone show me a reference to Albert Einstein or Da Vinci getting wasted in a roadrunner culture, when they were kids? Take the childhood of a few famously accomplished human beings and you will notice that all of them have one thing in common. They had enough and more time to engage in free play and their play was usually around what they were passionate about doing. No one forced them to figure out what they were passionate about. They did it mostly on their own. With our addiction to the achievement culture, we do not seem to be paying attention to the element of free play that helped accomplished people achieve the way they did.
Einstein never used flashcards!
In the 80s, the American Dream suddenly turned into a nightmare for children, with parents pushing them to acquire adult competencies as quickly as possible. As Developmental Psychology branched out into brain research, the misconception that one can force-design children's brains to achieve began to take hold. Books like 'Bring out the Genius in your child' and '365 ways to a smarter preschooler' sold like hotcakes. From 1980 t0 1997, the number of '10 to 14-year-olds who committed suicide (in the USA) increased an astounding 109 percent.' In 2001, Disney bought 'Baby Einstein' and launched 'Little Einstein' for 3 to 5-year-olds. Finally, Diane E. Eyer, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff sat down to write 'Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn--and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less.' The book suggests that there is a better way to raise smarter kids than turning them into anxious and depressed individuals, making them feel like learning has to be about running from one after-school class to the other.
The truth is this: if you want your child to develop into an intellectually and emotionally healthy individual, you need to be in a responsive and nurturing relationship with them. Courses and apps may not always help to nurture a parent-child relationship. Except for free play, there is nothing in the world that can help a child develop better than intergenerational play. The rush to design a child's brain in a certain way is harmful as it prevents various aspects of childhood that are crucial to social, emotional, and cognitive development from playing out. It keeps them away from you and themselves and robs them of their opportunity to figure out and learn what they love doing with their life. What can you do to unlearn the habit of hurrying children to achieve?
For better or worse, education will remain a capital-driven industry. It means that the mindless marketing messages that come along with selling an education product or a service are here to stay as well. Diane, Kathy, and Roberta suggest a three-part formula that parents can use to navigate the labyrinth of this child-rearing advice. The next time you read or watch a sensational education marketing pitch, take the following three steps:
Children learn through play. Leo Buscaglia, also known as Dr. Love, famously said: “It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” When you force your child to cut down on the play part of growing up, you sabotage the possibility of meaningful brain development. The next time you are tempted to buy that learning kit or download that learning app, ask yourself, "Is this experience/class/drill/activity worth reducing my child's unstructured playtime further?"
Our attempts to accelerate the development of a child’s brain and the integration of adult competencies in children are always counterproductive. 'Happy, well-adjusted, and smart children do not need to attend every class and own each educational toy.' Evidence suggests that less is more. Be brave, say 'no,' and stop yourself from joining the frenzy if an educational product or service may take valuable unstructured playtime unnecessarily away from your child.
Reassure yourself that you made a good choice. Congratulate yourself that you understand that the essence of child development is in play and not in work. Play is how we are designed to learn. 'The best way to recenter is to play with your child.' Research suggests that intergenerational play enriches the learning process for both the adult and the child. Diane, Kathy, and Roberta suggest that "Playful environments and spontaneous learning opportunities hold the keys for a happy, emotionally healthy and intelligent child - and for a fulfilled parent."
About the Author
Sojo Varughese is an educator with more than a decade and a half of rich and varied on-field experience behind him in Teacher Training, Instructional Coaching, Academic Audit, Education Technology Integration, and School Improvement. Over these years, working with international, national & state board schools (government and private), he would have by now trained and coached 75000+ school leaders and teachers across India and the Middle East in contemporary classroom teaching, student assessment, and school management practices. Sojo Varughese is the co-founder of Innerkern and you can read more about his work here.