Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

‘Race to Nowhere’: A Commentary

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 17, 2010 . This is a film about raising children in a demanding society in which the pressures of school seem to cause parents to lose sight of the value of being a child, acting like a child, playing like a child, and enjoying friends like a child. Instead, parents fret about grades, test scores and colleges. As a result, children feel the pressure to perform,  and this pressure often leads to stomaches, headaches, constant teariness and, according to this movie, at least one tragic suicide of a fourteen year old girl. As a child psychiatrist, I was taken aback that no psychiatrist was interviewed for this film. Sure, there were professionals interviewed:  a pediatrician, a psychologist, and  a professor of education, but where was the child psychiatrist? I wonder why a film about child mental health does not seek advice from one of my colleagues, or from me, for that matter. Is it that all experts are alike and as such, a pediatrician’s point of view is the same as a child psychiatrist? Is it a contempt for my field which has been known to see the negative behaviors of children, such that we do not focus enough on resiliency? I am not sure.

     “Race to Nowhere” is an unfair title. Children are pressured to get into well respected colleges because a highly regarded education gives a person an advantage in the job market. This seems to be true. On the other hand, the price to pay, the mental stress on the child, may not be worth the effort. It is this nuance which was lost in the film. Some pressure is good, and useful to help a child thrive in the world. Too much pressure leads to a disintegration of the child’s ego. Finding that delicate balance is the key to good parenting. The movie missed that point, as it tried to do the ‘ one size fits all’ to parenting in the twenty-first century.  That some kids crumble under the pressure, speaks to the idea that a parent has to monitor his child for signs of distress. Some kids are thriving under the pressure; the movie did not mention that. These thriving kids are reaching personal goals that they never felt to be possible because they are exposed to such a variety of activities and challenges. Society is changing to a faster, more demanding, and more technological experience. Helping our children adapt to those changes is the goal. The movie would make you think we have to slow society down so that our children can cope better. I would say that we have to take our new environment and help our children adapt to it  in a way that makes sense for them individually. If there is a sequel, I would  gladly recommend a child psychiatrist who can speak to this issue; I would be happy to  be included.

4 Responses to “‘Race to Nowhere’: A Commentary”

  1. Shelly said

    Why does getting into college have to be the competitive frenzy that it is today? Does it guarantee a job when one graduates? No, not at all. What about the ordinary kids, the ones who are not so overbooked with cheerleading practice and volunteering, the ones who don’t join the Peace Corps during the summers and don’t intern in the Senate in the summer before graduation? The ones who still want to be kids while they can? Do they deserve to be frozen out of college because they are ordinary instead of extraordinary? Sounds to me like you are saying that it is the role of the parents to show the kids how to navigate the path into college using all the tools of technology that are available. But shouldn’t there be a place available for every kid who wants advanced education? Why the competition?

    • Getting into college is a competitive frenzy because there are more applicants than there used to be and the number of slots have not changed. No, it does not guarantee a job, but it helps. No, I am not saying that parents should push their kids towards college. I am saying that a parent should size up their kid and then help them navigate a path, given the realities of our world. I am not sure about your point that every kid deserves an advanced education. Most of education is self taught, so what we need is an educational system which stimulates kids to be curious and inquisitive about their world. Every child deserves that. Competition is a reality when there are limited resources. We can’t pretend that is not a part of our survival. As usual, you got me thinking.

  2. John said

    Interesting blog entry.

    Two points: when I went to college in 1980, only about 25% of U.S. high school graduates went on for post-secondary education. I don’t know what the percentage is now, but it’s got to be much higher.

    Also: can you briefly describe how “too much pressure can lead to a disintegration of a child’s ego”?? Thanks in advance.

    • Yes, I should find out the exact numbers, but there is no question that there are more applicants competing for the same number of slots.

      Too much pressure overwhelms the ego because the ego needs a sense of mastery to maintain itself. If the pressure negates any sense of mastery the ego will give up and the person will enter into self-destructive, rather than self-constructive modes of being. This is the short answer. I will think about the longer answer. Thanks for your comments.

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