background img

Are Our Children in a “Race to Nowhere” Through the Education System?

posted by:

A few months ago, the mom taxi was running strong. One of us had at least one thing to do every single night of the week. Trying to schedule a play date or just take a breath was next to impossible.

I decided I was running my family into the ground. We were all headed for burnout. Gymnastics, Girl Scouts, sports, music, dance…it was all looped in a never-ending schedule.

I realized it was time to find a way to actually breathe. Our schedule needed to breathe. We needed to breathe. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, but things have improved. Each child can only commit to two activities. We are still running three days a week, but it’s not insane.

When is enough, enough? When do our children have enough enrichment activities along with schoolwork, homework and play time?

Yes play time.

A new documentary, Race to Nowhere, has made me stop and think about how I am preparing my children for life after high school.

The film interviews students of all ages, parents, teachers, child psychologists, education administrators and counselors. It asks more questions than it answers about the need for education reform.

It makes the statement that we are spreading our children too thin. We want them to be well rounded, and enriched, so we sign them up for music lessons, sports, community service, dance, and more. We send them the message that they need to learn all of this to succeed. Success is not playing in the backyard; it’s learning the piano or making the touchdown.

I’m not saying all of the lessons and activities are bad, but are we putting extra pressure on our children and eliminating passion while we run from one activity to another, to get home and complete homework, and then collapse into bed? Even with our reduced schedule, I still feel like I’m running. Time to just sit and play a board game is hard to come by.

The movie says parents are focused more on homework and sometimes that is the first or only question we ask after school – Do you have homework? How much? What grade did you get on your spelling test? We mean well, but we are putting an enormous emphasis on achievement and success. We are sending the message that good grades equal success.  Earning a certain grade will lead to the best school, which will lead to the best job and the best salary which will lead to happiness.

What is your definition of “smart?” Our society defines it as a straight-A student with high test scores, who plays sports and a musical instrument, holds leadership positions and in high school, holds a job. Not all kids fit this definition of “smart” and feel left behind or not good enough. The pressure to earn the “smart” title is immense. Many of students deal with high stress, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

In the movie, educators, students and parents say high school is only preparing kids for college applications and prep tests. If a test includes questions that the teacher did not cover in a review session, the students are unable to answer. Students are programmed to follow directions and memorize facts for a test. They are not taught to problem solve or think creatively.

When these students reach college, they are not prepared. Universities are reporting high remediation rates for freshmen who graduated from high school with high grade point averages and test scores.

I recently participated in a Twitter party about the summer lag. Do students slide in their education over the summer? Should we be concerned? Are we too focused on raising their education to not allow them to truly enjoy the lazy days of summer? Parents struggle with allowing their children time to play freely but also stay engaged over the summer.

I’m hoping I have found a balance and have my daughters signed up for a summer school-type camp where they will swim, play, read, craft, camp, bike and hike three days a week.  I am questioning whether this is the right choice or if it is too much or not enough to keep them going.

I definitely don’t have the answers to these questions. I try my best (as we all do) to be the best parent to my children and raise them to have ambition, drive, love, passion, compassion and empathy. I’m not alone in wanting them to find their own definition of success and happiness. The hard part is helping them grow up and find their way – not an easy task for any of us. I encourage you to go to a screening of Race to Nowhere. Check their website for showings.

What are your thoughts in the education system? On homework? Overscheduling? Under scheduling? Free play? How do we prepare our children for life after high school?

Susan Wells is a native Colorado mom to two girls, ages 5 and 9. She loves to find the learning in everything. In past lives, Susan has been a symphony bassist, sound engineer, news web producer and web developer. She currently works for Steve Spangler Science in web marketing, social media and blogging.

You may also like
  • comment avatar liz April 27, 2011

    My boys are only 2 and 5, and already I wonder if we’re packing too many activities in. I feel lucky to be a stay at home mom, so we have a couple of free days a week to just stay home if we want. Competitive sports for 5 year olds seems ridiculous – only a few boys on the team actually grasp what the objective is – and yet we’re doing it, fall & spring. Great post!

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson April 27, 2011

    Great post, great reminder about what is truly important. I’ve watched many of my friends race around non-stop with their kids and made the goal early-on to make a concerted effort to only have my kids involved in one extracurricular activity at a time. Of course, there are sometimes overlaps but so far we’ve been able to stick to this schedule. Play is really important to me and not only play but imaginative play. My kids are still young (almost 5 and 7) and there will be plenty of years for the rigors of academia. Especially now I’m trying to focus on what is really important.

  • comment avatar Gretchen White April 27, 2011

    There is no possible way I could have 6 kids playing soccer. They get enough practice with teamwork while setting the table for dinner.

    The only things I have planned for their summer are swim lessons for a week in June. Otherwise, it will probably look a lot like our other summers: Walking to the playground every morning. Playing like crazy. Maybe hitting the zoo, the museum, the botanic gardens once a week or so.

    I predict I’ll also allow video games and mindless TV marathons, because they too are fun. I’m not scared of screens.

    After school, my kids have free time until 5pm. Then it’s homework. Ideally, it’s done before dinner is ready. After dinner and clean-up, they have free/family time until bed.

    Even though I am sort of a slacker/free-range sort of mom, they still manage to find their niches. One kid loves making movies, so he’s taking an animation class at school, plus we bought animation software for him to make his cartoons. Others love art and are very talented. Another is writing a book about dinosaurs. Another loves to run. I try not to insert myself into these things unless they ask.

    If they had been shuttled here, there, and everywhere, when would they have time to devote to the things they TRULY love?

    I want my kids to have passions, not time-fillers.

  • comment avatar Jessica April 27, 2011

    I don’t have a car, so we don’t have this problem. If the kids need to go somewhere for church or school, then we have to ask someone else to take them. I do know families that are over scheduled, and I don’t envy them one bit! I don’t know how they do it all and keep their sanity.

  • comment avatar Lori April 27, 2011

    I saw this film and it completely blew my mind. The biggest takeaway for me was that there is no correlation between the amount of homework and achievement.

    So why did my 1st grader spend an hour on homework every evening?

    Thank you for getting the word out about how far off track we have gotten.

  • comment avatar Trisha King April 27, 2011

    Outstanding insight and it needs to be said be moms willing to say ‘more’ is not always better – perhaps it is rarely better. We reached a point of saying 2 – 3 activities per week, per child. This timeframe worked for us because they were not sports-minded. It allowed for family time to come first, which was our true objective. Thanks for posting this!

  • comment avatar Jaime Swartzendruber April 27, 2011

    Great post! I agree with Amber – one thing at a time and lots of play (I try to avoid too many toys in the house and encourage more imagination…helps w/ clutter too!)

    I think it’s important for kids to see parents having fun since we’re a big influence on their lives 🙂 The values of our country definitely aren’t hitting the mark for happiness. I try to help my kids discover who they are and not pressure them to do what I think they should – but I still slip sometimes.

  • comment avatar Susan April 27, 2011

    Thank you for all the great comments. This has made me stop and think about moving at a face pace and more being better. Sometimes, it’s best to stop and smell the flowers. Lori – I agree. The homework thing bugs me. Lots of worksheets and turnarounds for the next day. I question how this is really helping my kids. Gretchen – balance is key. I love that you call yourself a “free range” mom and allow your children the breathing room to discover their loves for themselves.

    I also have to thank Debbie Leibold at Steve Spangler Science who shared her thoughts with me about the movie and encouraged me to see it. It’s a do not miss film for all parents and educators.

  • comment avatar Marie April 27, 2011

    I have 3 girls (7, 10, 16) and they only do 1 activity at a time. That is all I can handle. I know parents who are running every night. Some of those nights have the kids in activities until after 9pm. I can’t do that and I know my kids can not do that. It has been so nice lately that the younger two get home from school and then go outside to play. They will play for HOURS outside. They will even do their homework outside. My middle daughter had a LOT of homework in 5th grade…hours worth. Enough parents spoke up that the teachers did a survey…and then the homework was cut back. Kids need time to just be KIDS!

  • comment avatar Jenny April 27, 2011

    This is great! I refused to take “play time” away from my kids. And being a single mom for many years (and not being able to afford anything other than FREE), this set my perspective straight. I played for hours on end by myself.

    I feel like it’s ok to add more activities during the summer just to keep them busy, but during the school year, they should really be focused on school and getting major energy out.

  • comment avatar JoAnn April 27, 2011

    Great post! As much as I love schedules, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t overschedule us. Right now, I’m following my daughter’s lead. She’s 5 and in Pre-K. During the summer, I’ve signed her up for the Art Classes at the Arvada Center. She took them last summer, and they were just enough structure to keep us out of trouble and on track for when school starts. (They meet two mornings a week all summer.) We also do one other formal activity.

    A couple years ago, she is the one who expressed an interest in Ballet, so we signed up for those classes, and she’s thriving. She’s been doing that for 2 years and now she wants to try gymnastics, so we’ve started exploring that this session. She was invited to a karate class and fell in love with that too! (If it were up to her, she’d do all three…but that’s just too much for me.) For the summer, we usually do one activity and the art class, so I gave her a choice for this summer: Ballet, Gymnastics, or Karate…pick one. She did, and I’m thrilled.

    The rest of the time will be self-guided: Letterboxing, playing, playdates, picnics, camping, etc.

    I know there’s only so much time to be a kid, but sometimes I feel like I’ve been given MY second chance. 😉

  • comment avatar Catherine April 27, 2011

    I haven’t seen this movie. It sounds really interesting.

    I’m trying to find the balance between letting her experience different things through classes and such so that she can figure out what she loves, and letting her have lots of open free time. I didn’t have the opportunity to do things like organized sports, and dance classes until I was a lot older and I think it really would have helped me come out of my shell and find a passion for something. So Maddy might have a class through the city we live in that she is interested in once a week for a month and then we’ll take a month off. We have a playgroup we meet with once a week and a weekly story time but I try really hard to let her lead. If she doesn’t feel like going she doesn’t have to.

    Mainly we take a lot of time to play together and with friends, explore parks and our neighborhood and just be. I want her to have plenty to time to get bored and find her imagination. That won’t happen if she is scheduled to be somewhere everyday.

  • comment avatar Chris April 27, 2011

    Thank you for this, Susan. I have also sworn since before becoming a mother that I would never over-schedule our daughter. We’ve also recently removed most of her toys from the house, as a result of Love and Logic consequences, and found that everyone is happier with less, even our four-year-old! I like Jamie’s philosophy, less clutter, more imagination.

    Adding this movie to my must-see list, thanks for making me aware of it!

  • comment avatar Megan April 28, 2011


    This is an amazing article! I have yet to see the movie, but I am excited to see it. It’s so hard to find a balance as an adult, but even harder to teach & instill in our children the hows & whys of balancing.

    As a parent, I am trying to give our girls more “bored” time to expand the creativity. I often feel horrible if I hear, “I’m bored.” I think I need to value the time they have to let their imaginations run wild. Thanks for the perspective!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts! They are very valued, especially in this household. 😉

  • comment avatar Sandy May 2, 2011

    I have two girls, ages 7 and 11. Even though each one of them only has one extra activity a week, I feel that their lives are too busy. I think the issue is the amount of homework they get. Each one spends between 45 minutes and an hour each night doing homework. I feel like that is too much and would love to see it cut.

  • comment avatar Rijad May 4, 2011

    I have two boys, 5 and 10 months. I agree that we as parents need to take a step back and reaccess all the activities we make our children do. I think a sport helps to keep kids in shape and teaches values such as team work, but I think too many activities is a bad thing. Kids need time to just be kids and play. That is what a lot of us did and we turned out ok.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *