Quick! Stop what you’re doing for just a second, and take a seat in the wayback machine. Try to picture what you wanted to be when you grew up, back when you were a kid.
A ballerina? A rockstar? A zookeeper? The first girl to crack the Major Leagues? A Power Ranger? (True story: That’s what one young woman answered when I asked this question in class one day.) I wanted to be a back-up singer. My husband wanted to be a bus driver.
My husband is a lawyer. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. My point is that it takes a while to figure out your dreams, your goals, your life plan. And for all but the very few, it doesn’t take shape until we’ve got some life under our hats, till we’ve played a little trial and error. Until we’ve done some growing up.
And yet. Just last week, I came across a piece — call it an advice column — in the New York Times entitled “Helping Teenagers Find their Dreams.” Clearly, it was a parent who was asking for help. Not a kid. Made me want to take drugs.
The response rightly started out with an admonition that parents not force their own dreams on their unsuspecting kids. Cool. But once that was out of the way, the column kicked into overdrive with a double-dose of exercises and whatnot you can do with your teenagers to help them find their bliss. Or whatever.
Ugh. I can’t help wondering if these poor overly-guided teens are the same ones who grew up with (the now discredited) Baby Einstein series or some such. Or teens who, a few years prior, were like a young girl my daughter ran into once in Starbucks. Wearing grade-school plaid and drinking a double-latte, the little girl was working with her tutor, powering through a Kaplan-style prep course for her high school entrance exam. (And, for some reason, no one even questioned the caffeine.)
Or teens currently working with college counsellors, making a mile-long list — and checking it twice — that ranges from “reach” to “safety.”
Which brings me to a more recent piece in the New York Times on “The Whole Applicant”. Now even public universities are looking beyond the numbers to the “holistic student.” No longer are AP course, high GPAs and test scores enough. Now, selective public universities are focusing on the “what else?”
In some respects, this is a good thing: giving special consideration to students who have overcome hardships, are first generation college kids, or those who have done well despite a high school curriculum that offers few, if any, honors classes. But still, there’s the whole issue of the value added: Play the oboe? Start your own cyber-biz? Pitch until your arm gives out? Kick ass at the high school Moot Court competition? Stick that kid on the top of the pile.
All of which plays havoc with the normal scheme of things: the self-direction that most of us need to figure ourselves out. It’s great if kids are doing what they want because it’s what they love. But what I suspect is a recipe for indecision ten years down the line, when kids who’ve been riding the treadmill since before they hit puberty, are finally on their own, in a position to deal with their own choices, on their own terms. I can’t help thinking that many of these angsters are young women, too, raised to grab the options their moms never had.
The knock on American culture (maybe Western culture, in general) is that childhood has been compressed. Partly the media is to blame. And consumer culture, too, that tricks little girls into dressing like mini-grownups from the time they’re ten. But the treadmill carries weight as well. And here’s the irony: adolescence — that period when your job in life is to define your identity, not to mention your dreams — lasts longer than ever before, with some experts suggesting that late stage adolescence now carries on till the late twenties.
I see these driven kids in college — and beyond. I recall one recent college grad, finally on her own and trying to make her own decisions, who once confided that she wished she had been born into a culture where everything from spouse to career had been chosen for her. Or another student, soon to graduate, who reflected on the great expectations that were riding her back. She felt that she had to do something amazing with her life — when all (all?) she really wanted to do was teach little kids.
The treadmill to blame? Could be. But about that last kid I mentioned above? Last I heard, she was teaching little kids. In Japan. I hope that’s true.