There is such an enormous amount of pressure on kids these days, I honestly don’t know how they deal with it; sadly, many of them cannot, and in one form or another, they pay a price. While I really don’t think most of us intentionally created this climate of stress that hangs heavy over them like some personal, sinister cloud, I’m not at all sure that we did enough to dispel it, either. When my daughter Carolyn was still in elementary school, my wife Jan and I would often encourage her to study, work hard, and get good grades. Seemed innocent enough at the time; it was, after all, no more than our parents had said to us as we were growing up.
What we were not aware of until it was too late, was that the scholastic atmosphere, especially in towns that have a reputation for academic and/or athletic excellence, was already thick with a threatening torrent of competitiveness that would rain heavily on even the staunchest child’s parade. This new era of cut-throatedness, starting at the primary school level, spawned and quickly proliferated the cottage industry of personal tutors and coaches. Consider: According to industry research, the number of school-aged children who have personal tutors and/or coaches (scholastic and athletic) has grown steadily over the past 20 years. Today, somewhere between $5- and $10-billion is spent annually, in this country alone, on the extra training which has become necessary to produce higher SAT scores and/or lower 40-yard dash times.
The competition for desks at the top-100 universities has become so fierce, that a winner-take-all, win-at-all-costs mentality has been established over the past two decades in grades Pre-K through Twelve. So when I say to my child, “study, work hard, and get good grades,” it doesn’t mean the same thing to her that it did to me, when I was her age. To me it meant, try to get an “A”, and try really hard not to get anything below a “C.” To my child it meant that anything below an “A” was unacceptable, and it was perceived by her (reinforced through peer pressure if not directly from her parents), as failure. Because today, with the popularity of Advanced Placement courses, and the additional clicks on the grade-point average that they induce, the coveted four-point-oh which we strived for back then, and only the gifted few achieved, isn’t good enough anymore.
Imagine what it must be like, being a young person today and knowing–down deep in your gut–that “perfect” isn’t what it used to be. How does one face each and every day thinking, “If I’m not better than perfect today, someone’s going to pass me by, and I will be failing at life”? And we wonder why it is not at all unusual to hear pre-teens talking frequently about being “stressed.” When my high-school-aged daughter used to tell me she was stressed, about school, or friends, or a difficult volleyball or softball game, I wanted to reply, “Sweetheart, you don’t know what stress is!” I didn’t say that, but I wanted to. Turned out she really was stressed, and I wasn’t giving her enough credit for the sometimes overbearing pressure that she was experiencing.
I think that the best advice I ever gave my child in this area came from my own experience stumbling awkwardly toward adulthood. There was a point in my life, probably in my early Thirties, when I faced a crisis of confidence. You may understand where I’m coming from. It’s that period in one’s life, ten years or so removed from college, when one starts thinking about one’s future, and the grand plans of youth that have yet to be realized. And I began to wonder if they ever would be realized; and it worried me greatly. I started putting more and more pressure on myself to make those dreams a reality, and the harder I tried… The harder I tried.
I remember watching a movie called “Little Big Man,” a 1970 film directed by Arthur Penn, which starred a young Dustin Hoffman–when lightning struck! Based upon the comic novel by Thomas Berger, the story unfolds in flashback, with the Hoffman character, 121-year-old Jack Crabb (in cutting-edge makeup for the time), recounting the story of his life in the old West. Jack and his older sister Caroline survive the massacre of their parents by the Pawnee and are taken in by the Cheyenne. Caroline escapes, but Jack stays behind and is raised by the kindly patriarch of the tribe, Old Lodge Skins, played in grand style by Chief Dan George. When Jack is 16, he is “rescued” by the U.S. Cavalry and embarks on a great life-journey, which includes being a gunslinger, meeting Wild Bill Hickok, and becoming a scout for General George Armstrong Custer. (It’s a great film; please see it, if you haven’t.)
Crabb eventually finds his way back to the Cheyenne and is taken on a brief excursion by Old Lodge Skins, so that the elderly Chief, who believes he has reached the end of his life, can give up his spirit to the Great Spirit. Old Lodge Skins lies down on the top of a hill, presumably to die, with Jack looking on intently. It begins to rain, and the Chief clearly has still not given up the ghost. “Grandfather?” Jack inquires after a short while. Old Lodge Skins slowly raises himself up, saying, “Am I still in this world?” “Yes, Grandfather,” says Jack. “I was afraid of that,” the Old Chief replies with a sigh. Then he utters the phrase that has remained with me, and guided me, all these years. “Well,” says Old Lodge Skins with a sly smile, “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
That was it; that was the key! At that moment I understood that as human beings, it is our duty to get our own personal magic (mojo; call it what you will) working as often as we possibly can. But we need to realize, too, that this gift we all possess, perhaps to varying degrees, cannot be tapped into each and every time we summon it. It’s often there when we need it, but sometimes it fails to materialize when we need it most. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Simple. Elegant. Prophetic. The pop prophet William Martin Joel says something in a similar vein, in his rock anthem Angry Young Man: “I’ve found that just surviving was a noble fight.” Some days you eat the bear; some days the bear eats you. Some days, just not getting eaten by the bear is a genuine accomplishment.
I relayed the Little Big Man story, and the realizations it conjured in my young mind, to my daughter, Carolyn, way back when; I’d like to think it did her some good during her own, much more graceful, dance toward adulthood. But the words that I think did her the most good–and what was probably the best advice she ever got from her parents–fittingly came from her mother. On the very rare occasions in her life when Carolyn failed at anything, her mother, my wife Jan, would tell her (and tells her to this day) to: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.” If you are fortunate enough to know Carolyn, you understand that there is very little dust on this young woman. Most times, the magic worked.