Parents hate to hear it when Madeline Levine tells them, “You know, most of your kids are average.” But the reality is, most of us are average, too.
Madeline Levine: The question of who this relates to, who these problems of over-parenting relate to, you know, it’s a question I get asked all the time. “You’re really just talking about rich kids.” And the answer is absolutely not. I mean, I have criss-crossed the country and I’ve spoken in some of the most affluent communities and just as many working class communities. Actually, we did some research at Stanford... the kid who’s trying to pass the exit exam is just as stressed as the kid who’s got four AP classes. So kids at all levels are dealing with the school pressure, the idea that you have to be an excellent student to do well.
Do I think that this is the most important issue for real inner-city kids? I don’t. I think there are issues of under-parenting because moms are working two jobs and have multiple kids and lots of responsibilities. So I’d say for the poorest kids that they have bigger fish to fry. There are different kinds of interventions that are needed for them. But for the vast swath of American kids now this is the push.
The push is, you know, your life will be determined by how well you do in school and where you go to school, in spite of the fact that our research tells us that’s not true. As a matter of fact, there is very little - there’s this great study at Yale. They took kids who were admitted, the ones who went, the ones that didn’t get to go. They looked at them 15 or 20 years later, couldn't tell ‘em apart. They were smart kids. They did well wherever they went.
And I think a lot of this is an economic push. The tutoring industry, the College Board, which used to just give the SATs and now has huge offerings. This is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. And I always tell people, I went to a state school. The majority of CEOs in this country in the fortune 500 went to state schools. There has become a mythology, and I think it has to do with this idea of how special we are. Right? Because we’re competitive, every child has to be special.... So there’s a fancy little latte place across the street from where my kid’s school used to be. After we dropped them off all the moms would wait in line and get their lattes, and we would talk. And I would just kind of hang back, and all the moms were saying things like, “Everything is great. Our family's terrific. My kids are going to the best schools.“ And I would kind of listen to this conversation and go, no, because I’m seeing half of your children and they are not doing great at all. So there is this notion of having to be special and not vulnerable, right? If you’re in a competitive blood sport you can never be vulnerable.
So, are our kids incredibly special? Absolutely, in deep and profound ways... By definition, most of us are average. And it’s, you know, it’s like when I speak to an audience, it’s like applause until I get to, “You know, most of your kids are average.” And then there’s like dead silence. But the reality is, most of us are average, too. I mean, if you do this little exercise and go back and look at what you’re really outstanding at. So like - you know, I like to speak, I like to write. When I leave this interview somebody will have to take me downstairs or else I will end up, you know, at NYU instead of in this building because I have no sense of space or spatial relations. And that’s true for most people.
The business community - Gallop Poll just did a huge poll on like CEOs, high-level managers, and they found that out of 16 and 32 qualities, you needed to be really good at three to five. So this, like, this straight-A business, most of our kids aren’t that. All this discussion about ivy’s and prestigious schools, most of our kids don’t belong there.
And on a personal level, I’m very interested in the way, because of the differences in my three sons, I'm very interested in the way that we sort of lionize a small group of our kids and push these other kids out to the margins and, I think, miss tremendous opportunities for them to become -- contribute -- major contributors to our society.
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd