What We Lose When We Push Our Kids to ‘Achieve’

In Adam Gopnik’s recent opinion piece for The New York Times, he argues that children — contrary to the expectations of a culture fixated on achievement — need the time and space to pursue their own happiness and sense of accomplishment in their own ways: 

“When I was 12, I disappeared into my bedroom with a $40 folk guitar and a giant book of Beatles songs, with elementary, large-type ‘E-Z’ chord diagrams to follow. . . . 

No one asked me to do this, and surely no one was sorry the door was closed as I strummed and stumbled along after the nirvana of these simplified songs. But the sense of happiness I felt that week — genuine happiness, rooted in absorption in something outside myself — has stayed with me.

Fifty years later, I am still not a very good guitar player, but that week’s work, and the months and years of self-directed practice on the instrument that followed it, became a touchstone of sorts for me and a model and foundation for almost every meaningful thing I’ve done since. It gave me confidence, often wavering but never entirely extinguished, that perseverance and passion and patience can make one master any task. . . . It’s the difference between achievement and accomplishment.

Achievement is the completion of the task imposed from outside — the reward often being a path to the next achievement. Accomplishment is the end point of an engulfing activity we’ve chosen, whose reward is the sudden rush of fulfillment, the sense of happiness that rises uniquely from absorption in a thing outside ourselves.

Our social world often conspires to denigrate accomplishment in favor of the rote work of achievement. All our observation tells us that young people, particularly, are perpetually being pushed toward the next test or the ‘best’ grammar school, high school or college they can get into. We invent achievement tests designed to be completely immune to coaching, and therefore we have ever more expensive coaches to break the code of the noncoachable achievement test. (Those who can’t afford such luxuries are simply left out.) We drive these young people toward achievement, tasks that lead only to other tasks, into something resembling not so much a rat race as a rat maze, with another hit of sugar water awaiting around the bend but the path to the center — or the point of it all — never made plain.”

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  1. I do agree, it is wrong to push children too much. Which I did not do, after my fifth grade child said “enough mother.” He was sick of me introducing him into various sports and activities and ideas. What is a mother’s job?

    So I stopped being the primary homework helper with my son, and left my husband to do the job. Within a year, my husband and son came to me for help. They asked me a mathematics question, that I was able to answer in a NY second.

    My son was shocked, and asked how I knew the answer so quickly. I told him it was because I bothered to memorize my math facts, which his former teachers fraudulently told him he did not need to do. But he finally realized, mom was right.

    My son has subsequently graduated as the valedictorian of his high school class, and with awards, and Phi Beta Kappa, from university.

    Don’t push your children too much, but also never sell them out, and stop believing in them. “The children are our future …”

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