The Doublespeak of Parenting and the Double Blade of Ambition in Silicon Valley
I volunteer at my son’s school in Menlo Park, which means once a month I read stories and talk about feelings with overachieving sixth graders. My son’s not in the class I visit, because I’m here, with Project Cornerstone, to be an additional “caring adult” for other kids, not a helicoptering mom for Wilson. The stated goal is for me to thwart self-destructive and peer bullying behavior. I’m supposed to encourage positive personal skills and relationships, something the majority of Silicon Valley kids — according to studies, and despite all their immense privilege — aren’t on track to develop.
Menlo Park is an Oz-like bubble of privilege and possibility filled with egg-headed tech wizards, quirky characters (most, despite press about rampant greed and moral bankruptcy, with big brains and big hearts), and shiny red Teslas. We believe in “free to be you and me,” same-sex marriage, and philanthropy over proselytizing. We also enjoy an ever-present, yellow brick sun. I swim and run outside all year round, and though the startup world can be stressful and a dump of a house costs a million dollars, there is no chance I’ll come down with seasonal affective disorder. “Lucky” is the word that is often used to describe us here, and for these and a lot of reasons, we are. My sons play their beloved soccer, and are coached by national stars, every beautiful rainless day of the year. I pay nothing to send them to the public Blue Ribbon School across the street, where each year the parent foundation raises more than $2 million, and the teachers have PhDs, Olympic medals, or spouses who run startups.
You want your kid to take computer programming or robotics after school with a Stanford-trained engineer? We have that. You want diverse offerings like hip hop dance, lacrosse, origami, orchestra, cooking and Mandarin? We have those too. You want the best shot at today’s upper middle class American dream for your child? This is where you’ll find it. In Menlo Park, an impressive number of local high school students attend Stanford.
None of the kids I know are being bullied, and Wilson seems well adjusted — for a first-born Type A Silicon Valley kid — and happy. Thriving, even. But a year ago I was fired from my own startup and I made the somewhat radical decision to drop out and stay home. I felt aimless — sometimes even worthless — and had a lot of time on my hands. I needed a project. Then someone showed me this report, by Stanford Challenge Success, of adolescent experiences at Wilson’s public, average-sized middle school, from a few years back:
Stress levels are high for 57% of students. Students experience sleep deprivation and some physical health issues. Students report homework hours above those recommended nationally. 11 students have used prescription or illegal stimulants to help stay up to study. 16 students have used over-the-counter or legal drugs to help stay up to study. 7 students have been so upset or angry that they have cut themselves.
The truth is I’d never liked the idea of parents working in the classroom after sometime around the fourth grade. It seemed voyeuristic, and in our uber involved district, unnecessary. But after I read the report, I made another radical decision, and started volunteering.
I’m reading the book Today I Feel Silly and Other Moods That Make My Day by Jamie Lee Curtis and I’m aware that it is too childish for sixth graders, so I look for eye rolling and rush through the story. The lesson plan is about how to “turn your frown upside down.” I expect the discussion to be relatively trivial and aloof. There are fifteen tweens siting on the carpet in front of me. Their teacher is out today, and a substitute sits in the back of the room.
“What’s a bad day?” I ask the class, when I’m done reading.
“A school day,” Lea, an adorable, slender blonde with bright blue eyes who is wearing the “in” Menlo Park tween uniform of black yoga pants and tan colored UGG boots, says. Lea has always seemed perky and upbeat.
I start to laugh as if Lea’s comment is a joke, but no one else does. Her eyes look watery. The boy beside her nods.
I ask Lea why, and she tells me she is stressed out and unhappy, “every single day” during the week. She says she skips swim practice, though she hopes to swim in the Olympics someday, because she has her homework and piano lessons, plus studying for tests she has to get A’s on.
“Why do you have to get A’s?” I ask.
“I have older sisters. One’s a junior in High School, the most important year,” she says, because it is the one that will determine where her sister gets in to college, and, “you know, what the rest of her life will be like.”
“Wow,” I say. “Really?”
The kids stare at me blankly as if to say: Duh.
“Yah,” Lea says, “everyone’s always yelling about school at my house. So I know it will only get worse for me.”
“Yah,” her friend Jenny says, “it only gets harder.”
“I hear you,” I say to Lea. This is the first time I’ve heard anything like this, first hand. Yes, I know about the stressed teens of others and all those issues in Palo Alto. And yes, I read the report about Wilson’s school. But I figured the cutters were outliers, or at least eighth graders. These are eleven-year-olds I know in Menlo Park. An alarm bell begins to go off in my spine. Is this also my son?
“That’s rough,” I say.
“I can’t take it anymore,” she says. Her voice breaks and I clear my throat.
When I look up, ten other hands are raised. I want to call on a boy to make things even, and maybe, though it pisses me off when my friends attribute sentimentality to girls and doggedness to boys, because I suspect it will make the atmosphere less emotional.
“Jeremy,” I say to a studious kid. Jeremy has a wry sense of humor, is well liked, and won the science fair last year. “What’s a happy day for you?”
“Oh.” He seems surprised that I switched tactics. “I was gonna say I agree school days are bad but, um, I guess a happy day is a weekend day?”
“I can play,” he says. “There’s more time.”
“You don’t like the weekdays either?” I ask.
He scans the room for their teacher, and remembers they have a sub. “Not anymore,” he admits. And then more quietly: “I hate them.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “They’re stressful?” He nods. “Does anything help you deal with the stress?”
Lots of hands go up. I call on Max.
“Taking a break to text,” he says. “Or look on Instagram.”
My gut tightens. I have thus far refused to get Wilson a phone. He’s eleven.
“To text who?” I ask.
“My buddies. I just say ‘Hi’, check in. Sometimes send funny emoji.”
“Yah,” Mackensie says. “My friends send me crazy smiley faces. They make me feel better even though sometimes I don’t know what they mean.”
My God, I think. Have emoji, sent furtively and sometimes without care, come to count as empathy? I suspect they have. I use them too. I start to feel warm, panicky. I haven’t wanted to admit this, but these kids are telling me straight up: the predominant personal skills they need to thrive here are straight A’s and social media etiquette.
“Do you tell your parents, or anyone, when you’re feeling this way?” I ask the class.
“No,” Jennifer calls out. “I just text, or surf Insta.” Twenty heads nod.
“Okay,” I say. I try to reiterate before posing another question. “It sounds rough though, guys? A lot of pressure in school, and also when you leave school. What does that feel like?”
A polished and bright student named Stephanie shoots her hand up. I call on her.
“I feel like I want to bash my head in,” she says.
Her classmates nod and I hold my breath for a beat until we all seem to remember the levity of the book — Today I Feel Silly!, a young child’s story I have read to a group of eleven-year-olds who are too often treated like little adults — and decide as a group to receive this lightheartedly. There’s no other option. There is nervous laughter and someone says yah. Stephanie slouches into the rug and I recognize she is recoiling from the prospect of having this taken too seriously. If she is really feeling this way, will she have to talk to the counselor? Will her mom be called? She lets the conversation move away from her.
The substitute takes a break from reading at a back desk and looks at me with her eyebrows cocked.
“Man,” I say, “that sucks.” I get a few smiles because they like it when I speak their language. I sit at the helm trying not to let my mouth hang open. I didn’t realize, I keep thinking. How did I not see?
When I leave the classroom I am stressed. Does Wilson want to bash his head in? If he is stressed, is his only outlet texting fat, yellow-faced emoji? It can’t be, because I won’t let him have a phone yet. So then, have I refused him his only escape?
He’s complained about homework, and I notice it takes an hour or two sometimes, but that’s the extent of it. He does it, and gets A’s. And I admit, I like seeing him work hard.
But that night my husband, Noah, and I secretly sit down and do a typical night of Wilson’s math homework, to see how long it will take two Stanford engineering grads. The concept is simple for us, and it still takes us thirty-five minutes. We figure it would take a tired, bored tween who understands the concept more than an hour. Wilson has five courses at school that have nightly homework or ongoing projects. I, like Lea, assume his workload will only get heavier.
Before bed I tell Wilson I am sorry I haven’t been more patient with his meandering homework process. “Come on, Wilson,” I often said. “You’re wasting your time.” To a certain extent, I was right. He is a sixth grade boy: of course he procrastinates and fumbles with the underutilized iPad the school gave him. Of course he’s tired after two hours of soccer training, and wants to stroll through the kitchen every thirty minutes for a snack. But now that I’ve heard the other kids, I’m repentant. I’m also confused. Yes, Wilson has more homework than I did, and seems to care more about his grades at eleven years old than I did. A lot more. Is that bad, or good? Is it a sign of dangerous unnecessary pressure, or of promising and praiseworthy ambition?
This is the double blade of parenting. I want Wilson to be driven and confident, to feel alive and ambitious, the way I have felt. I also want him to be content, and satisfied without having to feel “exceptional,” the way I am not able to. This is the double blade of my own ambition. How much does where I live sharpen the blade?
I wonder if my son is being asked to do too much, or if this is how he really wants to be challenged, and needs to be trained. Trained for what: for living here? Why is the entrepreneurial narrative of Silicon Valley so tangled up in depression and suicide?
Yes, a handful of teens — many of them legacies, like I was — go to Stanford. But an astounding percentage of other high school students step forward to their death in front of the high-speed commuter train a few blocks away, in Palo Alto. You’ve heard about them, and all the grieving. Guards in orange vests on “suicide watch” now man the most likely station. “What’s their job?” my boys ask when we ramble over the tracks, and I tell them.
You haven’t heard about the others. Last year, a seventeen-year-old leapt off the Sand Hill Road 280 overpass into oncoming highway traffic a few blocks from our house, and a fifteen-year-old who’d tried to hang himself shared an ER room with Wilson (after he broke both his arms jumping out of a tree on his birthday). Recently three people I know checked in to in-patient treatment programs for depression. Almost every adult I know here, myself included, takes antidepressants, self-medicates with alcohol or Ambien, and/or works or exercises compulsively. I know from experience — my own childhood clinical depression and a long line of inherited mental illness — not to blame the environment I live in completely. Discontent and suicidal tendency do not spring naturally from rigor and hard work. And yet, there must be some kind of confluence.
“Why do they kill themselves?” my boys ask when we pass over the highway. I tell them what I know, and remind them that growing up is hard but there is always hope, that feeling bad, just like feeling good, is part of life, and telling us about it, getting help, is part of what they will need to do to survive life here, or anywhere. I don’t actually know for sure about anywhere. I have only lived here.
And I was happy — if not quite satisfied or fulfilled I was validated daily by achieving highly measurable milestones and winning praise — while I was studying engineering at Stanford, then doing product management at Cisco, and then working night and day to be the admired female tech entrepreneur.
Who or what is to blame for my current discontent, now that I finally have the privilege to do what I really want to do, and for the anxiety of these kids, who are privileged enough to have the opportunity to be anything they choose, but instead want to bash their heads in, or take leaps in front of fast moving trains?
The next day I email the teacher and tell her what I heard in class.
“Yes, sixth grade here is tough,” she says. She is kind, and open to the feedback, but does not seem appalled by the anecdotes I give her. Could it be that she is used to children who feel desperate?
I email all the sixth grade parents I know to see if they’re aware of the stress level. I explain a tiny bit about what I heard, and ask them to reply with, “Yes, I agree stress level is high,” or “No.” Overnight, twenty-five rambling anecdotes flood in.
In Laura’s son’s math class, the kids correct their homework, and then read their scores aloud. “He says everyone in class always gets above 90%,” she tells me. “One day Adam got an 89%. He was ashamed, so he said he forgot to do it, and took a zero.”
Kim’s 6th grader’s daily routine is: come home, work on homework until dinner, eat briefly, and then work until bedtime at 9. “This past week he had tantrums, wanted to break things, and even locked himself in the bathroom at 7:45 AM while the carpool waited outside,” she says. “He was afraid he wouldn’t do as well as the other kids on the three tests that day.”
Rebecca’s eleven-year-old daughter, Danielle, checks School Loop — an “achievement management system” that sends a daily email to every student and their parent detailing every grade and assignment in every course they take — obsessively. “Dani says School Loop is motivating her to get great grades, but I think it is hindering her health.” Rebecca compares her daughter’s monitoring the School Loop account to an anorexic weighing herself.
I need an enemy, stat. I assume it’s the school.
I meet with the administration the following week, after I send the document of parent feedback to them, and include the Stanford report.
The superintendent, Mrs. Granata, is a practiced politician. She listens patiently, and then reiterates what I’ve said without adding much until the end.
“Yes,” she says, “sixth grade is tough.” In the group of anecdotes I supply, no one admits to drugs, cutting, or starving yet. Perhaps that’s the problem.
“It seems more than tough,” I say. “You read the document, right?”
“Yes,” she sighs. “But for every complaint like yours, we have an equal complaint that we aren’t pushing kids hard enough.”
I’m surprised that this surprises me, but I recover quickly. “Really,” I say. The truth is just a year ago, I probably would have agreed with making my kid work harder, since he seemed to do fine with it, but I was too busy working hard myself to consider his work load. Just a few days ago, I wouldn’t have believed that an entire classroom of kids would tell me they feel like bashing their heads in. “But what about these kids?”
“Look,” she says, clearly frustrated. “If it were up to me there’d be zero homework here. I don’t believe in it.”
I’m incredulous, then encouraged. There is a large local movement, spurred by the very type of Stanford research done at our school, for less homework and more family time. We could leverage that.
“But it’s your school,” I say. A clear policy, a compromise at least, should be easy to implement. “So then why…?”
Her short laugh sounds bitter. “You parents would burn me alive.”
How ridiculous, I think at the time.
I send out all the anonymous anecdotes, a review of my meeting with the administration, and another email to parents asking how we can pressure the school to make changes. Given the angst I’ve heard from the kids and the helplessness I sense from the parents, I expect an outpouring of positive responses, and I do get some. I also get these:
“Wait though. Yes, I am concerned for my child’s wellbeing, but I’m not willing to consider dumbing down the curriculum if it threatens to reduce their chances for a top university.”
“We’re applying to private schools for next year, so she’ll have that golden ticket to the right high school. I need her to be prepared.”
They come from people I actually like, and respect, and I empathize with what they are saying even as it terrifies me. Wait, I finally start to think, what the fuck is really going on here?
When I ask about this, friends in different cities also lament the withering of their children’s spirits due to educational pressures and follow these laments with their own modified plans to achieve success, despite them. Dropping out as a kid, as I have done as an adult, isn’t an option.
I find that in Menlo Park, the stakes are not so different from in Madison, Wisconsin or Baltimore, Maryland. All over America, the race for success and security has escalated. Parents are worried for the future, and teens are being pushed to excel and compete. The contest has been exacerbated and “great” is the new “good.” As I interview more parents, I begin to feel dizzy, like I’m standing inside a carnival house of mirrors. But one mirror is the largest, and most distorted. It is the one directly in front of me. In Menlo Park, the fates are amplified: escalated by our profound privilege and sped up by elite opportunity.
Children here know they have to have that one brilliant thing — a national science award, an already profitable startup, a published book, international humanitarian aid experience, a real shot at the Olympics (an actual medal would be ideal), that kind of thing — to set them apart from the whole entire world of other people who are trying to beat them in order to get in to Stanford, or some other top tier elite college. “But I don’t have that one thing,” my friend recently tearfully told me her twelve-year-old son said to her. “What’s my one thing, mom?” This kid speaks three languages and has already traveled more widely than me. More, my friend has never hinted to her son that he needs to go to an elite university. But he lives in Menlo Park, and his dad went to Stanford. His classmates are already applying for and getting in to private middle schools and talking about their “golden ticket” into the most elite local high schools. The finish line keeps moving.
I tell my sons that no matter what they are exceptional and worthy, and we try to show them this daily. I have been able to afford to stay home to be with my sons after school, to have the extraordinary privilege to show them, at least in deed, that I value being with them — downtime — over work and achievement. And yet I can’t help but worry sometimes that I am teaching them to be lazy. I can’t help but notice that when I have an unproductive day of writing I often sound more stressed out or angry than I did when I was running a startup, when validation was scripted and easier to come by.
I play soccer and board games after school, go to practices, and we all eat dinner together most every night. I talk and listen. For now, what I hear from them is a lot of ambition and joy. I want to luxuriate in it, and most times I can. But sometimes I wonder: what happened to mine?
Wilson decided he’d be going to Stanford, to play on the soccer team, back when he was five. So cute! we always thought. Ambitious! And yes, Noah and I went there, my dad went there, and our family buys season tickets for Stanford football and basketball, we have a combined total of 23 Stanford t-shirts and hats, and Wilson first slept in the Stanford freshman dorms at an overnight soccer camp when he was ten. But somehow, as Noah and I started companies and gathered the family at our alma mater for sporting events, I convinced myself that Wilson’s version of the early decision process was purely of his own doing.
In the past I was fond of telling people how awful it was to “groom your child” for an elite university, while I also believed Wilson’s desire was innate. For as long as I can remember, he’s had a plan, and I, (I had thought) did not come up with it. The plan is simple and seems to keep him confident: he doesn’t do religious school or Boy Scouts (neither of which we believe in), music (which would be fine but we didn’t push or require), or secondary sports (which is too bad because we’d also like him to play basketball). He intends to get straight A’s, and master soccer, which Noah and I have both played all our lives, and still play weekly. So far, he’s on target, and has plenty of extra time to hang out with his friends and our family. Good for him! I always thought, even as I rather emptily reminded him that there is life after soccer, and other schools are options too.
I am surprised, then, to realize how thoroughly I’ve engaged in doublespeak.
Stanford looms in our lives like a birthright, so close and promising, so heralded and prized, and yet I know that an elite education and a prosperous career don’t guarantee contentment, and in fact it may serve to train one for discontent. But how can I decry what Stanford gave me: an undeniable leg up (at no cost, thanks to a scholarship) toward financial independence and staunch self-reliance? I have been able to choose to drop out of the system only because the system set me up for it financially. Maybe the question is: What, exactly, has it set me up for?
I came to Stanford broke. I have enough money now, and yet somehow, never enough validation.
End Note: Wilson is nearing the end of seventh grade now, and I don’t volunteer with Project Cornerstone anymore. Before I stopped, I started a petition telling the administration parents wanted less homework (because this was the easiest stress factor to define), and at least as far as I can tell, they listened. Wilson’s workload has gotten lighter, not heavier. He seems more interested in what they do during school hours, and never complains about homework. He has also decided he doesn’t want to go to Stanford, because it “seems too close to home.” Good for him, I think now. I hope his path will be his own.
I didn’t stop volunteering because I don’t care about those other kids or the ones, like my youngest son, that will come after them. I stopped because I saw that the journey through today’s educational waters are as complicated and individual as every child out there — that there is no single external enemy to fight — and right now I need to be vigilant about the mental health of myself and my own sons. I saw that I am the one who has the potential to be their, and my own, worst enemy.
Note: the names, and some of the details, of those not in my family in this piece have been changed.