In the last six months, there have been four teen suicides in my town. All of them took their lives by putting themselves in the path of an oncoming train. All at the same railroad crossing. All of them students at the the same high school. The youngest was an incoming freshman. The oldest was headed to NYU.
The city has gated off the train tracks. They have hacked down the oleander bushes which, in the past, have given shelter to these teens as they contemplate suicide. For weeks after each suicide, Palo Alto police officers have staked out the tracks. And soon, they are gone, and another teen dies.
I live in the heart of Silicon Valley, in the shadow of Stanford University, in one of the wealthiest communities in the entire world. It has been said, in light of these tragedies, that kids in our communities face too much pressure--from families, from school, and perhaps from the community at large--to succeed. And not just to succeed, but to excel beyond "normal" high-achiever expectations.
When we decided to move to this area from San Francisco, this was definitely a consideration. We knew that our kids would be going to public school alongside millionaires' (and billionaires') kids, but we also knew it was a pretty great school. It was incongruous to me that the modest (and crappy) shithole of a house we rented was around the corner from Steve Jobs' and Sergey Brin's houses. That we'd see Steve Young jogging down our street on a regular basis. That our kids would play at friend's houses who had media rooms bigger than our entire house, garage included.
But that's life, and how boring would it be if our kids were friends with--if we were friends with--people exactly like us? Raising confident, kind, grounded kids in the face of all this wealth is something I think about on an almost daily basis, and I felt so validated and supported this past Sunday as I listened to my pastor at Beloved Hippie Church encouraging parents in our community to be "countercultural."
She was addressing the teen suicide issue head on and she said three things that really stuck in my brain:
1) Parents need to know the facts. Know the facts about suicide stats. Know the facts about college admissions. Know the facts about what kids need. Knowing the facts informs your parenting. Knowing the facts sets your priorities straight. Knowing the facts empowers you as a parent.
2) Be countercultural. When she said this, I wanted to stand up and cheer. I see a lot of keeping up with the Joneses in this town. A lot of conscious and subconscious worrying about what people will think. I see a lot of unhappiness, too. More on this in a moment.
3) Be unconditionally loving. Love kids no matter what, especially when they fail. Kids need practice at failing, and it's how we as parents handle ourselves in the face of their failure that will teach them how to cope. So let kids fail, and love them all the more for it. Show them it's not the end of the world, and that when they are down, we'll be there to lift them up.
One could say she was "preaching to the choir," pun intended. I know the folks at the Unitarian Universalist church get it. "No one needs to tell us to be countercultural -- we're really good at it!" our pastor explained. Our church has a long tradition of being counterculteral, from standing up to McCarthyism (refusing to sign a loyalty oath) to standing up for gay marriage and ending wars. (Shoot, I mean just the fact that I am an Athiest-leaning agnostic and yet I go to church every week in a place where my beliefs are shared by many is pretty darned countercultural.) Anyway, I just wish I could get my entire community to walk through its doors, sit down, listen, and discuss.
It's the countercultural piece that spoke the loudest to me, however, because J. and I make conscious countercultural choices as parents every day.
We choose to live simply. We live in a garden apartment now, one of the very few families at our school to do so. The girls share a room as they have done, even when we lived in a 3 bedroom house. The amount of toys and books they have corresponds directly to the amount of storage space they have. They watch movies on the couch in the living room where I can see them. We made this choice for many reasons (to save money, to be closer to downtown, to live in a place that was low-maintenance since neither of us likes nor has time for house or yard work), but one of the important ones is to show that you don't need big stuff to live happily. We've been there. We've owned the 3,000 square foot house (and the 1,200 square foot house). We weren't any happier than we are now. Happiness to us is family. Being together. Loving each other. That doesn't require stuff.
We will not keep up with the Joneses. We won't talk about money, ours, yours, or theirs. We won't brag about what we have. We will talk about how we budget to save up for special things. We will teach our kids to save, and spend when appropriate, and share when appropriate. We will teach them the value of money.
We limit media exposure to age- and temperament-appropriate choices. Bunny, who is 7, still counts Caillou as one of her favorite shows. (...much to our chagrin. Heh.) She still watches (and likes) Barney. (Again with the chagrin.) And you know what? That's okay. She's 7 and there is plenty of time for her to be exposed to the tween programming and music that are trying so damn hard to gather her into their fold right now. As parents, we make the choices to resist, resist, resist as hard as we can. Plus, Wallie is only 5 and whatever Bunny experiences, Wallie experiences, too. I'm just not ready to force Wallie to embrace that culture yet.
We don't over-schedule our kids. I don't even tell them about the half the stuff they could be doing, because I am not going to spend their childhood carting them from place to place. Our Saturday mornings are spent together, not running from soccer or t-ball game to birthday party to other activity. Our Sunday mornings are reserved for church and in the afternoon, we might go to the park or just hang out at home watching the football game. They take swimming lessons year-round and then maybe one other extra-curricular visual or performing arts class. And that's it. And that's enough.
I tell them that they don't have to be good at everything and that even if they fail, I will love them no matter what. Last year, timed math tests almost shattered Bunny's confidence. She hated school and felt like a failure. As the parent of a then first grader, I made a choice, and the choice was not to put undue pressure on my six-year-old. Not only did I tell Bunny that I didn't care how fast she did her test as long as she knew her facts, I also made sure to tell her teacher. I told her teacher that I didn't place much value on how quickly she could rattle off memorized answers. She could be dead last and that was A-OK as long as she knew how to solve the problems. Her teacher stopped putting the time on her test and whaddayaknow, Bunny's times, and most importantly, her confidence, improved.
When you think about it, my kids have everything they need. They have two parents who love them very much. Two parents whose first priority is protecting their childhood and being their best advocates. Two parents to model our "countercultural" values. They have a roof over their heads, healthy food to eat, clothes to wear. Cousins who adore them. Grandparents who spoil them rotten. That seems pretty "rich" to me.
Now the flip-side to all of this. I can't talk about countercultural parenting without also addressing the kids in my community who are suffering, so here we go.
Dear kids in my community,
If there happen to be any academically- and socially-pressured Palo Alto teens (and parents of those teens) in my community reading this, I also have something to say to you.
I grew up here. I know very well what the pressures are like. I remember how "boring" it is to be a kid here. (Parents think that's a good thing, by the way.) But I also remember the creative and imaginative people I went to school with who managed to make this boring place feel like their own personal Pragues or New York Cities. Make your own adventures here.
I want to tell you that it's okay to be countercultural, too. I'm not talking about all-out rebellion, although, some of you might be headed that way. (Been there, done that, don't forget to be nice to people.) I'm talking about being true to yourself and accepting yourself and loving yourself as you are. Even and especially if you feel like you don't fit in anywhere and that no one understands you. LOVE YOURSELF. That can be pretty damn countercultural for a teen.
Here's where I'm coming from:
At the end of eighth grade, I chose not to go to my all-girls private school for high school, opting for the local public high school instead because I was seeking authenticity and realness. Because of my mostly private school education, I was placed in the AP track at my high school. It was a well-rounded, college-preparatory education which served one purpose and one purpose only: it gave me enough credits so that I could enter college with a semester pretty much done. That allowed me to graduate and get the hell outta there in four years even though I changed majors at the beginning of my junior year.
Sure I took the AP classes, but I also was part of the drama club and was a pom-pom girl. Sure I could have spent that time doing JSA or volunteering to "build up my college resume," and maybe I should have, but I wanted to be a kid, too. Maybe I had a little too much fun. I got in dumb trouble doing dumb stuff, but my family was there to support me. I had the study skills and time management tools I needed to get my work done and I was college bound, just not Ivy League bound. I could have spent more time studying and gone to a better college, but not studying as hard as I could have didn't prevent me from being successful as an adult. Let me rephrase, getting a B+ instead of an A- on a test didn't hurt my chances of getting a good job. It didn't prevent me from following my dreams. I know your parents know this too, which is why I have a hard time understanding how and why parents can put so damn much pressure on kids.
I value all of my high school experiences--the academic successes, the teen heartbreak (so many crushes on so many older jocks), the feeling like I didn't fit in, the sneaking out of the house to go dancing in San Francisco--but then still making it to school the next day because in the end, I really was a responsible kid... All of those experiences helped to shape the person I am today.
My mom gave me a huge gift: the gift of being able to quit something I didn't like in order to try something new. Sure she let me know when she didn't agree with those decisions and I listened, but in the end, she allowed me to make my own choices. It's because of that gift, that I have been able to go from working in marketing to being a teacher at a low-income school to being a blog editor to finally, at age 39 (I know! Way older than Larry and Sergey! Waaaaaaaaay older than Mark Zuckerberg!), starting my own company. And you know what? I am always (still!) thinking about what I want to do or try next. What I am not thinking about? Is high school.
I grew up listening to my mom and her friends (all Asian, by the way, so I understand those pressures) talking about who went to Harvard and who was going to Princeton and who was going to be a doctor and all that bullshit. You know what? Half of those lawyers and doctors aren't practicing anymore because it wasn't what they wanted to do. I know a guy who went to Harvard who is now a dancer. A lawyer who bakes cakes. I'm not saying you don't have to try hard. I'm not saying you don't have to go to college. I think everyone should go to college, at least to try it. College is as much about figuring out the kind of adult you want to be as much as it is about taking your learning to the next level. I mean, if you are really into bugs, you will REALLY get to learn about bugs in college. And EVEN MORE about bugs in grad school. College is awesome no matter where you end up going, and there are more than just 20 colleges in the United States. Remember that. And remember that there are dedicated professors everywhere.
I am not saying you should cut classes, stop trying in school, be an asshole to your parents, sneak out of the house, and be a total slacker. Learning something new is one of the best feelings in the world, and even as a teenager, I really placed a high value on learning. Education does open doors, but education has many paths, and life is long. I am just saying that feeling that you want to kill yourself because you didn't get an "A" (as one teen expressed on the PA Weekly forum), is not a feeling that any kid should ever have to feel. It a feeling I certainly never want my daughters to feel. I had to work hard in my classes and I wanted to, but I also tried to keep school in perspective. It's okay not to get an "A" every time. It's doing your personal best that matters. If your parents don't understand that, please seek out the advice and guidance of someone who does. When you are 25 (or 35 or 45) no one will care about you not getting an A on that test or paper, I guarantee you that. And you definitely want to see 25 and 35 and 45. I'm 40 and I'm tell you, life is good, even when, especially when you are 40.
Teens, if you are in despair, before doing anything that in the end won't solve your problem and will hurt a lot of people for as long as they live even if you aren't here to see it--please seek help. As a parent I would be crushed if one of my children felt it was easier to end their lives than talk to me. As a parent, I will be able to take the "You just don't understand's" and the "You suck as a parent's" and the "I hate you's." It will hurt down to the bottom of my soul and probably break my heart, but I can deal with anger. Anger is a starting point, not an ending point. What I think I wouldn't be able to deal with is if one of my kids thought I couldn't handle that, and decided to take matters into her own hands.
If you are in so much pain that you think your parents wouldn't be able to understand, please find someone to tell. I promise that sharing your pain is the first step to feeling better. And even though you think adults won't ever in a million years understand your pain, your sadness, your despair, I promise you--I PROMISE YOU--we do.