Racing to nowhere

Documenting kids' pressure to perform

Steven Johnson Image Steven Johnson | Nov 1, 2010

Photo by Evan Atwood

“I haven’t been to bed earlier than midnight since I started school. There’s just too much to do. Last night I didn’t get to bed until 2:30am.” 1

There I was, standing at a large outdoor mall in the heart of Orange County, less than twenty-four hours after seeing the new documentary Race to Nowhere. I felt as if I was living inside the film.

A sophomore in high school from my church’s youth group was almost in tears as she spilled her soul to me about the hours of homework, parental pressure, and fatiguing sports commitments that filled her life. She made the above confession between sips of her large caffeinated chocolate drink, heading into another weekend of homework and sports competitions.

As I sat there listening to one of God’s children crying out in exhaustion and heartache, all I could do was think back to the film I had just seen. In that moment the message and reality of Race to Nowhere were playing out in front of me, and I had no idea what to do or what to say. All I could think was, How do I get the adults in this girl’s life to see this film and understand its message?

About The Film

After the suicide of a local teenager, lawyer-turned-documentary-director Vicki Abeles began a journey to find out why kids all over her city, including her own children, felt so much pressure to perform. As one student stated in the film, most teens feel like they’re stuck in a “race to nowhere.” 2

The emphasis and purpose of Race to Nowhere is different than that of Waiting for Superman, another recent film focusing on the process of overcoming an educational system that the film argues keeps kids away from their hopes for the future 3. Race to Nowhere explores why many students of all social classes and ethnicities feel the pressure to perform, and offers suggestions regarding how to overcome this pressure.

In search of answers, Vicki Abeles traveled across the country and interviewed psychologists, adolescent medical specialists, professorial educators, teachers, students, parents, and college administrators. The film includes interviews from professionals such as Dr. Madeline Levine, clinical psychologist and author of the bestseller The Price of Privilege (see this review on the FYI site), and Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, an Adolescent Medicine Specialist. In interview after interview, professionals agree that the current education system in the United States is hurting our teens. One eloquently laments, “I am scared that our children will sue us for stealing their childhoods.” 4

The hardest interviews to watch are those from average high school students who pour out their hearts as they tell tales of depression, hurt, and performance anxiety. Yet those stories pale in comparison to the story that forms the plot structure of the film; the tale of a seventh grade girl who committed suicide because of the extreme pressure she felt to be perfect and “produce, produce, produce.” 5

The film traces the recent history of the current structure of the U.S. education system, explaining that our culture began to shift after the report entitled “The Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was disclosed in April of 1983. This report concluded that the United States educational level was behind other countries and must be reformed. The film argues that this is when our education system started to see students more as numbers on a sheet of paper than as real people, with a push toward standardized education.

Teachers and administrators are forced to assign more homework and projects in order to cover the predetermined state standards they are mandated to teach. Students are also compelled by parents and coaches to spend more hours involved in sports, clubs, and extracurricular activities in order to improve their college resumes. Students who do not rise to the challenge are either considered to be sinking, giving up, or left frustrated, questioning, “How do you expect us to do well when we can’t even make mistakes?” 2 It is no wonder students in the film are saying, “School is just so much pressure. I wake up every day dreading it.” 2

Culture of Performance

What the film documents well is that unfortunately, most parents do not realize how much pressure they are putting on their kids to perform and be perfect. Once many parents in the film became aware of the pressure their kids were under, they worked with their teens to identify ways to relieve some of the demand to achieve. As the film shows, this is not always the easiest thing for parents to do. They are also feeling cultural pressure to raise kids who are the “best” at everything and who get into the “best” schools. In fact, one of the most telling moments in the film happens when the Adolescent Medicine Specialist of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, confesses that even though he studies and writes books about “this stuff”, he still feels the desire to pressure his own kids to perform.

This culture of “doing” has largely taken our students away from the parental and friendship support systems they once used to have. Parents are turned from caregivers into homework police, sports coaches, and taxi drivers. Teachers and coaches are turned from caring adult mentors into pushy pests that require perfection. Friendships are expressed and maintained through pictures, wall posts, and instant messages over Facebook. 6 All our teens are left with is themselves, their homework, and their thoughts. 7 As a junior high student laments, “I can’t even remember the last time I had a chance to go in my backyard and run around.” 2

What can we do?

As the film comes to a close the audience cannot help but feel a little frustrated and uneasy, left questioning: What can we do about all of this?

The film does not provide one clear-cut answer on how the audience is to respond; while they do provide some options, the hope is more to create conversation and let the audience arrive at their own implications. Below are a couple of suggestions for ways youth leaders and parents might begin to respond.

1. Identify and Confront Power

Personally, as my wife and I drove away from the film, we began to ask what the local church could do about these issues. Then it hit us. One of the ways Jesus confronted the structures and systems of power that oppressed people in his day was to identify or name them. Whether casting out demons or confronting unhealthy religious structures, Jesus furthered the Kingdom of God by naming and confronting the powerful forces that brought pain to his world. 8

Today should be no different. As the Church, one of our jobs is to name those powers and structures that bring pain into our world. This is the beauty of the film Race to Nowhere. It calls out the structures and systems that hurt our students, cause tension within our families, and thwart the Kingdom of God. One easy way to do this is simply by making people in your local community aware that these issues exist in the world. You can do this by showing this film in your local church or bringing people from your church to a showing of the film in your local community.

2. Find Ways to Relieve Pressure

Another response is to look for ways to relieve pressure from the kids you interact with and care about. Youth leaders and pastors are often known for putting extra pressure on kids to come to events and youth group meetings. As ministers to students, youth leaders need to create an environment that cares for our students without pressuring them to come to everything we have on our calendars. One way I have done this is to try to go into their world if they can’t come to mine. Maybe instead of compelling that busy kid to attend youth group, leaders can go to school to pick them up and take them to lunch or coffee when they have free time.

3. Redefine Success

The best thing we can do, to take a line from the film, may be to “redefine success for our teenagers.” [[Adult interviewed in the film “Race to Nowhere” Director Vicki Abeles, 2010.]] While many people view success as being accepted to a top school or making it on the varsity sports team, as Christians our model for success comes from Christ. Christians are to listen to the man who said, “The first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16), who said that in order to be his disciple, one must “take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). We need to define success as Jesus did. We can invite kids to serve others, die to themselves, and ask, “What and who is God calling me to be? Where is God calling me to go? What does God say needs to take priority in my life?”

I think when we encourage our kids to ask those questions, we help them to redefine success not as something their parents, teachers, coaches, or youth leaders want them to be, but who God calls them to be.

As I write this I can’t help thinking about my student standing there almost in tears over all of the pressure she was feeling. As she shared, another student came up, seeing that she was in pain. This student tried to encourage the other one by reassuring, “It will all get better, don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.”

I don’t know that she’ll ever get “used to it.” And I don’t think Jesus would want her to anyway.

Action Steps

1. If you can, go see the film. Then work to bring it into your community or church in order to create a dialogue between parents, teens, and educators. Encourage those nearby to share it with other parents, teens, educators, or faith communities.

2. Work with your pastor(s) to talk with parents of teens in your church about performance-driven culture. As stated in the film, many parents do not realize all of the pressure they are putting their own teens. The best way to do this is to teach both parents and students to have a conversation about how students are feeling about homework, school, sports, and other activities. See if they can agree about any activities that can be eliminated in order to relieve pressure and stress.

3. Talk openly with teens about any pressure they might be feeling. Students do not always need you to fix the problem; most just need to know someone is listening and cares.

4. Relieve any pressure your teens might feel from your church or youth ministry. Church and youth group needs to be a place where students can feel they are in a safe place, which helps them escape from a performance-driven culture—not a place where they are asked to perform and do more to please God or you.

5. Enter the world of teens, instead of asking them to come to you. Many kids are so busy that they just cannot make it to the weekly youth group meetings. Bring youth group to them by taking a group of students out to lunch, out to coffee, or to a local high school sports game.

1. Some information in this story was changed to protect this student, but permission was given by the student to use this story.

2. High School student interviewed in the film “Race to Nowhere” Director Vicki Abeles, 2010.

3. https://www.waitingforsuperman...., October 2010.

4. Speaker interviewed in the film “Race to Nowhere” Director Vicki Abeles, 2010.

5. Teacher interviewed in the film “Race to Nowhere” Director Vicki Abeles, 2010.

6. For more insights about adolescence and identity formation in the midst of digital media, check out this article, Root, Andrew “Who am I? Adolescent Identity in a Digital Age,”, October 2010

7. For more insights about adolescent abandonment see Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenager by Chap Clark or When Kids Hurt: Helping Adults Navigate the Adolescent Maze by Chap Clark and Steve Rabey.

8. Wink, Walter, The Powers That Be: Theology for the New Millennium, (Doubleday Publishing, New York, New York, 1998). See this book for more practical ideas on naming “the powers that be.”

Steven Johnson Image
Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is currently serving as High School Director at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Washington. He is a 2009 MDiv graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary with a concentration in Youth, Family, and Culture. Steve also speaks at local youth conferences and is passionate about helping teens encounter God, see themselves as a vital part of the church, and train them to manifest the Kingdom of God.

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