When Bay Area psychologist and author Madeline Levine appears at Freeborn Hall later this month for a lecture sponsored by the Davis school district and UC Davis, shell be continuing a community dialogue that began several months ago with the screening of Race to Nowhere.
That film, which drew an audience of more than 550 to University Covenant Church, depicted adolescents struggling under the weight of school, homework, athletics and other extracurricular activities, on top of the pressure to get into a good college that some say begins as early as elementary school.
Parents and students interviewed in the film described eating disorders, substance abuse, insomnia, cheating and emotional breakdowns resulting from the stress.
Its been a big year for the low-budget documentary by first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, whose initial screenings in the Bay Area have expanded nationwide and around the world.
But before there was Race to Nowhere, there was Levines ground-breaking book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.
Levines book, published four years ago, drew on her many years of experience treating troubled adolescents in Marin County. Her contention: Materialism, the pressure to achieve, perfectionism and disconnection have contributed to epidemic rates of depression, substance abuse and anxiety disorders among adolescents in affluent, well-educated communities.
The book quickly become a New York Times bestseller, and Levine has been a highly sought-after speaker ever since.
She will be the first of two well-known child development experts coming to Davis in the next two months. Following Levines appearance at Freeborn Hall on Friday, Jan. 28, will be a presentation by Ashley Merryman, co-author of the bestseller Nurtureshock, at the Brunelle Performance Hall on Saturday, Feb. 12. The latter will include a panel discussion moderated by Pam Mari, the school districts director of student services.
Both events, which are free and open to the public, are presented by the Davis K-6 Community-Wide Parent Education Committee with funding and support from Davis PTAs and PTOs, as well as the school district itself, UCD and local businesses.
We booked these two best-selling authors because our committee believed they had excellent suggestions, theories and ideas for how to develop a healthy, well-balanced child, said parent Jodi Liederman, co-chair of the K-6 committee.
For her part, Levine said those suggestions and ideas grew out of her alarm at what she was seeing in her patients and hearing about from colleagues in similar communities around the country: The highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.
Is there something about such factors as privilege, high levels of parental income, education, involvement and expectations, she asked, that can combine to have a toxic rather than the expected protective effect on children?
Levines research led her to conclude that a culture of affluence that encourages materialism and competition and creates intense achievement pressure on kids is to blame.
Kids look fine, but theyre not, she said in an interview last week.
She cited the enormous amount of time many kids spend on athletics, homework and other extracurricular activities, and said, nobody can keep up with that level of stress and lack of sleep and repetitive work. They cant play and hang out with family and friends and do all the things that we need for healthy development and social skills.
Its important to understand that unless you have emotionally healthy kids, she added, it doesnt matter where they go to school or what their grades are& they are not going to have a successful life.
In her book, Levine urges a change in the parenting paradigm.
Raising children has come to look more and more like a business endeavor and less and less like an endeavor of the heart, she writes. We are overly concerned with the bottom line, with how our children do rather than with who are children are.
When the book was first published, Levine expected some negative reaction.
I assumed there would be a fair amount of blowback and denial and anger, she said last week. But there was none. The book was published four years ago and people were just starting to see this in almost every community. Suicide, substance abuse, self-mutilation & everything was going up. It was a perfect storm. The first three years I was speaking nonstop. People were anxious to hear what was happening.
Locally, many parents took notice.
Davis parent Patricia Price, for one, first read The Price of Privilege several years ago and said she definitely sees the issues Levine describes going on in Davis.
Certainly with all of the pressure to get into GATE programs, she said, and the kids with substance abuse problems.
Price, who has been involved in organizing parent education programs for the past few years, said she particularly appreciates Levines suggestions for how to improve things.
I find that shes sensitive to the needs of parents, Price said. Its not all about, Your parenting is bad, its more about how everybody brings their own stuff into a family and you need to work out how to parent around that.
She makes it clear that there is nothing inherently wrong in the goals we have, Price added, but it might be useful to broaden the definition of success, and not make it so performance-based.
Levine said schools and communities are already making changes, many with the help of Challenge Success, a program she co-founded at the Stanford University School of Education.
According to their website, The Challenge Success program addresses the concern that adolescents often compromise their mental and physical health, integrity and engagement in learning as they contend with performance pressure in and out of school. We challenge the conventional, high-pressure, and narrow path to success and offer practical alternatives to pursue a broader definition of success.
Challenge Success is working with more than 100 schools, Levine said, providing guidance and support.
We are absolutely overwhelmed by the number of schools that want us to come in, she added. There are tremendous changes going on.
Learn more at http://www.challengesuccess.org.