Why I'm OK with my kids "falling behind" in school during the pandemic

Even with our many privileges, the meritocracy is still a sham. Basic needs are taking priority over acing the SATs

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 8, 2020 6:30PM (EDT)

An empty classroom (Getty/ martinedoucet)
An empty classroom (Getty/ martinedoucet)

If being born into Generation X ever gave me anything, it has been a lifetime of training in lowered expectations. And as we chaotically hurtle toward the start of a new school year in the midst of a still explosive health crisis, my slacker parenting technique has never been stronger.

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a feature on a now all-too-familiar theme. "Worried your kid is falling behind?" the headline blared. "You're not alone." As the Times explained, "As kids start school with more online learning, parents wonder whether they'll ever catch up. Here's how to set them up for success." Granted, the article advised moms — surprise, no fathers were interviewed — on "creating fun, low-key learning opportunities," but the phrase "falling behind" nevertheless appeared three times in the body of the article. 

It was the same day my younger daughter's high school scheduled a virtual town hall to discuss plans for the new academic year. The school's invitation added, "This will help us in planning the most successful learning opportunities for your kids and providing you with what you need." 

There was that word again. Success. I've spent nearly two decades now shepherding my children from nursery school to university, and I have never gotten a satisfying answer to the basic question of how our educational system defines success. I sure as hell have even less of a concept of what constitutes success for our students right now. I only know that as far as I'm concerned, I believe what Bill Murray taught us in "Meatballs": It just doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter

A generation ago, I spent my third year of college in England, interning for a music weekly and trying not become totally awestruck at the rock stars passing through. The current best-case junior year scenario for my older daughter will be mostly self-quarantining in her dorm room, attending classes and participating in her student clubs online. My younger daughter, meanwhile, is gearing up for SAT prep and band practice, both of which will be taking place within a few feet of where both my spouse and I do our own work.

And then what? My older daughter graduates college into a nonexistent workforce? My younger one starts shopping around for colleges that will pressure her — and her parents — to take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans so that she too can graduate into a dystopia in a mountain of debt? Is it any wonder I'm having a hard time right now really giving a crap about maintaining academic rigor, or what activities will look good on resumes and college applications?

I am aware of the numerous privileges that come with my laissez-faire stance. My daughters are older, which means they work independently and communicate directly with their teachers. I don't have to be the middlemom who manages their homework packets, interpreting the assignments for them. They likewise haven't been as academically hard hit as students in other economic groups — an April Pew Research Center survey found that while "[a]mong middle-income parents, 44% say their children have received a lot of online instruction from their school… about three-in-ten lower-income parents (29%) say their children's school has provided not much or no instruction." 

Even with all our advantages, I can't fully fathom — any more than my Gen Z daughters can — how our new reality will affect their future personal, professional and educational aspirations. What I do know is that the Jenga tower of higher ed was tottering well before this mess, and that my priorities right now are not what happens with SAT scores or the Dean's List. What I don't need is a bumper sticker that reads "Proud Parent of an A Student at Apocalypse High." 

From our different vantage points, my daughters and I look at our millennial comrades and see what the shabby bill of goods they and their boomer parents were sold has wrought. A year ago, millennials were facing "$497.6 billion in outstanding student loan debt for about 15.1 million borrowers," according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. That was before the country's worst economic quarter on record. We've watched college tuition skyrocket well out of pace with inflation, with in-state tuition increasing 65 percent  over just ten years. We witnessed the unfolding of a very public criminal scandal that revealed how easily admissions can be bought, and the sham idea of meritocracy. We know that last year, one-third of Harvard's incoming freshman class were legacies.

So to whom, exactly, should I be concerned my daughters are falling behind? The kids who were born on third base and whose parents let them believe they're hitting triples? Or the ones who have played by the rules their whole lives, who've done all the enrichment and the test prep, and are at the epicenter of a quantifiably shocking rise in rates of suicide and depression? In the past few years, my children have faced life-threatening illnesses and serious mental health challenges. And they didn't go through all they've been through without developing priorities that I can throw my full weight behind. Those priorities are simple — stay sane and stay alive. The rest will get figured out. If that means that more of their time is spent noodling around on the keyboard or watching old movies or just talking with their friends than mastering trigonometry, then I say, whatever.

It seems like only yesterday I was touring a preschool for my then two-year-old daughter when a parent asked what the science curriculum was. It really hasn't been that long since we were getting letters from prestigious, $70K a year colleges asking, "What will your degree from us tell the world?" I think often of Lily Tomlin's decades-old observation: "Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat." And I just don't believe my kids are supposed to be freaking out now about what happens next to their chances to make a handful of billionaires richer.

I was one of the first in my working class family to go to college. I'm — perhaps foolheartedly — starting a master's degree program in the fall. I'm not anti-intellectual. I am, however, increasingly anti-pointless busywork. I am anti-test taking while the world burns. And I am definitely anti-anybody else's vague concept of "success," which as far as I can tell is defined solely by monetary "return on investment." It's certainly not measured in personal satisfaction, mental health, service to others, or even actual learning

I have anxiety to spare. I worry about what happens to my older daughter, with her history of health problems, when she returns to college — even though I know that she's learning to care for herself. I worry about my younger one, with her OCD, getting back on public transportation. I worry about all our kids and their futures. But I don't for a second worry that they haven't been learning.

I think of what I knew of the world at their age, with my good grades and my glee club practice, and I realize that I knew nothing. Northing of social injustice, of protest, of voting rights, of gun control, of resilience and coping skills. I certainly didn't know how to wash my hands like I'm preparing to perform surgery, or to have a productive conversation about consent, or to make a beautiful dinner from the dregs of the produce drawer, or manage my meager finances. My daughters are experts at all of those things. I look at the kids of Gen Z, who have experienced so much and managed to stay weird and hormonal while fighting climate change and punking MAGA rallies, and they don't look like they're falling behind at all. They look really smart, actually. And every day, they're they ones leading me forward.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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