A few weeks ago on our TV show "Shalom in the Home," the family we filmed had a daughter who was positively consumed by school work. The entire family schedule revolved around her homework, which regularly took this very bright 1′-year-old four to five hours to complete. The girl had a visceral fear of failure at school and prided herself on excellence in her studies. But there was no joy in her. She rarely smiled. Her life was heavy, burdened with the cares of the world perched atop her fragile shoulders. And while she was certainly wise beyond her years, she was also bitter before her time.
Our strategy for this particular episode consisted of trying to bring a sense of inner happiness both to the girl and her family. Our objective was to show her that real joy was existential. It came from within and was entirely independent of any external sense of accomplishment. In one very telling and excruciatingly painful conversation, I endeavored to demonstrate to this special and sensitive soul that success in school was not necessarily a guarantor for success in later life, and that failure in school did not predict subsequent professional calamity. Rather, a well-balanced and successful life had many ingredients, with a good heart, positive outlook, and cheerful disposition being much more important than school grades.
She wasn’t buying it, so I put a pointed question to her. "What would happen if your parents did not push you to do so many hours of homework per night?" She responded that this would be catastrophic because she could not motivate herself and needed her parents’ constant prodding. I then said, "OK, but let’s say you ignored your homework, failed an exam, and brought home a ‘D.’ What’s the worst that would happen?" She started to cry and said that her sole source of happiness was success at school.
The tragedy of hearing such desperate words from an innocent child shook me. I came home that night and shared this story with my children over dinner. They were surprised at my surprise. They see this regularly at their own schools, they said, fellow students for whom academic performance determines mental stability. My daughter Chana expressed incredulity that I could find this girl’s story illuminating given that girls in her class often break into tears when they receive poor exam results. She told me of one girl who had recently gotten a B on a test and totally lost it. In fact, she became so morose and upset that the teachers contemplated giving her an A just to calm her down.
As I listened to my children’s assertion that one of the causes of the epidemic in childhood depression is children placing the locus of their self-esteem in their teacher’s hands, it dawned upon me what an extremist society we have become. On the one hand, we have kids whose parents are completely permissive and watch unmoved as their kids careen out of control and into lives consumed with either drugs, sex, or garbage TV. And then there is the other extreme, kids who are raised by parents who unwittingly make them want to fling themselves off a cliff for getting a poor SAT result.
It was the great Jewish thinker Maimonides who said that good and evil are not two sides of a coin, but rather that good is the perfect medium between two equally bad extremes. A generation of kids who live and die for grades at school is just as bad as kids who couldn’t care less about school. So many parents today seem to miss the point that our children are not special because they are the best, but simply because they are. These are the parents who implant permanent insecurities into their children, making them feel that they are adequate only when they produce and that they are good enough only when they are at the top. For such children there are never any successes, only varying degrees of failure. They live with a gaping hole at their center and spend their lives pathetically trying to prove themselves to their peers. They are everyone’s servant and never their own master.
To combat such morbid fatalism, I regularly sit with my children and tell them that I really could care less about their grades. For me, grades are nothing but a single gauge of something far more important: intellectual curiosity. School should never be about impressing teachers but about inspiring children to want to know. Intellectual curiosity is arguably the greatest virtue that a child can develop because it safeguards against the mother of all human enemies, boredom. Monotony and boredom have destroyed more lives throughout history than all war and disease put together. As the Talmud says, "When you have nothing to do, you do what you ought not to do." Indeed, boredom, as the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick maintained, is the principal cause of war. It’s also the principal cause of divorce.
Transcending the monotony of everyday life, the routine of everyday existence, is life’s foremost challenge. And the gift of intellectual curiosity is the ability to find people, history, and life itself endlessly fascinating. That is why we send our kids to school, to impress upon them that within themselves they possess perhaps not all the answers, but certainly all the questions. Children who develop healthy and engaging intellectual curiosity could never harm other people or their environment. They will be far too busy respecting them by trying to understand them.
A much greater barometer of the degree of a child’s intellectual curiosity than schoolwork is whether they read outside of school and if they ask questions about the world around them. When I was the rabbi at Oxford, I witnessed how almost no students read a newspaper. They were trained to master a subject rather than to engage life. Indeed, outside of their coursework, they were largely ignorant. And they rarely read for pleasure.
Our mantra to our children must not be ‘Bring home an A," but rather, "All we want to know is that you want to know."