That’s what a crowd of 300-plus concerned parents packed into Lake Forest's auditorium Wednesday sought from nationally acclaimed authors and speakers Dr. Madeline Levine and Dr. Denise Pope.
And based on initial feedback, the crowd found some answers.
“Fascinating,” said Kate Amaral from Lake Bluff. “This gave me the courage to have a dialogue with administrators.”
Diane Terlato from Lake Forest said she gleaned some “very practical advice” from the presentation. “It all comes back to home and family. That’s the most important thing.”
The two speakers helped culminate an almost two-month focus in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff begun with packed screenings of the documentary, "Race to Nowhere." which show how kids struggles to cope with stressful lifestyles fueled by earning good grades, taking AP classes and getting into the right colleges. Both Levine and Pope were featured in the film.
“Walk The Talk” read the first slide from Levine and Pope’s presentation, designed to share insights from the Stanford scholars’ well-known “Challenge Success” youth stress reduction program focusing on school reform, parent education and youth development.
“We want you to leave here with concrete ways to ‘walk the talk,’” Pope told the audience, making reference to ways parents can reduce kids’ pressure to perform both in and out of school.
Levine added, “We want you to walk out of here with something to do.”
Parents Define Success
So, for starters, the duo gave the audience something to do – an exercise in which attendees were asked to define success for one of their children.
“Feeling fulfilled,” said one mother. “Having a sense of joy,” said another. A father added, “To have the ability to give back.”
Other parent definitions of success included having a healthy self image and being able to advocate for oneself; utilizing one’s God-given abilities; possessing resilience; and showing compassion and empathy.
Dr. Levine explained that nearly all of the suggested success definitions were intrinsic – or internal – motivators. Levine said that when teenagers are asked to define success, most often their answers revolve around external motivators – such as money and material wealth.
"There needs to be a balance between internal and external motivators,” Levine stated. “Life is not easy. The internal motivators give one the capacity to weather the challenges and difficulties.”
Unfortunately, Levine added, kids are conditioned to respond to external motivators. “Our kids don’t have the capacity to navigate on their own,” she commented.
Levine said that most young people, when faced with a conflict, “look to someone else for help, instead of turning inward.”
Balance Time With PDF
Dr. Pope then launched the audience into a Time Wheel exercise, asking participants to choose one child and identify the approximate number of hours per day he/she spends in nine activity groups, ranging from school, homework and chores to family time, unstructured time and sleep.
Pope stressed that, while school and homework hours may be somewhat “set,” the remainder of the Time Wheel activities remain within parents’ control. Pope explained that PDF – play time, down time and family time – need to be in healthy balance with kids’ other time commitments.
“Some days have nothing scheduled,” Pope said. “And preserve this like it’s sacred.” She added that, if this means something needs to be cut out of kids’ schedules, then discuss it with them and decide what goes.
Pope stated that kids should have at least one hour of unstructured playtime every day.
There are two reasons this down time is essential, Dr. Levine said. First, it gives kids the opportunity to reflect. The most important thing kids can do is to be thoughtful about their lives,” she explained.
The second benefit to unstructured time is its restorative benefits. Levine said the brain needs time to shut down and allow for the consolidation of all the information it has been collecting all day.
Levine and Pope agreed parents need to model playtime and down time for their kids. “Kids need to see you having fun so they don’t think growing up is no fun,” said Levine.
The “sleep” portion of the Time Wheel generated strong input from Pope and Levine. “Sleep is absolutely critical,” Pope stated, explaining that high school students should get at least nine hours of sleep a night, at least 10 hours for middle schoolers and 13 hours for elementary students.
Levine illustrated the importance of sleep, stating, “A teenage kid driving without enough sleep is like giving them two shots of bourbon.”
The other essential component of the Time Wheel, according to Levine and Pope, is family time. Levine said, “The most important thing in your kid’s life is you.”
Pope said that research indicates that parents should dedicate 20 minutes per day, at least five times per week on family time.
“Every day carve out some time that says this is important,” Levine added.
Redefine Standard of Living
The question and answer portion of the presentation highlighted the emotionally charged nature of the topic at hand. A mother stated that many parents in the community feel pressure to help their kids achieve so they can maintain the standard of living to which they have become accustomed.
Levine said bluntly, “This is not the happiest place in the world, but kids are very seduced by the material things.”
She continued, “Kids often say the lifestyle of their family is not what they want. In fact, this may be the first generation in which the kids don’t do better [financially] than their parents. That has to be okay with us.”
Pope added it is false logic that getting good grades will determine future status in life. She said research indicates that where you go to college as an undergraduate has no effect on how much money one earns.
Joani Friedman of Highland Park said she was impressed by Levine and Pope’s presentation. “It was great they talked about solutions. I am left feeling very empowered and validated in what I was feeling as a parent,” she said. “This [youth performance stress] is real. We have to do something about it.”