Stress Is Stressful

A work related talk I heard recently described a research project using monkeys and their babies to investigate aspects of mothering.  The research design created a situation where over a two week period food was readily available for the mothers to feed their young.  Then for the next two weeks, although food was still available the mothers had to forage for it.

What the researchers found was that while the mothers were able to handle either of the two food conditions by themselves, the switch back and forth became very stressful for them.  Various tests revealed biological changes in the mothers that reflected such stress.  Furthermore, these changes diminished the mothers’ capacity to respond to their babies.  The babies in turn became depressed and later showed unfavorable behavioral changes as well.  The research demonstrated that social conditions could bring about biological changes, which in turn effected the behavior of the mothers, and then both biological and behavioral changes in their young.  

There seems to be a message in this for human mothers in our real, not experimental, society.  Stress comes in many forms, and one does not have to delve into biological changes to appreciate the kinds of stresses parents experience in raising their children.  Of course, economic stress is the most obvious and parallels the monkey mothers having to forage for food.

But an article in the New York Times that caught my eye, while seemingly on an entirely different topic, put the focus on another kind of stress.  The article relates that nearly five thousand children qualified this year for gifted kindergarten places in the New York City public schools.  These spots are part of special programs for gifted and talented children that exist in certain special schools throughout the city.  Admission to these programs is determined by a test-based system instituted four years ago, and since that time the number of qualified students has doubled.  There are far fewer places available than there are children who qualify, and now there is fierce competition for those spots.

Some demographic reasons have been offered to explain this phenomenon.  One is that more families have remained in the city instead of moving to the suburbs.  Another is the great expense of private schools in a weak economy, leading to a greater interest in sending children to public school.

A more disturbing explanation, however, seems to be related to the issue of test preparation and tutoring.  More and more parents are resorting to test preparation courses costing hundreds of dollars or to buying the test materials.  The Education Department has acknowledged that this practice is influencing the results and has ordered a new form of testing.  But someone from a tutoring company is quoted as saying: “There’s no way you can stop it because now the idea of preparing for the kindergarten test is totally the norm.  The stakes are so high.”

There are a number of disturbing aspects to this situation.  One is certainly the fact that districts with the highest income population had most of the children who qualified for the special programs. These, obviously, are the districts where parents can more readily afford the cost of the tutoring and test preparation.  Once again, there is no level playing field, and further polarization is set in motion by unequal opportunity within the education system itself.

But even more disturbing is an aspect that brings us back to the question of stress.  A father whose son scored in the 99th percentile and who lives in Harlem, no longer feels assured that they have a good shot at one of the places in an excellent school.  He says, “We’re praying on it, because these are the kinds of choices that make a difference in young kids’ lives.”

Working to put food in kids’ mouths is one kind of stress.  But working to try to get a good education for your children brings its own stress – first for parents, and then in turn for the children.  Where are we when four year olds are subjected to tutoring and testing in order to qualify for a good education?  What does it mean when parents feel it necessary to pressure their young children to master material in order to compete for the kind of education that can “make a difference in young kids’ lives?”

Some weeks ago we talked about “redshirting” – parents feeling they need to keep children back a year before starting kindergarten so they will be advantaged by being older and more mature than others in their class.  Here, once again, is a situation in which parents are trying to compensate in some way for things that are wrong in our education system.

An old children’s song says, “Monkey see, monkey do, the monkey does the same as you.”  In this case, like the monkeys, both we and our children are being stressed by our need – and our wish – to provide for them in the best way possible.

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