Thursday, December 19, 2013


A busy friend shared a link recently to an essay by Tim Kreider about the tendency of many members of the U.S. middle class -- or, let's say more accurately, the "striver" class -- to exist in a state of frenetic activity, largely self-imposed. Being "crazy busy" at all times is a badge of honor and seems to represent the ideal for our culture, but the author makes a compelling case for the benefits of idleness.

the meditation cushion
I've been pondering his viewpoint and how I've been transitioning from a fill-every-waking-moment-productively mania to a slower rhythm where I can almost begin to imagine using the meditation cushion I purchased about 15 years ago but could never sit still quietly long enough to use.

Mr. Kreider's role as instigator of goof-off time has been filled in my life by my daughter. I suggested she also read his essay as I knew she would welcome an endorsement of the habits she has cultivated so diligently for herself. At 17, she is a paragon of the idle life and has quite forcefully resisted attempts from her parents or others to set her on anything resembling a striver path. No sports, no clubs, no summer classes or camps. She has exceptional academic ability, but high school classes leave her uninspired and she struggles just to complete each course, with little concern about her final grades. Consequently, the bus to Harvard will not be stopping here.

Incidentally, her favorite academic course of all time came from Harvard and may serve as an example of the benefits of idle time. A couple of summers ago, Harvard professor and author Michael Sandel appeared locally to promote his latest book. Disappointed at being unable to attend his seminar, I took to the internet to find out what I had missed and discovered his popular undergraduate course, Justice, was available for free online. I started watching his lectures, and my daughter, 15 at the time, peered over my shoulder. Soon, she was coming downstairs each morning asking, "Mom, can we watch another Harvard class?" Multiple choice tests may have left her cold, but she couldn't get enough of the ideas of Aristotle, Kant, Locke and Descartes.

See, when her active, agile, creative mind isn't burdened with the demands of school, my daughter is an intellectual sponge. She is drawn to ideas like a fruit fly to a glass of wine. I've become accustomed to her peering over my shoulder when I'm reading something novel or controversial, even if it's only anonymous internet users debating a local policy in the comments section of a media website. And, as she's a visual learner, if the information happens to be on something like YouTube, her antenna is keen enough that it will draw her out of her room and down the stairs to inquire, "what's that?"

[A brief note on the visual learning: her best year of "school" was 7th grade, when, as regular readers of this blog who are probably limited to my relatives will recall, we home schooled using a self-invented film-based curriculum.]

favorite activity for 17 years
When children are small, we cut them some slack on the productivity meters. That my three-year-old was content to spend hours arranging and rearranging her toy dinosaurs by size, type, color or texture instead of doing some Baby Einstein activity was of little concern. But once the high-stake high school years arrived and her peers were busy with theater productions, sports teams, debate club, violin lessons and volunteerism, I worried. What was to become of a child who spent so much time literally staring at the ceiling? What hope could she have of going to college without pages of extracurricular activities to include on her Common Application?

second favorite activity

I pushed. "You must participate in at least one activity at all times," I ordered as she began full-time high school. I enlisted my neighbors, and even the coach, to lobby her (unsuccessfully) to join the girls cross-country team. If I noticed her playing a game on her laptop in the evenings, I asked, "Don't you have homework?" I regularly checked her grades on the parent portal of the school website. "What's this? An A MINUS in Honors Biology? You can do better than that!"

Eventually, she pushed back, in a way that shifted my concern from her grades to her health. I had to acknowledge the parenting approach that worked so effectively with her older brother was not so good for her. I utilized my research skills, as well as some outside help, to learn what might best guide her to a motivated and productive adult life. But my greatest teacher turned out to be my daughter.

Tomorrow: Am I smarter than a slacker high school student? Short answer: no.


  1. Laughing all the way through this. I especially loved your last line as I have to answer no as well. And maybe attitude runs in the genes as some of the stuff you have told her has come word for word out of my mouth to Lora.

    PS - does she know you're posting baby pics online? :-)

    1. Yes, she sees it all and will stop me from posting anything embarrassing! She says hi and can't wait to see Lora!

  2. Sharon, nice post. Of course, I only remember your kids as toddlers the last time we were in Traverse City many years ago. But I can identify with this ... we have similar issues with our very bright oldest daughter, who is in high school now. She tries hard, but gets so stressed at times. Sometimes you wonder if you are pushing too hard. Anyway, thanks for the reminder to take it easy ...

    Brian (John's former AP colleague)

    1. Thanks, Brian! Be sure to check back for the last post (hopefully tomorrow), which will include some of the hazards of being raised by journalist types. And if you ever want to chat, I'm sensing we've been living in similar teen terrain. Stress management has been a big issue.