The Race

RVHCC has a monthly blog series where we hear from each of the twelve sectors of our community and their personal perspective on the prevalence of alcohol and drug use amongst Ross Valley youth. This month Margot Biehle has contributed as a representative of our parent sector.

While trying to get kids to stop using and abusing alcohol and other drugs through educating them on the dangers or by trying to curb our own alcohol use in order to set a better example may have some success, these methods only treat symptoms. Like eradicating any disease, calming symptoms is only a temporary fix until the root cause of the disease is addressed. So, WHY do adults and teens in Marin binge drink 50% more than in any other county in the state? To fully attack the disease of binge drinking, we need to attack the cause. One root cause we can probably all agree upon: stress.

In the tech/entrepreneur Mecca that is the Bay Area, where home prices are higher than just about anywhere in the country, we live in a culture of individual achievement and competition, both of which are paramount in the race for jobs, homes, food, parking spots, elbow room. Our children are exposed to competition for all kinds of resources from an early age, from preschool to enrichment classes to sports and everything in between.

The classic example: sports. Many kids start recreational sports in kindergarten, and can play on select club teams in baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and other sports as early as eight or nine years old. These kids are encouraged by coaches and some parents to play one sport all year long. And we parents, seeing an opportunity for our kids to excel in something (how great for their self esteem and identity! how lucky to have a sustainable advantage so young!), buy in. In doing so we are projecting our own drives onto them. Maybe our kid could get a scholarship to college, play for a UC, be the next Mia Hamm…. We have all seen articles about how the level of competition at such a young age and the choices kids are making to specialize in one sport are causing major injuries and leading to surgeries at surprisingly young ages. Yet the competitive status quo hasn’t changed.

Musical instruments, theater, the school paper, public service, even art classes follow suit, and are pursued with a level of intensity that often take the fun and creativity out of the offering. Focused on outcomes, kids aren’t given enough time or otherwise allowed to explore their true natural capabilities by discovering on their own. Dozens of New York Times best-sellers now detail the pressure kids feel to excel both in school and in their after school activities in order to both earn their parents’ love and praise and also get into a “good” college. Palo Alto, another affluent suburb heavily influenced by the tech boom, has reported several ‘suicide clusters’ in the last few years due to kids crumbling under the pressure to succeed and achieve at all costs.

But is this really a kid problem? Doesn’t it start with us? Where do we as adults find and model real joy, stimulation, creativity, relaxation? In this economy-driven culture we are forced to work harder and find new ways to differentiate ourselves from others in order to afford a home, get food on the table, keep making more money, keep our jobs, move up the corporate ladder, get clients, get funded, get a bonus. We embrace a culture of busy-ness even for those of us who aren’t working. “I’m so busy,” heard around water coolers and at every Starbuck’s across the County, rings as both a complaint and a boast. Those of us on the bike trail compare our rides to others on Strava, we wedge our yoga mats cheek by jowl into small rooms, gym classes require online sign-ups 24 hours in advance. Who has the time to engage meaningfully, creatively, or to even know how? No wonder we turn to a bottle of wine or beer for a quick fix. Kids watch and, under similar pressures, do the same.

But who of us would be willing to be the first parent to opt out? To know that a child may have a gift for something, but instead of pursuing that activity at all costs, choosing to explore complementary programs and learn to live with abundant free time that fosters creativity. Of course, no one wants to be left behind – “if I am the first one, am I selling my kid short?” This very question highlights the problem of putting the focus on the individual rather than the community. So how can we as a community calm down the toxic energy of achievement and competition and find meaningful alternatives to the quick escape?

David Brooks touches on this in his recent Op-Ed, “Communities of Character,” (New York Times, November 27, 2015):
We live in an era and under a testing regime that emphasizes individual accomplishments, not community cohesion. Even when schools talk about values, they tend to talk about individualistic values, like grit, resilience and executive function, not the empathy, compassion and solidarity that are good for community and the heart.

There are those among us who embrace empathy, compassion and solidarity over achievement and competition. But they are seemingly in the minority. Brooks concludes, “Most of the time character is not an individual accomplishment. It emerges through joined hearts and souls, and in groups.”

Perhaps valuing character – as defined by empathy, compassion and solidarity – over individual achievement and competition, would reduce stress. We may not be able to stop all teen alcohol use, but bringing it down to “normal” levels of experimentation as opposed to regular binging might just require us to look seriously at how we can connect as a community to change our values. It’s hard to imagine how or where we even begin that conversation. But until we do, fundamentally changing behavior will remain a challenge.

Margot Biehle

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