In the giant competition we know as ‘the world’, Finland minds it’s own business and does it’s own thing. Come to find out, Finnish teenagers are way smarter than other teenagers of the world. This comes as an astonishing surprise to many people and has made news in the Wall Street Journal, that erstwhile chronicle of all things competitive.
High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7.
Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.
What could it mean? How do they do it?
The academic prowess of Finland’s students has lured educators from more than 50 countries in recent years to learn the country’s secret, including an official from the U.S. Department of Education. What they find is simple but not easy: well-trained teachers and responsible children. Early on, kids do a lot without adults hovering. And teachers create lessons to fit their students. “We don’t have oil or other riches. Knowledge is the thing Finnish people have,” says Hannele Frantsi, a school principal.
Visitors and teacher trainees can peek at how it’s done from a viewing balcony perched over a classroom at the Norssi School in Jyväskylä, a city in central Finland. What they see is a relaxed, back-to-basics approach. The school, which is a model campus, has no sports teams, marching bands or prom.
Here’s the thing. Children are built from the inside out. Societies are built from the ground up. Here in America we use the outside in and top down models, and that’s why our people can’t string two thoughts together without assistance. That’s why our society is crumbling before our eyes. That’s why so many teenagers in American suffer from depression and stress. Americans are not allowed to BE.
There’s a little saying, and I don’t know where it comes from, but it goes something like this: Some people think they need to have what they want to have, so they can do what they want to do, so they can be who they want to be. In reality, you need to be who you want to be, and then you can do what you want to do, and then you will have what you want to have. The Finnish understand this, and they let their children develop from the inside out, and therefore they become intelligent, productive citizens. Viola!
In contrast, here in America and in many places around the world (in cultures competing with America), parents force ridiculous expectations onto their children to perform. They want their children to have resumes, to have experiences, to have skills, and to have knowledge, so they can get into the greatest colleges and grow up to be rich executives or movie stars. So the parents force all this activity onto their children, and the children are not allowed to be, to exist, to enjoy the holy freedom of childhood.
We don’t have time for freedom. We don’t have time for childhood. The ‘best’ Americans inculcate their children from early on to strive. Learn to strive and get used to it because you can look forward to a lifetime of competition.
Parenting is very difficult, but our culture makes it even more perilous than necessary. If we didn’t have such a cutthroat culture, perhaps we could let our children kick back a little. Perhaps we wouldn’t spend big chunks of our family budgets on their extracurricular activities. They could go outside and learn baseball with the kids in the neighborhood instead of us spending money on Little League. But in order for this to happen we have to have neighborhoods, and we have to let our kids play outside instead of scheduling their every waking moment. The parents who currently do things like this are looked askance at as ‘bad’ parents by the ‘good’ parents who provide their children sufficient (paid) extracurricular enhancements.
Here’s what happens if you let your kid play outside. Here’s what people really think in America. “What are you, poor? Too poor to sign your kid up for dance/soccer/gymnastics/guitar/singing/theater/football/hockey/la cross? You slacker. Get a third job so you can put your kids in activities. Because if you don’t, your kid will have no one to play with.” And that’s the truth. Middle class children will not have many friends unless their parents pay to put them in activities. That’s how you meet other kids. You don’t have to bother with working it out in the neighborhood anymore. You just find your people via paid activities, and that way you don’t have to deal with the others.
In America, kids belong in activities. That’s how we measure the quality of parenting. More is MORE.
But here’s the truth: less is more. Kids need to grow into themselves. Recreation is not always about playing a sport or learning in a structured environment. Kids need time to be outside, to play games (not video) with friends, to imagine, to be alone, to suffer through boredom and find things to do. By allowing our children to grow at their own pace instead of forcing the pressures of adulthood on them, we allow them to develop an actual personality. We allow them to be.
Sadly, we have a nation full of children whose growth has been deformed. Yes, children need to be pruned from time to time. If you know your children and pay attention to them, you can spot a wayward branch budding and pinch it off quickly. But so many people spend so much time making money to keep up their lifestyles that they don’t really know their children. Too many children are like topped trees. Their natural grown patterns have been cut off, and the growth that replaces it is vigorous and ugly.
The forces behind this dynamic cannot be summarized quickly. Families now need multiple jobs to make enough income to pay bills, and I am not here to cast aspersions on people trying to provide stability. We live it too. But as a people we need to stop striving to imitate the upper classes. It’s a bad deal for working people to work and work and work so much to provide a lifestyle for their children to the point that they no longer have time to parent. It would be better for us to scale back our expectations. Our children would be better off. In any case, the economy will take care of this problem soon enough. Many children will soon have more time on their hands as their parents just simply decide they can’t keep up, but some of them will not know what on earth to do with it.