MIT dean urged isle parents to ease up on stressed-out students
WAVES of sadness surged among Honolulu parents late last week. On Thursday, Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, resigned after the school discovered she had falsified her college credentials 28 years ago when she applied for her first position at the Admissions Office. Jones visited Hawaii in late 2005, delivering a series of lectures that generated an unusual amount of discussion among parents of college-age children. Her call to change performance-driven child-rearing practices contradicted how an entire generation of baby boomer parents have been raising their children. But Jones' multifaceted expertise, passion and obvious concern for children's emotional health struck a chord with everyone who heard her message.
Across the nation, child development experts, parents and students are shaking their heads over the downfall of one of the most charismatic and effective leaders in the fight to change the way we raise our children. Jones recognized that competition to gain entrance into elite universities was causing an unprecedented level of pressure and stress in children's lives that begins long before they can spell "higher education."
She also realized that she was perfectly positioned to make meaningful changes. Jones started by changing MIT's application. She reduced the amount of space to list extracurricular activities, awards and honors. Instead, MIT asked applicants about their hopes, dreams and failures. Jones also led a national discussion on the impact of performance pressure on children's lives.
For Honolulu parent Susan Donlon, the circumstances surrounding Jones' resignation came as a discouraging shock. Donlon saw Jones as an inspiring advocate for her children's well-being. The mother of three was in the audience when Jones' said that "our children are the most anxious, sleep-deprived, judged, tested, poorly nourished generation." They are "steeped in stress," pressured to "perform until they break," and will grow up to be a generation of socially compliant workaholics if we do not allow them to be what we are -- only human.
Shaking her finger at parents, Jones said, "We focus too much on our children's human 'doingness' and not enough on their human 'beingness.'" Then, throwing her hands in the air, she boomed, "We weren't raised like this. We don't live like this. Why do we expect our children to?"
Parents' reactions that evening varied considerably. For some, Jones' message was welcome permission from an "expert" to scale down the activity level. Others felt Jones' words were an affront to their attempts to provide their children with the best opportunities available. In the question and answer period, one parent told Jones, "I don't believe you."
Child development experts applauded her unapologetic style and sensible approach to child rearing. Teachers who struggle each morning to hold the attention of exhausted, overscheduled teenagers cheered her on. Parents who have checked out of the "enrichment activity" frenzy saw Jones as a champion for their uncommon child-rearing philosophy.
Donlon voiced the concern now resonating from Massachusetts to Hawaii: that Jones' advocacy for children's well-being isn't discredited.
"I hope her message doesn't get lost. It's too important" Donlon said.
Many agree that Jones' mission must go on despite the loss of its high-profile messenger. Straub pediatrician Lynn Yanagihara will continue to counsel her patients that children's emotional health is just as important as academic development.
"Children need downtime to digest issues and emotions so they can learn how to deal with them and deal with other people," Yanagihara said. "A child who can do everything but can't get along with other people is not a happy or healthy child."
Yanagihara also reminds parents that stress hurts children's physical health just as it does to adults.
One can only imagine the stress that Jones must have endured as she hid her lack of academic accomplishments. In the end, she succumbed to the very same pressure to earn the "right" credentials that she tried to protect children from. Parents like Donlon hope that her humane mission isn't blindsided by her human error.
Dawn Yoshimura Sinclair is a freelance writer who lives in Honolulu.