The Science Talent Search is the leading science competition for American high school students. It’s often referred to as “The Junior Nobel Prize.” According to a recent study, 83 percent of the forty finalists in 2016 were the children of immigrants. Fourteen had parents from India; eleven had parents from China. So twenty-five of the forty finalists, or 62 percent, had Chinese or Indian parents. (To put that in context, only about 2 percent of children in America have Chinese or Indian parents.) Other finalists came from Cyprus, Iran, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Nigeria.
Mainstream coverage of the report has focused on the need to encourage more immigration to the United States from countries such as India, China, and South Korea. I haven’t seen any coverage that has asked, much less answered, the question: Why are American-born children now under-represented among the ranks of the innovative? This pattern is not confined to the winners of science contests. There has been a collapse of creativity among American-born kids. American kids are now less creative and less innovative compared with American kids just twenty years ago.
I have been a medical doctor in the United States for more than thirty years. Today, I often hear American parents say, “I just want my child to be happy.” Unfortunately, when you let contemporary American kids do whatever makes them happy, the result is likely to be teenage girls who spend all their time on Instagram or Snapchat, and teenage boys whose favorite pastimes are video games and pornography. As a family physician, I have seen the long-term consequences first-hand. That fifteen-year-old boy seemed quite content spending his free time just as he pleased. But eighteen years later, at age 33, he has a growing sense that life should be about more than video games and masturbation. He’s living at home with his parents, working part-time at a dead-end job. And he lashes out in anger, often anger against his own parents, for reasons he struggles to put into words, but the words should be: Why didn’t you raise me to be more than this?
It is no use letting kids do whatever they desire unless you have first educated their desire. The first job of the parent is to educate the child’s desire: to instill a longing for something higher and better than video games or pornography or social media, whether that something be found in science, in music, in the arts, in nature, or in religion. The winning entry in this year’s Science Talent Search was “Exosomal miR-124a: Novel Translational Astrocyte Repair in Reactive Astrogliosis in vitro,” submitted by Indrani Das, whose parents came to the United States as immigrants from Kolkata, India. I doubt that Ms. Das enjoyed studying astrocyte repair as a little girl. I suspect that her parents first educated her desire.
As an American parent, I struggle every day against the culture of “I just want her to be happy.” Each night, I read to my ten-year-old daughter from books written by people long dead, trying to instill in her a longing for something more substantial and more lasting than Snapchat and Instagram. I am encouraged by the example of other American parents who have been successful in this task. Turn off the screens. Don’t let your daughter or son worry about missing out on the latest Tweet or Snap. Instead, take your child for a walk in the woods, or go to a concert together, or visit a museum. Don’t pursue happiness as an end in itself. Pursue art, or music, or knowledge, or a glimpse of the American goldfinch, a beautiful yellow-bodied bird that nests near our home. And teach your child to do likewise. You may find that happiness comes, unbidden and unexpected. And who knows? Your child might even win a prize at the science fair.
Leonard Sax is the author of four books for parents, most recently The Collapse of Parenting, which will be released in paperback next week.
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Image Credit: by woodleywonderworks [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)] via Flickr. Image cropped.