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Saying 'So Much for Harvard!' When a Kid Screws Up Isn't Funny

Photograph by Twenty20

It's always Harvard that parents joke about. Have you noticed that? When a kid screws up a spelling test in first grade, his jocular dad will quip, "So much for Harvard!"

Moms do it, too. Just yesterday, a high-strung mom tensed when she saw that her son hadn't completed his assignment to write a three-line poem. "It's not like it will keep him out of Harvard." It wasn't clear if she was joking or trying to reassure herself that her first grader still had a chance to end up—a whopping 11 years from now—at the most esteemed institution of learning in our country.

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Maybe I have more exposure to Harvard "jokes," because my kids go to a private school where a healthy chunk of the other kids' parents went to Ivy League colleges, including Harvard. (My husband and I earned undergraduate degrees from state schools.) Plenty of the parents in our community are candid about their aspirations for their children. Those aspirations include Harvard, usually early admission. Sure, their children still count on their fingers, wear pull-ups at night and nap on the way home, but no matter. Their parents are aiming for the pinnacle, and that means Harvard. Nothing less will do. Maybe Yale or Princeton, but really it's all about the big H.

Who has time for happiness when there's Mandarin to learn and sonatas to memorize?

These are the parents who draw criticism for driving their kids too hard, too soon and for too long. Their kindergarteners are in language, music and coding classes outside of school. They are reading well above grade level and doing higher level math. There is no pause button for these kids. They have a destiny that must be fulfilled. They are missiles aimed toward Cambridge.

I feel more than a little out of place in discussions of our children's destinies. I don't aspire to have children in the Ivy Leagues. If they get there great, but I care more about whether they have good relationships with others, with themselves and with their communities. I care about whether they are intellectually curious and know how to commit to goals they really want to achieve. When I'm being really honest, I tell people the simple truth: I want my kids to be happy.

Quaint, right? Where's the common ground between Harvard and happiness?

It turns out there is more than I thought. Harvard University, the institution in whose name so many strivers are snuffing out their children's childhoods and the associated joys, just launched a Center for Happiness. The goal of the center is to promote "positive psychological wellbeing" in bodily health.

The center aims to focus on how people can create lives filled with purpose, meaning, optimism. Presumably, a happy life includes joy, relaxation, recreation, connection with others and peace of mind.

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Funny, none of the children I know being groomed for Harvard are allowed any of those. Who has time for happiness when there's Mandarin to learn and sonatas to memorize?

I hope the Center is wildly successful in its efforts to increase the happiness of individual lives. I hope they put out bulletins that go viral. I hope the first one says this: You and your child can be happy even if she never gets into Harvard.

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