STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO COURTESY ANUSUYA RAO
After seeing her kids off to college, Anusuya Rao came to a startling realization. Many of her kids, their friends and similar-aged kids she knew were high academic achievers — but lacked what she felt was really important to navigate adult life beyond school.
“[Some of these] academically bright kids have absolutely no social skills,” Rao said. “Can’t even make eye contact. Don’t know some basic stuff like filling gas into their car. You know, just what really was important was lacking, and the focus was very linear, very blinded by just school and which college you’re going to.”
Now, Rao sits on the Steering Committee (essentially the board) of Launchpad for Life, a nonprofit seeking to widen that same linear focus that Rao observed in the world of high-pressure, Silicon Valley stress.
The organization — which was originally conceived by Priya Dharan, another local parent — will begin the first session of its program, FreeFlight, in September.
Broadly, FreeFlight bills itself as a multi-year program that will help families “discover pathways for the children to develop into multi-dimensional, engaged, happy adults.” The FreeFlight program requires that both the middle or high school–aged children and their parents attend its monthly sessions; it takes both to achieve the program’s goals.
A large part of the club is about finding balance, and recognizing that there are many paths to success in adult life.
“[As a parent, I] had to be coached to kind of chill, you know, relax,” Dharan said. “I thought ‘Oh, every kid has to have three activities,’ and it was a mad dash. … I mean, if I look back, I want to laugh. What did those 10 guitar lessons do for my son, or, you know, Mandarin lessons for this one? What? There was no rhyme or reason.”
That’s exactly the kind of thinking that FreeFlight wants to challenge, because it hurts both the (well-intentioned) parents and their kids.
Launchpad for Life is part of a broader nonprofit called A Future for Every Child, which seeks to equip orphans in India transitioning into adulthood with the life skills needed to succeed.
When Dharan founded Launchpad for Life, she felt that it made sense for it to be tied to A Future for Every Child because of the similar themes and a previous connection she had to the nonprofit.
A typical 90 minute FreeFlight session includes a range of stress-management exercises, games, discussions and interactive activities related to that day’s topic, with the parents in one group and the students in a separate one.
The adult group is led by a parent volunteer (at least for now, that’s usually a member of the Steering Committee), and the student group is led by a youth moderator (a role-model high school upperclassmen or college student).
“It’s not a lecture at all,” Rao said. “We get a lot out of each other, and trying to have a discussion about it is the best way to be aware of something. A lecture is not going to work, especially not for the kids and even parents.”
Over the 10-session program, topics covered include examining core values, communication skills, time management, wellness, financial literacy, personal safety, housing basics, budgeting, developing a civic sense and emergency preparedness.
The parent and child sessions feature the same activities, the hope being that both will be on the same page to have a discussion afterward.
“I think the parents themselves are kind of stuck in some ways,” Dharan said. “For instance, we had a unit on communication skills. And it was, I think, eye opening for both the parents as well as the kids. If we only communicate it in this manner versus that manner, you know, would we get further? And so I think … that’s the beauty of this club, it’s bringing the parents along as well. That’s why it’s a parent-child club, and not just a children-only club.”
Rao and Dharan hope to attract seventh graders to FreeFlight’s September session and have them continue all the way through their senior year in high school — the program is meant to build on itself.
“You can’t learn everything … in a 90 minute session,” Rao said. “So the hope is that we build and deepen the learning on this topic, year after year.”
For example, middle schoolers would learn about the value of different scales of money (“What can you get for $10? $100? $1000”) and the concept of saving (“How should I use my allowance?”). High schoolers would move onto more complicated concepts like taxes, cost of living in the Bay Area, jobs and their incomes, wise credit card use and car insurance.
All of these concepts are things that aren’t necessarily taught in school, and things that can be easy for students and parents to ignore when singularity focused on academics.
“Most of us parents are rushing to get them into college, that’s kind of like the end goal,” Dharan said. “And students too are just working so hard busting their butts trying to get into all these elite programs. … Nobody pauses to think about what are the other skills that one might need to navigate life.”
FreeFlight’s curriculum is written by a handful of members on the Steering Committee — many of them parents like Dharan and Rao — which includes a psychiatrist, who often lends her professional perspective.
This summer, that curriculum was put to the test in a trial run of FreeFlight.
“The parent session I [found was] very engaging,” Dharan said. “It was 100% participation. … So I think it’s a very easy sell for the parents. Parents are looking for something like this. … It’s a safe space to try out different things — you’re not being judged.”
“The kids portion also was received really well,” Rao said. “They may not be as acutely aware as to the benefits that they’re getting, but they’re still getting it. So you know, they might be doing the breathing exercises with eye rolls and a whatever type of attitude … [but] we feel sure that at some point, if they’re anxious, or their heart’s racing, they might use that technique.”
The pilot saw around 10 kids from a variety of grade levels attend each session alongside about 12 parents.
“We know that this worked with the kids because they came back,” Rao said. “The kids consistently came back — it was their choice. … They really have a good time, it’s just a question of getting to know other members.”
Rao and Dharan said they hope to have 20 or so kids attend the program when it starts in the fall, and that initially, all the grade levels will be mixed together during sessions — at a later point when there are more attendees they’ll start to divide sessions by age.
In one of the pilot sessions, Sophie Kim, a Los Altos High School student who acted in the Netflix show “The Healing Powers of Dude” attended as a guest speaker.
“She was inspirational, because she has never acted before, and went right into this Netflix show,” Rao said. “So the takeaway from having her was if you don’t try something, you will never know. She was a great role model for that, and our kids loved her.”
Her father also attended the session, and was able to answer questions from parents.
“He could answer questions from parents who are more curious about, okay … ‘[How do you] even consider a Netflix gig when she’s in the middle of her freshman year?’” Dharan said. “‘How do you open your mind to something like that? … And how do you give it as much support as a kid that’s wanting to take on a big load of APs?’”
The two hope to bring in more role models in future sessions who have found success in places that might stray from the path that many parents want their kids to follow.
“There’s more than becoming a high tech exec. or founding a company,” Dharan said.
Ultimately, Rao acknowledged that it can sometimes be hard to articulate the goals of FreeFlight to families that lead busy lives.
“But what we’ve noticed is, for a parent who needs it, the sell has been, like, two minutes,” Rao said. “Even though the parent may be busy … when they hear the goals of this club and what we intend to do — when they connect to it — we’ve seen that it absolutely takes a priority. … They see the value in this.”
What might in part help Rao and Dharan in connecting with other parents is the fact that they founded the club based off of personal experience.
“The need for something like this was simply based on all the mistakes I’ve made myself with my kids,” Rao said. “[It’s about] doing it with intention, not dragging them to various activities and various courses and this and that — there’s no intention, there’s no meaning there. … Forcing certain pathways is just not okay, and college should not be the end all because there’s life after that, which needs grit, which needs resilience, which needs team building spirit, which needs all those things that they don’t get exposed to or don’t learn.”
“There’s no playbook for parenting,” Dharan said. “Each child poses such different challenges. … They’re just unique beings, and so what works for one doesn’t work for the other. … And this, it’s a community of parents — it’s great to do it together.”
Register for the September Freeflight session here.
Monday, Aug. 16: Some of the language in this article has been updated to better-reflect the goals of FreeFlight.