A parent recently asked me, “How do I set high standards for my child without creating a family environment that produces too much stress and anxiety?” It is an insightful and important question and one with which any parent struggles.
We live in an anxious age. There are uncertainties at nearly every level of public life. We read headlines about terrorist attacks, wars, economic dislocation, and injustice. Developments that many assumed would lead to a more progressive and interconnected world—like social media—have actually created more division and a more narcissistic, self-centered society. Obviously, these larger trends affect young people. This generation of students is perhaps one of the most anxious and stressed we’ve ever seen. As young people, they see an uncertain future.

It may seem ironic that anxiety is increasing at the same time that our society has become more responsive to mental health issues. We are seeing more anxiety in young people at the very same time that the social stigma around mental health issues is decreasing and that our understanding of the human brain is increasing.

The important question is, what we can do about it as parents and teachers? At CA, we have worked with faculty and students on the topic of mindfulness. We have identified behavior such as courage, kindness, responsibility, grit, accountability,and gratitude that are important to us as parents and teachers on campus. In so many ways, schools like CA are fighting an uphill battle. I do not claim to have all the answers here, as this is an issue that transcends simple solutions.

HOMEWORK, ACADEMICS, & GETTING INTO A “GOOD” COLLEGE

While homework load and academic expectations surely play a role in “stressing” kids out, this phenomenon isn’t necessarily about academic load and high expectations. Most American schools confuse academic challenge or rigor with hours of homework assigned—which is an absurd connection that has been extensively written about and generally debunked.

Nevertheless, American schools assign far too much homework. Finland, which has one of the best educational system in the world, assigns high school students about three hours per week, compared to a more typical 2-3 hours per night assigned in schools in the U.S. How a student responds to homework and academic expectations depends a lot on the student’s learned response to stress, his or her personal goals, and a number of outside and uncontrollable factors in a student’s life.

I have seen students with ambitious goals be simultaneously invigorated and beaten down by heavy homework loads and high academic expectations. They get stressed out, but they want to push themselves to rise to the challenge because of the larger life goals they have set. They are focused on good grades, which can improve the chances of getting into a “good” college. All that said, we have been trying to think more intentionally about the type of work we assign and the types of assessments we design to better support student well being.

One might argue that the rise in anxiety is related to the negative impact of college  admission pressure. To be sure, this is a factor. The college admission “game” has many negative effects on teenagers. Studies show that teenagers lack sleep, feel pressure, and spend far too much time ruminating about college. What is important to note is that many students and their parents have little understanding about what actually constitutes a quality undergraduate education (more thoughts on that later in this article). The process has gotten progressively more competitive in recent years. With admit rates for some institutions that are under 5%, pursuing admission to a highly selective school is harder than ever.

At the same time, people tend to overlook the huge number of great institutions that continue to be accessible to nearly all CA students. One of our SPEAK lecturers this year, Julie Lythcott Haims, reminds us that you can stick with the top 5-7% of all four-year colleges and still have a good group of over 150 colleges to work with that can provide anything that any CA student needs to make the most of his or her undergraduate education (and many, many of them are more undergraduate focused than most of the “name-brand” schools.) We must all remember that it is a process that students (and parents) perceive themselves to have very little control over, and there often is a flurry of activity to create an image of perfection. Guess what? Even being “perfect” won’t help you. Seniors with perfect grades and near perfect standardized test scores might find that they cannot get into a highly selective school. Each of these colleges is building its own unique class in an age in which it is awash in highly qualified applicants. One needs to stand out and, as we put it in our college counseling office, have a “hook,” something that distinguishes one student from his or her peers. But, that hook has to be authentic.

Nationwide, this has led many parents to “manufacture” the “perfect” resume for their children. It is not a coincidence that many educators decry how students are so “overscheduled.” This isn’t about high school students, but little children having very little free time because they are signed up for different activities. Every head of school and college counselor in this country could tell you stories—nightmares,  even. I remember a student at my old school whose mother literally created clubs and activities for her son to lead and to put on his applications.

Take the time to read Harvard’s Turning the Tide to see what colleges and universities say about overscheduling. There are kids who are really healthy who love to be involved with many passions who can pull it all off. But, this is an unrealistic model and not one that colleges are choosing to celebrate. We have seen a decline in the number of kids who want to play organized sports, in part because they are burned out by the end of middle school after years of competitive pressure in youth club sports.
In our well-intentioned efforts to provide structure and meaning to our children’s lives by signing them up for activities, we are actually taking the fun out of childhood. The Turning the Tide reports calls for colleges and universities to seek out applicants who have spent their time serving their families and who have developed good character. Colleges are telling us that they prefer students who have a deep commitment to one extracurricular activity rather than ten.
When I ask students why they get stressed out, they generally respond, “If you don’t get into a good college, you won’t get a good job.” As parents, we want our kids to be successful and find careers and develop lives that are meaningful. We too often associate that with material success. That drives us to put pressure on our children. And no matter how hard caring parents try to hide this, the kids feel it. They see parents who are smart, successful, and well respected. They want to emulate your success. Be mindful of your words that can sound critical, because, as one leading researcher has noted (and has been quoted in this column before), “Pressure is the enemy of success.”

HOW GOOD PARENTING MAKES A DIFFERENCE

The good news is that I see lots of examples of parents doing a great job prioritizing the right things for their children. There are kids who just blow me away with how grounded they are despite their soaring accomplishments. I will ask parents of such kids what they did and they have responded with the following:
  • Unconditional love. Make sure your child knows you love him or her, no matter what. You can’t emphasize this enough.
  • Educate yourself about college. This looms large for high schoolers at schools like CA. Remember my quote earlier about kids talking about getting into a “good” college? When you ask students what a “good” college is, they are stumped. Adults think they know, but most don’t go beyond the US News &World Report. A fellow head of school once described the “absurdity” of the college process: “Let’s think about this, a bankrupt magazine that only publishes one edition a year drives millions of Americans to decide what is and is not a great school.” I urge you to check out the resources on our College Counseling website and to come to parent meetings during which our counselors share their expertise and perspective.
  • Don’t keep up with the Joneses! (They aren’t that cool anyway.) Let your child be his or her own person. Don’t follow the lemmings off the cliff. Let your child find out on his or her own what they love to do. Just because another parent has decided to try to “game” a system that truly cannot be “gamed,” it doesn’t mean you should as well.
  • Talk to your kids. And, here I mean, “TALK.” Go deeper about your experiences and failures and insecurities. Help them understand how we all face the same anxieties that they face. I think it is important that students understand their purpose. All American students are on a treadmill of sorts. We need to help them ask some existential questions about what they are working for.
  • Recognize what you model with your own behavior. Our kids pay attention to everything we do or say. They make interpretive leaps about what we as parents value. As I noted earlier, your presence looms large. Some students say there is simply not enough “bandwidth” in a single household for highly successful parents and high-achieving kids. They wonder when it is possible to simply take a break.
  • Emphasize that life rewards perseverance more than it does anything else. Repeated effort and not instant perfection is what matters.
  • Remember the human factor: all those things that lend meaning to our lives, like building strong relationships, creating family traditions, and having an optimistic outlook, making good memories together, and treating others with kindness will all be more valuable than a test score, a completed assignment, or a letter of admission to a certain college.
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