Parents of high-achievers are getting the message: Stop the pressure. But what happens when your kid is the one refusing to let up?
My daughter, Kerry, like most college-bound high school juniors, just took her SATs. Watching her prepare, I found myself on board with the movement to reduce academic anxiety in kids. In her new film, "Race to Nowhere," a mother named Vicki Abeles examines the high-stakes culture that has invaded some schools, creating unhealthy, unprepared and stressed-out youth. To address the problem, places such as Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill have gone as far as eliminating that crown jewel of the college application: the Advanced Placement course. But even as I plead with Kerry to take it easy, she keeps the pressure on herself. What's a father to do when his daughter is the responsible one?
I've thought about this a lot lately. A couple of months ago, I stepped to the podium of a lecture hall at Wesleyan University. Before me sat 130 parents of high school juniors, finishing an elegant dinner. Their kids slouched in chairs around the edges of the room. The students assumed bored looks, but I had seen anxiety surface in many of them during the long day of college application seminars.
My job that evening was to introduce Wesleyan's charismatic president, Michael Roth, and say something profound about the college selection process. I spotted Kerry at the back of the room. Her head was down. I have a history of over-sharing, so I had promised not to say anything that would embarrass her. The truth is, I wasn't sure what I could say about the process that was positive.
In my opinion, so much of what happens to our high school students is wrongheaded. They are told the college they get into will determine everything -- from getting the right job, to meeting the right spouse, to finding happiness. By age 16, they're supposed to know exactly who they want to be when they grow up. (I'm 46 and still have no clue.) I know that my daughter's future worth will not be decided by her choice of college, but I doubt she believes it.
Kerry goes to a private high school in Cambridge, a place with one of the best track records in the state for getting kids into Ivy League colleges. The fact that she first reported this reputation to me when she was still in middle school scared me to death. It tipped me off to how much pressure she was already under. I've never cracked open a college guide, but I recently discovered Kerry had been secretly studying them for years.
I've realized that the best thing I can do for Kerry is lead by example. So I don't judge her college list, and I didn't pay thousands of dollars for SAT prep courses. I tell her that she shouldn't tie her self-worth in any way to which colleges send her fat envelopes.
Instead, I encourage Kerry to do the things she loves simply because she loves them. She has a passion for acting, and though I think she's amazing, she doesn't expect to premiere on Broadway any time soon. But that's why I'm so happy she sticks with it -- she acts only because she enjoys it, not to seek advancement in some cosmic pecking order.
At the Wesleyan podium that day, I spoke haltingly of how old I suddenly felt, and how I would cry when Kerry left home. Then I found my voice. "The day my parents dropped me off at college was perhaps the best day of my life because it was the first day of a great adventure," I said. Yes, I studied hard, but I learned the most from the friends I made, the parties I attended, my dumb mistakes and embarrassing failures. "Our children are under so much pressure to succeed in a very narrowly defined way," I said. "The point, however, is to give them the chance to have an adventure and learn about themselves in the process."
I saw Kerry look up. I am not sure she was listening -- with adolescent girls, it's hard to tell -- and I don't think she was entirely convinced by my argument. But when she finally receives her SAT results, I've already figured out what I'm going to tell her. If she does great (as she probably will), I'm going to say she needs to pick a college where she can have an adventure. And if she doesn't do as well as she expects, I'm going to tell her the same thing.
This story ran in The Boston Globe Magazine Januray 30, 2011.
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