We have friends whose kids are brilliant, self-motivated, high achievers. And I teach students like this every day at my school. They are inspired, driven and believe they know their path. They want to take as many AP classes as possible, don’t accept anything less than A’s, and are convinced success will only be attained through attendance at an Ivy League university. I also know and work with kids who aren’t this driven; they struggle with self esteem, confidence and achievement. Regardless the type of student, our culture has developed an accepted practice that with all kids come parents who continually push, don’t settle for average and set exceptionally high expectations. Is this undue stress necessary?
Educators are finding that this relentless expectation of perfection is creating a generation of kids who are overly stressed, depressed, and, in the most extreme cases, suicidal.
What are we doing wrong?
Here are my few thoughts about how we can all help students lead less stressful lives.
Find a Balance: I get that the world is becoming more competitive. I also get that not every student is prepared or capable of taking five AP classes in one year. For every hour of an AP class, a student should be preparing an additional two hours at home. There aren’t even enough hours in a day for a student to attack this workload. This also then assumes a child is good at everything -- a brilliant mathematician, insightful scientist, a natural writer and an exceptional historian. Wouldn’t a child’s time be better spent pursuing extra-curricular activities to cultivate other passions: sports, the arts, photography, robotics, friendships, animals, philanthropy, etc. I will argue any day that these activities will ultimately create the most well-rounded, balanced child.
Know the End Game: Let’s extrapolate the stressful school schedule from above. The child takes and passes five or six AP classes. The college awards college credit. The student begins college as a sophomore. Yeah! Or is it? This simply means the child has only three years to find his right fit career. Only three years to enjoy the college life. Only three years until he has to enter the workforce. To what end? To begin the grind of life earlier? I’m definitely sure I wouldn’t recommend that path to my younger self.
There is More Than One Path: How many of us knew exactly what we wanted to study in college? I took an informal poll at work this week during a meeting, and only one-fifth of us are currently working in the field of our first college-declared major. This is normal. In fact, it’s expected. That’s why colleges encourage kids to take General Education courses in the first two years, so they can explore their options. And for those of us who aren’t where we thought we’d be as adults, would an Ivy League education have changed the outcome? Life paths aren’t always just a linear A to B. Most of us meander around the alphabet for quite a while before landing on a perfect fit career. And regardless the college, success is still attainable -- ALL levels of success.
I’m not suggesting as parents we stop raising the bar, stop having high expectations, stop encouraging our kids to be the best they can be, stop pushing them to want to excel.
I am suggesting, however, that we build in some opportunities for them to discover their own purpose of education. Their own passion. Their own way.
I want all students, my own kids included, to give effort and show grit. I want them to work hard. I want them to push to be great.
But I also want their stress to motivate -- not destroy.