My thirteen year old son had some friends over last night.
They spent well over an hour verbalizing to me how stressed out they were in regards to school and the expectations placed on them.
Not only are they to succeed academically at a rate that far surpasses what we were expected to as adolescents, they are to behave in ways that at times, (via their report), feels more like being at boot camp rather than a place of enrichment and learning.
They are told they are not able to go to the bathroom except during the 3 minute transition time between classes (at the risk of being marked tardy and having punitive measures taken against them, if so). They also have to manage and normalize harsh tones and sharp words directed towards them on a regular basis. This communciation style has been researched as one that sends classmates brought up with discord or trauma, into what can be experienced as “fight or flight mode.” It also brings those brought up in a home with a more gentle communication style to experience a submissive or fear based response.
Regardless, after hearing a few examples of how they described, “a day in the life of a 7th grader”, a part of me felt there were some demeaning and dare I say, completely unnecessary interactions taking place. Nevertheless, I challenged them to be respecful to their teachers, while at the same time, not let the pressure of expectations and feeling minimized chip away at their dignity and self-worth. I also walked away wondering, how did we as a society even get to this point?
No wonder our kids are so stressed out.
But, the complaints about pressure with adolescents are not limited to my living room. I see this age on a regular basis in my therapy practice.
Anxiety, feeling pressure to perform well at school, and depression (alongside the threat of verbalized desires to commit harm to themselves) are the biggest complaints bringing clients of this age to counseling.
Is this really what we have become? I refuse to believe we will become better as a society if we have high performing individuals who make over a 4.0 GPA, be the football (or whatever sport you would like to “fill-in- the- blank” captain with), involved with 3 other clubs, but are stricken with anxiety or are so depressed, they struggle to get their head up off the pillow. Just this week, we have been bombarded with how far parents will go for a certain college of “elite status” to accept their child. With the right financial means, we do not think twice about buying our way to acclaim. Yes the Celebrity Cheating College Scandal has taken this to an entirely new, but unfortunately, not very surprising level.
We are at a tipping point and something has to change.
I acknowledge, last night’s reports from my son and his friends were from the perspective of three adolescents, and there are always different sides to these complex equations. I would also like to go on record and state, I am not blaming the teachers. Having to meet over the top standards while simultanesouly being expected to teach students from various backgrounds and personalities, in overcrowded schools, all while staying within the confines of a pre-set curriculum is not an easy task. I would admittedly become a bit snappy myself if I had to take on all that our educators do.
The truth is, I don’t really know who to pin the blame on, but I do believe, as parents, we have played a role. Is it possible that our own pride has contributed towards this performance based mindset? We have moved away from being satisfied with excellence and good effort, and slowly replaced “being the best” as the goal.
I wonder what would happen if we were to stop looking at rankings, performance and grades as the “know-all, end-all point” for examining our children’s worth and started to view character traits like integrity, effort, and kindness as something even more important? This thought may be frightening to some, as our children’s accomplishments would not be able to highlight the achievements of our “excellent parenting”. The irony is, I bet, they still would get into excellent colleges and great long term success, only with a lot less anxiety. In fact, without the burden and pressure to be “noticed” for their performance or rank, our kids may actually be able to dive into areas they are truely passionate about and thrive more overall.
The truth is, all children are very much worthwhile, without the accolades or awards. It is up to us to acknowledge and impart that truth, yet doing so involves a level of humility that is admittedly difficult, especially in a society where notoriety and attention seeking is at an all time high.
However, I am willing to do so, not just for our children’s sake but for the sake of our families, educators and future generations. Let us encourage a job well done, and be pleased with a honest attempt of hard work or a kind gesture, regardless of where they land on the charts. Something tells me we will all be better for it.