Pressure on our high schoolers

From the NYTimes, which uses this opener for a set of responses:

A new documentary, “Race to Nowhere,” looks at the pressures being put on high school students to build their résumés with Advance Placement classes and athletic accomplishments to improve their chances of acceptance at elite colleges and universities. The film captures the angst of boys who drop out of high school because of the pressure, girls who suffer stress-induced insomnia and students forced to cheat their way through classes.

The film is hitting a nerve among parents across the country who are worried about the levels of stress that their children are experiencing, beginning even in elementary school.

What can schools — and parents — do to turn down the heat?

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  • Rick

    “…to improve their chances of acceptance at elite colleges and universities.”

    It is more than just that- it is also financial. At any time, but especially during these hard economic times, scholarships are on the minds of families. Even if it is not to an “elite” school, a scholarship is of high value.

  • We help our now 9th grade daughter maintain sanity by monitoring her commitments. She’s very competitive – was #1 in her class coming out of 8th grade, competing not only with her peers but with her brother who finished hs #1. It also helps that we’re in a small town in the country, with a school that is less competitive than in some locations. Of course this pushes her the other direction sometimes, since competition performs a strengthening and toughening role also.

    We also pray a lot.

  • Robert

    Maybe a remedy would be helping parents and society realize college isn’t for all high school grads.

    I’ve seen the pressure parents put on their kids to get a college scholarship in certain sports. Camps every summer, going every weekend for ten years, practice every day, pushing all the time. All that for what?

    Not everyone is going to be a Fortune 500 executive. Those who are will usually set themselves a part from the rest. I’m all for AP classes and proving yourself but that isn’t everyone’s calling.

  • T

    What can schools — and parents — do to turn down the heat?

    Dunno about schools, but parents and mentors can point to Jesus, especially the line of thinking in his SoM. Father-centric people don’t compete like that; don’t worry like that.

    Students aren’t unique here. The legal profession is practically killing its members through higher and higher expectations and intra-firm competitiveness. My mantra as I left to start my own firm was “Seek first the reign of God and it’s righteousness, and all these other things will be taken care of.” It calmed me down and helped me resist the fear.

  • Barb

    from a parent of college Junior:
    1. save up for your kids education starting when they are born.
    2. help them have sane expectations about what you can afford.
    3. understand their unique gifts and help them develop them–encourage them (maybe if you are really lucky a teacher will also encourage them)
    4. help them prioritize and make choices between good things. (i remember that my daughter cried when she first had to choose between two classes–I told that was what grown ups do every day)
    5. DON’T judge your kids success by ANYbody else’s kids at ANY age.
    6. Pray for discernment and guidance.
    7. help your kids have many varied experiences.–if your child is not naturally competative find less competative ways for them to use their talents.
    8. research colleges and help you child find the right fit for them.
    9. don’t base everything on “what you can make doing that”
    when i tell people that our daughter wants to work for a non-profit they groan and say stuff like “you poor people” or “don’t worry she will change her tune soon enough”. Yesterday a friend said that her son wanted to be a dentist so he was looking at all the good colleges for dentistry (he is a HS Sophomore). Why? Dentists can afford a lot of neat toys.
    10. People learn in many ways–not all are great at book learning. Make sure your children know that they are smart even if they learn in other ways.
    11. If you want your child to go to college tell them that they will from a very young age. Its what we “insert name here” do. our daughter is a fourth generation college woman. But know that many colleges can be good for them.–
    12. spend a ton of time with them when they are teenagers–they will be gone soon and you will miss them.

    looking forward to my Daughter’s Christmas break.

  • Phillip

    In one of my graduate classes we were talking about the Sabbath commandment and ways to hear it as a Word of God today. One aspect of Sabbath I had really pushed was the Israel was called not simply to enjoy rest but also to provide it. One student noted how we so often push our kids and fill their schedules. He suggested providing Sabbath might start at home, by giving our kids a break. That would also remind us of another element of Sabbath–Sabbath as a response to the idolatries of self, self-sufficiency, and work.

  • steve_sherwood

    As a 25 year veteran of vocational youth ministry (within Young Life), I would say the issue is much larger than pressure related to college. We view scheduling our kids lives down to the minute and driving them from practice to tutoring to a different practice to a scarfed down meal as “effective parenting.” We sign our kids up for music camp, sports camp, language camp, practice SAT class, club sports, school sports, private lessons, etc. to “give them opportunities.” Youth ministries do the same things only we spiritualize our pressure. “If you love Jesus you’ll be at this Bible study, with a car full of your friends.”

    I have found Chap Clark’s book “Hurt” and Andrew Root’s “Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry” to be very helpful youth ministry sources about this issue. Prophetic. David Elkind’s secular books, most famously “The Hurried Child” also speak to these issues.

    Speaking at camps I have often asked, “How many of you had a coach, teacher, adult give you grief for taking this week off to come to camp? ‘There might not be a spot on varsity for you if you miss a week of summer workouts…’ In a room of 300 kids, 80-90% raise their hands every time.

  • DRT

    My 13 y.o. said that he really does not care about school pressure because it is only temporary. Its not like someone beating you up and yelling at you and telling you that you are an idiot or anything.

  • Dana Ames

    What can we do?

    -Allow them to do less; insist, if necessary. Like Richard @2, our children did one musical activity and one other activity, and that was all. They had part-time jobs in high school, but they didn’t work more than about 8 hours per week.

    -Provide better vo-tech training, beginning in high school. It would be awesome if high school graduates who love working with their hands as well as their brains could be ready for 1-2 more years of advanced training/apprenticeship, whether through Jr College or tech school, that would enable them to become skilled cabinet makers, plumbers, auto mechanics, etc. There’s too little support for these students.


  • dura mater

    This is part of why we home-school. It allows us to disciple our kids, discerning (with them) their gifts, and discovering (with them) their vocations.

    We have always made it clear that they will go to college. At age 7, our son asked if he would be home-schooled for college :0)

    As I watch my senior daughter try to squeeze her varied school experience into a form that will fit the applications, and impress the admissions committees, at a variety of colleges, some of them “elite,” I find myself coming smack up against the worldly definitions of success which I have tried so hard to turn my back on, and from which I have tried to shield the kids.

  • AHH

    There needs to be more recognition that the undergraduate education at “elite” colleges is not necessarily superior. One can get a good undergrad education at a lot of places, not just the elite schools. This would take off some of the pressure of so many kids striving for the high-image places.

    I was an undergrad at a branch of the U. of Missouri system, and then got a Ph.D. at Berkeley. At Berkeley I was a TA for a senior course, and it seemed to me that their seniors came out no better educated than my undergrad peers.

  • paul

    I think it would be a good thing to teach and live out a more God-centered view of work. Many students I work with (as a 9th grade teacher at a Christian school) are trying to get good grades so they can go to a “good college” and then are able to get a “good job”. When pressed further this simply means a “well paying job” that enables them to live a comfortable life. This is what they hear over and over from adults in their lives.

    I think as parents/teachers/adults we can help students by pointing them towards an ethic of work that is more than this.

  • Kristen

    My high school posted the honor roll in the hallway — including GPAs. So this person got a 4.0, that person got a 3.9, that poor slob only had a 3.6 …

    A lot of people who hovered around the 3.4/3.6 range purposely tried to stay just below 3.5 to keep themselves OFF that list entirely.

    In the quarters when I was a bit below my typical, I had people (including faculty) ask what had happened.

    Don’t do that.

  • Susan N.

    @Rick #1 – Yes, I agree. We hope that some of the cost for college will be offset by scholarships. So I am regularly impressing on my 8th grader that the quality of her work, and what she learns which translates to her ACT/SAT score, will have direct consequences on college prospects.

    As homeschoolers, in theory, we can exercise our freedom to arrange the schedule as suits the child, progress at their individual pace, and be less driven by worldly/peer pressure to achieve more and more. In reality, at times I have felt more pressure as a parent-teacher to “prove” ourselves. Many people I have encountered over the years have given me the distinct impression that they’re waiting for the “experiment” to fail. So even as a homeschool parent, I have fallen into the trap of pressuring my kids way too much to achieve academic success. We know full well that it’s a hard (economy/job market) world out there, and it’s easy to let fear drive our decisions. And that’s only the academic angle of it. All the E/C activities can be overwhelming; it’s been a real balancing act over the years to help our kids become well-rounded individuals without straining them with too much.

    Lately, I have taken pains to make it absolutely clear to my kids that I want them to always do their best, but that’s all I expect from them…and we will support them as much as we are able in pursuing their higher education and career. Speaking of that, has anyone been seeing studies and articles about 20-somethings living with their parents longer and longer, delaying marriage, etc., in order to pursue advanced degrees, save money, and look for a job? Times they are a-changin’.

  • Robert

    BTW, if you haven’t seen “Waiting for Superman” you should see it. Absolutely on target piece.

    The whole college “education” (and I use that term loosely) system in the US is a mockery. How many people do I know who went to college for a couple of years, meandered around absorbing huge debt, only to transfer out or just leave and enter the workforce with a large burden but nothing to show for it. Outside of some specialized degrees I honestly don’t see the point in college for many jobs…yet it is seen as the finishing degree for our young people.

    It’s such an odd set of contradictions.

  • Our goal as parents is to steer our children towards the things that they love doing. If they enjoy doing something they will want to do it more and thus will become good at it naturally. The rest will take care of itself. We only ask that they do their very best at whatever they pursue and if they fall short then we learn from it and move on.

  • Andrew

    I think the single biggest thing parents can do to help their kids is to focus on serving and trusting God where they are at right now, not as a means to any greater end than laying down their lives as acts of worship.

    If students are doing activities as a means to get into a certain type of school as a means to get a certain degree as a means to get a certain type of job as a means to live a certain lifestyle aimed at security and prosperity, then that’s pretty stressful, because the idols they are sacrificing aren’t very powerful.

    But if they they learn to love and lay down their life where they are at, dream redemptively, and take it one step at a time, the journey is much more joyous. And it would lead to a lot less frenetic activity to fill out the resume.