No question, our children are precious and we want the best for them. Grades, athletics, community service, and test scores are all important, especially when considering college admission. Important but urgent? Life-or-death? Make or break? No way.
I am the Dean of Students at a competitive independent school where college is most definitely the end point of high school, and not just any college, but a “good” college according to the new experts, Mr. Forbes and Ms. US News and World Report. I am here to suggest that we, as parents, need to step back, take a few cleansing breaths, and relax. Anyone who has weathered a real crisis, the kind where you lose your job and have no money in the bank, or the sort that rubs up against near death, or even worse, death, and suddenly worrying about about an SAT score, or an 82 versus a 92, seems like a luxury of the mink coat variety.
Here are four reasons to encourage the use of perspective when considering your teenager’s high school experience:
- All this pressure has little impact on your teenager’s motivation to succeed. For the most part, the hard workers are going to be diligent despite our best efforts to get them to turn the lights out and go to bed. Our less motivated are uninspired by lectures, bribes, demands, or even specialized (and expensive!) tutors paid to sit and cajole them in a way that mom and dad can’t. Students with learning differences benefit from strategies and study skills, but only if they are open and willing, not because their parents promise them a car, or threaten the removal of a car. Come report card time, the fewest words possible probably have the most impact, “you should be proud of how well you did,” or, “you may want to step it up a bit.” Applaud or scream all you want, but remember, your teen’s successes and failures are theirs entirely and will only correlate to your reaction briefly.
- The competitive and intense banter between parents creates a culture of competition. It’s problematic enough that we have teenagers feeling badly about themselves after looking on social media, but now we have parents feeling inadequate as they sum up the lives of their friends through the photos of their children, trophies, college banners, and accolades jumping off of Facebook and Instagram. Furthermore, this same competition gets projected on to our teenagers, who live in a world where anxiety is epidemic and students spend time in bathrooms coaxing their friends out of panic attacks.
- College admission and typical teenage successes do not define your teenager’s future. It just is not true. Sure, college is a great place to make connections, but it is “a” great place, not “the” great place. Furthermore, it’s not as if all the students who go to the top 30 colleges in the country are employed and successful while everyone else is somehow “less than.” We are surrounded by happily employed, and unhappily employed adults from hundreds of colleges, or no college at all. We walk our neighborhoods, malls, and supermarkets, exposing ourselves to a variety of human experiences every day, and no one is wearing a sign saying where they went to college, if they went to college, or how they did in high school. In the adult world, if someone is judging another by where they attended college, it would be blatant snobbery. So why would it ever be okay to judge someone’s teenager, let alone their parenting, or even worse, to judge your own teenager and your own parenting, based on high school success and college admission?
- You lose sight of who your child is because you end up focusing on what and how your child does. Who wouldn’t want their teenager to be a good student, a skilled athlete, a school leader, or a talented musician? However, these are added perks to what really makes your child special, the unique qualities that define their personality, not just their persona. We are free to have hopes and wishes for our children, but our love, and their self-esteem, can’t be based on the acquisition of external success or they are doomed to a life of measuring themselves against an external and rigid yardstick.
Keep in mind many teenagers simply don’t hit their stride in high school. But even the teenagers that do, who are soaring academically and filling up the trophy closet, can benefit from parents who worry less about creating stellar transcripts and perfect applications. Furthermore, most colleges, universities, and employers (in fact, most adults in any capacity) appreciate teenagers who have made some mistakes, tried and failed, lost elections and games, bombed quizzes, weathered rejections, and have even learned to tolerate a bad teacher or two. Most importantly though, underneath the AP Calculus, the clarinet that hasn’t been practiced in months, the soccer medal, and the D in Spanish, is a child, your child, who is both fallible and unique and who needs to learn to love who they are, not what they do.