- The pressure to excel turns troublesome when kids feel their self-worth is contingent on perfect grades.
- Children need free play and independent activities to develop autonomy and resilience.
- Taking chances helps kids cultivate courage and build confidence.
My son Marty started middle school by handing in half-finished summer homework. A school administrator reviewed his work and told me he would be in the intermediate math class.
“The regular group is great,” I said.
“I never hear parents say that.”
Later, a mom asked about Marty’s placement and suggested a solution. As if there was a problem.
“A tutor can get him to the top,” she said. “If he isn’t accelerated now, he might not make AP classes in high school.”
In my neighborhood of top-performing schools and intense parental pressure, kids are put on a path to achieve early and often.
“Parents have bet big that the most secure route to a successful life is through acceptance at a highly selective college. So, parents feel pressure to make their kids a success [and] safeguard their status,” Jennifer B. Wallace, author of Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-and What We Can Do About It, wrote in an email exchange.
But the effort it takes to secure a child’s future can do more harm than good.
Academic achievement “…is a kind of life vest to keep kids afloat. But this very life vest is drowning too many of the kids it is [designed] to protect,” Ms. Wallace wrote.
Our system is out of whack.
When only exceptional will do
Moms in my neighborhood know what it takes to win. They went to the country’s most competitive colleges and have carved out careers in courtrooms, boardrooms, and sales offices as partners, managing directors, and CEOs. Now they’re trying to pass achievement down to their preschoolers who are so advanced, they’re bored.
“Ezra isn’t challenged in pre-K,” one mom who started a successful business said at a bowling party where the lanes were lined with bumpers so little kids could get a strike. “I’m supplementing with science and extra math.”
“Jack is the same,” another mom said. “He’s reading. Play-Doh and picture books are dull.”
After school, chess has replaced tag. Kindergarteners can castle, but they can’t tie their own shoes. First graders read Harry Potter, but they’ve never heard of hopscotch. Middle schoolers prep for college.
“I have patients in 8th or 9th grade who think about college admissions,” said Dr. Rachel Busman, senior director of the child and adolescent anxiety program at Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants. “[Kids say] ‘if I don’t take all of these AP classes, I’m not going to get into a good school.’”
Anything below the top is perceived to be the bottom, and kids get the message that if their grades aren’t stellar, they are subpar. So, middle schoolers who should be outside testing fate with abandon are sitting at desks, supervised, and perhaps scolded.
“I see very few kids with free time after school,” said Busman. “Kids need more balance [but] that would necessitate a whole culture shift.”
Evolution makes that complicated.
An age-old battle for the best
Parents seek what they believe will secure a child’s prospects. In the Stone Age, it was the skill to spear a wooly mammoth. Today, it’s grades to get into an elite school.
“You don’t want your genes to be losers,” said Dr. Frank McAndrew, a psychologist at Knox College who studies behavior from an evolutionary perspective.
Selective schools signal status. And parents pursue positions at the top of the pecking order. But standing on the pinnacle is precarious, and families who appear secure may feel frantic.
“Status is relative. If you’re already at the top—there’s a long way you can fall," McAndrew said. "The risk of your children being less successful than you appears very real, and that insecurity drives you. We’re walking around with caveman brains in a modern world.”
This mismatch clouds our ability to see what kids need today.
Research like this study found that children spend so much time studying and participating in adult-supervised activities that they aren’t developing the autonomy and inner strength to thrive in life.
“Parents have an idea that they want their kid to succeed and the only way to ensure that is to control what they do,” said Dr. Emily Loeb, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents and college kids. But her research shows that backfires.
“Kids don’t learn to think for themselves," she explained. "They don’t take risks and they fear making mistakes."
In the desire that our offspring dominate, we’re not doing our kids any favors.
When there's no freedom to fail
I taught journalism to graduate students at Columbia University, one of the country’s most competitive schools. A major topic of conversation at faculty meetings, was how to handle increasing anxiety among our students and their pursuit of perfection.
One day, a top student stopped by my office and sobbed.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. I thought there was a death in her family.
“Take a deep breath,” I said. “You’ll get through this.”
“I want my story to be perfect,” she said. “But I’m not producing anything good.”
I encouraged her to focus on a first draft, not the finish line.
“You’re just getting started,” I said. “It’s OK to struggle and make mistakes.”
But students experienced glitches like catastrophes. Most were obsessed with outcomes.
“Professor, tell me exactly what I need to do to get an A,” I heard often.
Kids couldn’t cope when their best wasn’t good enough for a top grade on every. single. project. They didn’t understand that the road to success includes unexpected snags and setbacks that derail us.
“Kids have been deprived of learning how to deal with uncertainty,” said Dr. Camilo Ortiz, a professor of clinical psychology at Long Island University, who treats children with anxiety conditions. His research shows that kids need more freedom and exposure to what he calls the 4D’s: danger, distress, discomfort and disappointment to become self-confident and resilient.
Too many kids “fall apart if things don’t go the way they expect,” he said.
I wanted my students to get accustomed to uncertain outcomes, so I assigned projects that required risk.
“The unknown is a sacred space,” I said. “Struggling through uncertainty is how we become brave and bold, no matter the outcome.”
The more chances my students took, the more confident they became.
Success is a journey, not a destination
When I was Marty’s age, I was mediocre. My mom didn’t expect me to become a war reporter or a college professor. When I couldn’t figure out physics in high school, that didn’t disappoint my dad, an aerospace engineer who built rockets for NASA.
“Find what you love,” he said. “It’s not math."
I didn’t spend time after school with a tutor to get to the next step. I walked into the world on my own. I searched for my strengths and learned to strive. My road to success has been filled with tears, mistakes and a bit of bad luck.
I don't want my son to feel his future is at stake at 11 years old. As I wrote in this blog, for five years Marty struggled with undiagnosed Celiac disease. He’s starting 6th grade in a tough spot, after missing months of school.
“I didn’t learn long division,” Marty said. “I’m behind.”
“There’s no finish line,” I said. “Recovering from setbacks takes time.”
The cavewoman in me wants to pressure my kid to cram. But I know what he needs isn’t stress to appear superior. It’s the freedom to find his way, even when that comes at the cost of straight A’s.
The other night Marty did half of his math homework.
“I’m finished,” he said. He picked up his iPhone and watched chef Nick DiGiovanni cook.
“Let’s try this lollipop lamb recipe,” Marty said.
I encouraged him to do one more math problem, and then we cooked.
The first step was homemade butter, but we made a big mistake. We used a juicer instead of a food processor.
“It’s not working,” I said, scooping white mush out of the blender. “Let’s forget this recipe.”
“Don’t give up Mom,” Marty said. “So what if it isn’t perfect?”
Maybe feeling fearless in the kitchen is more valuable than handing in flawless homework.