Is the Intense Pressure to Succeed Sabotaging Our Children?
The stress put on children to become super achievers takes a heavy toll.
Posted March 10, 2015
Last week in Pennsylvania, a 13-year-old named Cayman Naib killed himself after receiving an email from his private school that he was behind in his homework. Obviously, every suicide has deep and complex causes. It would be conjecture to assume that the pressure to succeed at school was the prime driving force behind Cayman's decision to take his own life.
That said, hopefully his death will be a catalyst for some type of positive change in the world and re-energize the dialogue about how much pressure is being put on our children to succeed from a very young age.
What is the toll of putting so much pressure on children to get good grades, do well on standardized tests, excel in extracurriculars, and get into an A-list college? What can parents, teachers, and policy makers do to break this vicious cycle and reduce the insanity of the K-12 rat race?
Last year in Newton, Massachusetts (an affluent suburb of Boston) there was a series of suicides that many parents attributed to an academic culture based on high achievement and the high stress of competing to get into an elite college. If you'd like to read about how the Newton community handled this crisis, check out this Boston Globe article.
Last March, The New York Times published a series of opinion letters on this topic in a piece titled, "Sunday Dialogue: Easing Parental Pressure" that was in response to a letter to the editor by Elaine Yaffe and other parents who, “see schools less as places for children to learn and grow and more as incubators for college applications.” As the parent of a 7-year-old, I found all of the letters in this composite very informative.
How Would You Define "Success"?
Arianna Huffington is on a mission to redefine success "beyond money and power." You can learn more about her "third metric" movement in her book, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder. I am simpatico with Huffington's crusade.
There are so many alternative roads to happiness and fulfillment beyond acquiring wealth and driving a fancy sports car. Why do so many people in our society put a premium on the superficial value of material possessions and status symbols? Everyone knows that friends, family, being healthy, and having a sense of purpose are ultimately the most important things in life and the keys to fulfillment.
As I was growing up, I lived in affluent zip codes like Chestnut Hill, which is an enclave of Newton. There was something in the air of my childhood neighborhoods that reinforced the rationale that one's destiny would be sealed and you'd be doomed if you didn't do well on every single test.
As a teenager, my peers and I believed that: "If I fail this test, I won't get into a good college, which means I won't get a good job, which means my life will be a failure, and I'll be miserable for the rest of my life."
I've always felt like a black sheep, underdog, and outsider. My older cousin, Sam, attended an Ivy League university and throughout his life continuously pushed himself to be perfect, to always be the "best," and to fit in. From the outside, Sam always seemed so together and I idolized him. When he committed suicide, it shattered my world and reaffirmed my conviction to avoid the merry-go-round of traditional benchmarks of "success."
Empty and Aching: Razor Blade Feeling
My heart goes out to Cayman Naib and his family. Suicide is the most devastating loss of life. My very first blog post for Psychology Today was titled, "Underdog Powers: Activate!" The post was inspired by the suicide of 14-year-old boy Jami Rodemeyer who was pushed over the edge by cyber-bullying.
Looking back on my teenage years, the pressure I felt to succeed academically was only one part of the equation that pushed me to the brink of self-destruction. I was also suffering from the strain of my parents' divorce, the realization that I was gay in a time of heightened homophobia caused by the AIDS epidemic, and clinical depression.
Most experts would agree that the compounding stress of multiple factors can create a tipping point that triggers a minor incident (like a random email from your school) to become the "straw that breaks the camel's back" and leads someone who is at-risk to impulsively commit suicide. Again, every case is different.
When you are in the blackest of blackness, it feels like there will never be sunbeams in your soul again. I know this feeling of hopelessness from personal experience and my own depths of depression. I've been there myself. If you are feeling suicidal now—or at anytime in the future—please don't kill yourself. Reach out and ask for help right away. You were born to be alive.
If you are in crisis, there is someone you can chat with anonymously right now by following this link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or calling their hotline @ 1-800-273-8255.
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. If you are feeling suicidal, reach out and ask for help. People will take care of you. Let them be a life support until you're back on your feet. No matter how hopeless you are feeling now, there will be sunbeams in your soul again. The light will flicker again. It always, always comes back. That is the human spirit.
Non Satis Scire: "To Know Is Not Enough"
As a teenager, I was pushed to the brink of suicide by an amalgamation of intense pressures. At my lowest point, I was at a boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut called Choate Rosemary Hall. JFK was an alumnus of Choate and there were high expectations that my classmates and I would uphold the reputation of the institution and carry on the school's legacy by becoming global leaders, CEO's, and "Masters of the Universe."
I did not fit this prep school mold and got terrible grades, which drove my dean crazy. He antagonized me about my academic performance and resented the fact that I wasn't into athletics. During my mid-teens, I suffered from a debilitating case of what some might call "sissy-boy syndrome" and avoided sports at all costs.
Interestingly, the fact that my dean bullied me actually fortified my determination to prevail in the long run. It's not a strategy I would ever condone on any level, or recommend, obviously... but at the time, and with my individual gestalt, his actions motivated me to muster the boldness and courage to chart my own course of success.
In my darker periods, I listened to Pink Floyd's rock opera The Wall nonstop and ruminated about killing myself constantly. My survival at boarding school ultimately took on an archetypal significance in my imagination. I romanticized the whole thing in a way that almost made it an out-of-body experience, and I fortified a type of alter-ego and mythical superhero mindset that I later applied to sports.
Luckily, instead of killing myself or staying "comfortably numb," I stumbled upon running and discovered that jogging was a type of therapy that had the power to transform my mind, body, and brain in the most amazing ways.
I know that exercise is not a magical elixir that can solve every personal or psychological problem, but in my case it was the antidote that kept me alive and kicking as a troubled teen. I also know that breaking a sweat regularly has the neurobiological power to make people from all walks of life more optimistic and resilient.
When I got a book deal with St. Martin's Press, my editor wanted me to write a chapter on my life story. In doing so, I realized just how many deep scars I had from my teenage years at Choate.
I decided to dedicate the last acknowledgment in The Athlete's Way to my high school dean. I wanted to have the last word in a poetic way but also to forgive him in a way that would help heal my post-traumatic stress from the experience. I acknowledged him saying,
"Mr. Yankus (my dean in high school): Thank you for trying to convince me that I would amount to nothing. Whether it was reverse psychology or not, you forced me to make something of my life just to prove you wrong. I needed to succeed at first just to spite you. I didn't ever want you to be able to say, "I told you so." My resentment toward you was the seed that sparked my athletic conversion. At the end of the day, I am grateful to you for being so hard on me even though it really sucked at the time. Thank you."
Recently, I reached out to the current administration at Choate seeking an apology from Mr. Yankus. That personal apology never transpired, but the current leadership of the school did apologize and I am happy to say that the overall culture of the school seems infinitely better than it was when I was there in the early '80s.
One of the most unexpected blessings in my life was that because my SAT scores were so low, I had no other option than to apply to Hampshire College. Hampshire is the only college I know of in the country that doesn't look at SATs as part of the admissions process as stated in this recent press release. It was the only college that accepted me.
Hampshire also has no tests or grades. Once at Hampshire, the intense pressure to achieve academically and my high school angst dissolved in tandem. For the first time, there was no pressure to pass a test or get a good grade—and I became wildly curious and passionate about learning.
I believe that the Hampshire pedagogy could help other educators and institutions reshape their policies and practices in a way that would reduce the stress teens feel to achieve success based solely on tests and grades.
I know that my educational experiences reflect socioeconomic privilege. However, with the new Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind, and the emphasis on standardized testing, I believe that the intense pressure to succeed and get ahead solely by having high test scores and getting good grades is sabotaging millions of kids in every K-12 classroom across our nation.
Rebel Heart: Strength Lined With Tenderness Is Unbeatable
Maya Angelou said famously, "The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination." Throughout my life I've realized that embracing my fragility ultimately makes me stronger. Recently, the work of Brené Brown illuminated that true courage lies in the power of vulnerability and living wholeheartedly. I couldn't agree more.
I romanticized my downward spiral in high school and envisioned myself like a phoenix rising from the ashes—but I was always a delicate flower, like an orchid. The key to my resilience and personal survival came in the unexpected form of a pair of New Balance sneakers, a Walkman, Flashdance, and the first Madonna album. The music and coming-of-age movies of the '80s became a soundtrack for my life.
On a rainy night in 1983, I went to see Madonna perform at a small nightclub in Boston called the Metro, and it changed my life. In my book, The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I thank Madonna in the acknowledgments saying, “Thank you for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness in my head when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since.”
As I am writing this, I have Madonna's new album Rebel Heart (which was released today) playing in the background. There are recurrent themes that come through the autobiographical songs like the title track Rebel Heart, Joan of Arc, and Wash All Over Me.
These songs hold many personal clues about Madonna's secrets of survival that are universally applicable. Throughout this album, the paradox of two seeming opposites—like vulnerability and strength—ultimately working together and complementing one another surfaces again and again. If you have the time to take a few minutes to listen to Joan of Arc, please do. It sums up the points of this blog post beautifully.
Letting your armor down and realizing that you don't have to always be a self-reliant super achiever is like a psychological steam valve that releases a lot of pressure.
Personally, I've found that having a renegade spirit while admitting my vulnerability has been the key to my survival and resilience over the years. Madonna has always embodied this duality to me, and I will always be grateful to her for this.
We all need the support of family, friends, and community more than anything else. Our social connectivity is paramount to our individual and collective survival. There is no such thing as lifelong self-reliance. Once you realize this, it makes it much easier to reach out and ask for help when you are in need.
Conclusion: Balancing a Need for Achievement with Contentment
At a certain point, we all need to stop caring so much about what other people think about our merits or worrying about being judged for our "success" or "failure" based on external or conventional definitions.
I know this is easier said than done. We all have some "need for achievement" that will be appreciated by others. But, if you find something you love to do and pour your heart into it, I believe that everyone has the potential to achieve a lifespan of "personal bests," whatever those might be.
I have achieved some success in my life. As an athlete, I was able to win some ultraendurance races and broke a Guinness World Record by running 153.76 miles on a treadmill. This might qualify me as a "super-achiever" to some people, but at this point in my life it seems pretty mundane to me.
My ultimate hope is that my lack of conventionality can serve to break stereotypes. I am living proof that there are an infinite number of alternative routes to "success" throughout someone's lifespan.
There are so many options in today's world to carve your own path and "make your own kind of music." You have the ability to create your own definitions of success and should strive to achieve your own dreams on your own terms.
Never let anyone try to convince you that you're "less-than" based on their ideas about success and achievement—or because they have more "money and power" than you.
© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.
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