As winter break approaches, giving students a needed rest after a pressure-filled fall, I’ll bet that a lot of kids are hoping Santa stuffs some chill pills into their parents’ Christmas stockings.
Whether Mom and Dad would be willing to take the medicine is another matter.
Over the past few years, a national conversation has ensued regarding how much, how far and how fast our kids are being pushed to perform. We have questioned whether we hold unrealistic expectations and if we’re using the wrong measures to gauge success in everything from academics to sports. We blame teachers, the college admissions race, global competition and the culture in general for creating an environment filled with unprecedented levels of stress.
“It’s too much.” “It’s gone too far.” “It’s out of control.” These are the comments I hear again and again when the topic is inevitably raised among my circle of friends and acquaintances in Newport Beach.
My anecdotal observations are buttressed by media reports, documentaries and studies chronicling the rising levels and cost of childhood stress.
Yet, worry as we may about the toll on our kids, it is we parents who are perhaps the biggest source of that pressure. We are not innocent bystanders or unwitting victims of a system gone mad. We are co-conspirators, aiding and abetting in the stress escalation.
Just recently a discussion I had with other parents revealed such unintended collaboration.
One parent, for instance, echoed the sentiment that pressure on kids is too great, while also sharing that her child had been prepping for a rigorous admissions test and an exhaustive application process. Not for college. The kid is still in middle school. This application was for a high school.
Another parent worried that his young adult son was having trouble finding his way toward a stable career. The young man is passionate about his interests, is making a living and seems content, yet his father is plagued by a vague feeling that his son somehow isn’t doing enough with his life.
Another recent conversation revealed one parent’s view that only admissions to certain ultra-select colleges would lead to career success. That view was shared by yet another parent, who felt that only he should have the final say about which college his son would attend, even if the boy disagreed.
It’s tempting to stereotype many parents as cartoonish control freaks, and to wholly denounce their over-the-top efforts to prepare their children for a difficult world.
But as a parent myself — one who has made plenty of mistakes over the years — I am sensitive to the struggles we all have in trying to strike a healthy balance. Sometimes the line between challenging and encouraging our kids and pushing them beyond reason — and for the wrong reasons — can get a bit blurry.
I recall, for example, the early days of School Loop, the electronic system that allows parents to check their children’s grades on a daily basis. In the first year it launched at my older son’s school, when teachers were still adapting, I had regular meltdowns at every “zero” that appeared for an assignment or test, only to later realize that those usually represented grades that simply hadn’t been recorded yet.
That realization occurred after my son had a heart-to-heart with me, letting me know that he felt very stressed and that I was multiplying that stress. He knew what the stakes were, and he wanted very much to succeed in school, he told me. I needed to trust him.
It was a pivotal moment for us. I did back off and I’m pleased to report that my son is now a happy, fulfilled college graduate working in a field he loves.
But I’m also aware that such stories don’t always have gratifying outcomes. Some young people suffer stress fractures that take years to repair. They can endure agonizing feelings of insecurity and inferiority when they believe they’re not measuring up to yardsticks set by their parents.
I am also reminded that many of our greatest thinkers started out as square pegs. Albert Einstein was a mediocre student at best. Charles Darwin’s father accused him of being lazy and unfocused. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg never finished college.
I just read a wonderful Smithsonian Magazine profile of Adam Steltzner, who led the spectacularly successful Curiosity rover mission to Mars. Not bad for a guy who flunked high school geometry, barely graduated and drifted around playing in rock bands before discovering his passion for physics. Now he’s a rock-star rocket scientist.
In my own life, I can think of many acquaintances who overcame rocky starts, including a good friend who never achieved traditional measures of success in school when we were kids. He was very intelligent but dropped out of high school and worked at unskilled jobs before leaving to backpack abroad.
Today my friend is a respected college professor, author and expert in his field. He is happily married and the father of two daughters, about whose future he now worries.
I don’t suggest that dropping out is OK. But for all of us parents who have piled on the lessons, tutors and nonstop activities in hopes of molding perfect little superstars, I suppose a little chilling out would make a very good gift this Christmas.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.