The Achievement Frenzy

Many parents are worried, and rightly so, about how achievement pressures today are affecting their teens. Too often I hear some variation of, “My daughter thinks that if she doesn’t take all AP and Honors classes and get straight As and perfect SATs she won’t get into a good college.” It is true that teens and even tweens these days are feeling tremendous pressure to succeed. Many are over scheduled, perpetually on edge and exhausted by taking challenging classes, doing extracurricular activities, getting perfect grades, and finding a way to stand out from their peers in the quest to “look good for college.”

The societal frenzy around achievement is a generalized and pervasive problem—a national phenomenon. With the surge in this age group, there is undeniably more competition for schools, internships, and jobs. Directors of college admissions confirm that there are many qualified applicants for every spot in the freshman class. Anxiety about standardized testing is cascading down from administrators and educators to parents and students. As they well know, there is an awful lot riding on teens’ grades and test scores.

Happily, there is much parents can do at home to try to counteract unhealthy cultural messages teens get about achievement. Of course, all mothers and father want their daughters to be as successful as possible; there is nothing wrong with that. But we don’t want them to be high achievers at any cost. Keeping in mind the big picture—that is, girls’ health and well-being—we all have to guard against getting caught up in the frenzy for success and losing our bearings.

It is hard for parents to maintain a calm perspective in the midst of what often seems like sheer panic. When we hear of other kids getting intensive SAT tutoring or going on community service expeditions, we may worry that we too should be giving our children these kinds of advantages, at least to keep the playing field level. Getting the facts can alleviate your anxiety while also guiding your decisions. For example, you might research the effectiveness of various SAT prep courses and programs. Or ask the experts at your high school’s College and Career Center what colleges are really looking for. But remember, getting into college is not the only goal.

National studies are reporting that students are arriving at college in worse psychological shape than ever before. Many are already burned out. Universities describe freshman as suffering from more depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders, yet having fewer coping skills. As a result, they are having significantly more trouble adjusting to college life. Girls are twice as likely as boys to say they’re overwhelmed by everything they have to do. So just because “everyone else” seems to lead hectic lives and be just as pressured doesn’t mean we should accept stress as the normal, even expected, consequence of raising successful daughters.

Clearly, chronic stress is harmful. Although teens need eight to ten hours of sleep per night, they routinely burn the midnight lava lamp to finish their homework, study for exams, print out papers before deadlines, go online, etc. Sleep deprivation leads to poorer concentration, slower learning, difficulty coping with stress, and greater susceptibility to illness. So insist on good sleeping habits. Even during adolescence, girls may still need parental guidance—and the voices of reason— to keep their lives in balance.

Encourage stress-reducing activities (e.g., non-competitive exercise such as jogging, swimming, martial arts, and yoga rather than highly competitive team sports). Teens benefit from the chance to create poetry, art, and music, as well as down time to think and dream. Keeping journals recently has been shown to improve concentration by cutting down on distracting thoughts—but only if writers try to make sense of distressing emotions and events. Many hardworking teens and tweens long for free time just to “chill” or catch up on their favorite mystery or chick lit authors.

But even these simple suggestions may not be so easy to do. That is because achievement is a complex issue that arouses intense feelings in all parents. Some soul searching may be in order. Ask yourself if your teens could be inadvertently picking up on your fears about achievement or college. Is it possible your expectations could be too high? Might your hopes for your children be coming from your own unfulfilled dreams? Are you trying to live vicariously through your kids? Answering “yes” or “maybe” to any of these questions might suggest areas for further thinking.

Be more mindful of what your behavior conveys to your daughter. For example, do you proudly display on the refrigerator schoolwork that isn’t perfect, a B+ paper or 85% test grade? Do you focus mostly on external emblems of success, such as grades, wins, and awards? Or do you emphasize your daughter’s inner qualities—for example, her kindness, helpfulness, honesty, fairness, sense of humor, etc.? Studies have shown that undergraduates who base their self-esteem on inner traits not only experience less stress and more positive relationships with their teachers, but also they get better grades. Lastly, what might you model for your daughter by how you live your own life (e.g., the balance between work, play, and rest)?

At this point in their lives, teens need to feel free to explore their interests and discover where their true passions lie. They need to figure out who they are and follow their own dreams. They feel most supported when their parents see them for who they really are. Pressuring them to specialize too early—or in areas that seem meaningless to them—is usually counterproductive. Girls who go through the motions, striving for other people’s goals, are generally resentful rather than gratified. Instead, they need to know it is okay to stumble, to take wrong turns, and to find own their way in their own time.

It is helpful for parents to remind themselves that intellect and fine schooling don’t guarantee success. What really matters is girls’ emotional well-being, curiosity, perseverance, and integrity. What really matters is their capacity to get along with others and take pride in their accomplishments. Parents convey these values loudly and clearly when we expect them to do their own work, only offer offer as much help as they really need, and encourage them to keep stress to a minimum.

After all, the most successful people are not necessarily brilliant, but they are passionate and self-directed. The happiest people are not necessarily the highest achievers, but they feel good about who they are, what they do, and their relationships with others. As parents, raising such individuals would be perhaps the ultimate achievement.

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