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Pressure-Cooker Culture: Is High School in America Becoming an Initiation into a Lifetime of Stress?

05 Sep


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My high schooler recently sat down next to me and told me about friends taking five (sometimes six) honors classes in ninth grade (the school only recommends three at the most at a time), doubling up in advanced math/science/engineering. These students are 14 years old.

There was an unspoken question somewhere in him telling me that.

So, I took a deep breath and told him that while I would never put anyone down for that, because clearly academic achievement is a noble goal, our family makes a different choice because of our placing equal value on everything else that he does outside of academics: marching band, youth group, karate, robotics. I told him that:

  • We value good grades (“personal bests”)—but balanced with mental/emotional wellness.
  • We want to instill a good work ethic, along with built-in moments to unwind.
  • Statistics show way too many overworked, over-pressured high school students keeping themselves artificially awake in unhealthy (or even illegal) ways round the clockending up in psych wards having emotional breakdowns, or taking their lives. Yes, I realize there can be several factors playing into those situations, but academic pressure is one of them. In my opinion, one kid suffering in this way is one kid too many.
  • Ivy League college entrance letters and highly successful future careers are admirable things to reach for, as long as we keep perspective. Training my kids to live in a constant state of lifelong, self-driven pressure and stress, however, is not my end goal.  

I know some folks feel that the United States could increase education standards. I realize that the bar could be higher. It always can. I also know how well other countries around the world do in math and science. I attended college in one of those countries for a while, and I get it. I do. And I know in this increasingly high-tech world, kids are being pushed to take college-level classes sooner, push math advancement, interface with technology at earlier ages. Nothing is inherently wrong with that. I’m all for seeing what people are capable of and letting kids grow toward greater responsibilities, setting personal goals to do better.

But I also value well-rounded individuals with a wider understanding of the human experience. In the United States, college admissions counselors still look for after-school club involvement, community service, and extracurricular activities on the field, in the studio, and at the track. And they should. I don’t think we are doing 18 year olds a favor having them think the world is so narrow that as long as they can program in Python, they are all set for their future.

On the flip side, they need to learn how to balance stress, work and school, and the people in their lives, so I’m also not in favor of high school students in such a state of relaxation that they play video games for 6 hours straight while parents do the laundry and cook their meals. Either end of this pendulum swing has its pitfalls and dangers.

Honors-level classes are awesome if students can perform at that level. Go for it! Call me American (because I am), but honors classes at the expense of everything else—social interaction, activities that broaden character, serving the community, etc.—is where it can sometimes be out of focus.

Life outside the 40 to 60 hours of work per week these future adults will put in has so much more to it. If we teach our kids that academic achievement is the ultimate striving, then where is their personal satisfaction and fulfillment during downtime, when they are just kickin’ it with their families for a few days, or when they want to contribute something non-academic to society?

As one of my social media friends shared, when I brought this up in public forum: “It isn’t good to base an entire life on performance.” And that’s true of anything out of balance: performance of any kind, really.

In my humble opinion:

  • They need to learn how to talk to humans: their boss, their parents, other people’s parents, their coaches, their teachers, their peers.
  • They need to know how to stop and breathe when stress piles up, to prioritize a hectic schedule, to find a way to rest (which ironically, is designed to ultimately keep them at optimal performing level when they take the gift of rest), to wrestle through issues of faith, morality, and justice. To grow into adults who function emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, spiritually.
  • They need to see know how awesome it is to help in a soup kitchen, to run a marathon, to get a black belt in karate. Of course it’s not about doing all of those things—or even those particular things—just people-to-people interactions in general.

As I read my niece’s college application essays this summer, I thought: Well done! She is a high academic achiever but also mentored younger students in cheer, held a job, babysat, went on mission trips, anchored her school news reporting, among other responsibilities. She doesn’t appear to have let any one of those things get out of focus.

I’m glad my son and I had this talk because I saw relief on his face that we don’t expect six honors classes at a time. My parenting wasn’t so much in my saying “no, please don’t take that many” but rather in the why we don’t expect that. I saw the panic button stop going off. There was a life lesson right there that I hope he teaches his own children someday:

Balance, Son, balance.

Because if there’s anything I want my kids to know going into adulthood, it’s when to rest.

——————————————-

Exodus 34:21, God speaking through Moses

“Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.”

Mark 6:30-32, Apostle John-Mark narrating

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 

 

 

 

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