- An increasing number of students feel pressure to get straight A's.
- The pressure to excel turns toxic when students feel their self-worth is contingent upon constant academic achievement.
- Kids are happier and healthier when they are motivated by their own interests.
I’ve been a lot of things in life.
Afraid of the dark. A war reporter. A jilted bride. A military wife. A mistress. A party-school student. An Ivy League professor. A mom on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I love to listen. I have a lot to say. But when I meet a mom in my neighborhood, the first question she asks is often the only one.
“Where does your son go to school?”
Marty goes to a Montessori school. Most kids who apply get a spot. The only thing that’s wrong with the school is other people’s perceptions.
"The school doesn't seem academic," one mom said.
“Kids play, but what do they learn?"
It’s not a sought-after school that parents think will put their kid on the path to Harvard or Yale.
Many parents think that the only way their child will succeed is if they go to an elite school, said neuropsychologist Bill Stixrud, an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and co-author of the best-selling book The Self-Driven Child.
“There is this message that there's one path to being successful. It's a narrow path and if you [veer] off, you're screwed,” he said. Many parents “are imprisoned by this psychotic thinking that is out of touch with reality.”
But competitive schools are in style.
What seems significant might not matter
When I was in sixth grade, in the 1980s, the popular kids wore the coolest clothes. I wanted what they had.
“Mom,” I said. “I need Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.”
Trendy items were pricey. My mom was a social worker whose clients paid on a sliding scale. My dad was a scientist, not a CEO. We went to Macy’s in the mall. I tried on the $35 designer jeans.
“They’re too expensive,” my mom said. I walked home with $15 Levi’s that felt comfortable. But I cried because they didn’t have the right label.
“Becky,” my mom said. “What matters is how you feel on the inside, not how people judge your outsides.” She was right. But I still wished that my dad worked on Wall Street.
Forty years later, motherhood feels like middle school. When I tell moms the name of Marty’s school, they look at me like I’m wearing Levi’s. I’m surprised at how much I care.
There’s a reason.
“We’ve evolved to go after the wrong stuff,” said Yale Psychology Professor Laurie Santos in this podcast. “Craving is a brain function,” but it doesn’t do us any favors when it comes to feeling satisfied. According to Santos’ research on success, people seek what their mind perceives will make them feel powerful and strong, not necessarily happy.
Maybe that was well-made weapons in the Middle Ages or designer jeans in middle school. Today, it’s selective schools.
Education is a journey, not a brand destination
My dad was a rocket scientist, but I couldn’t care less about calculus. When I got B's in high school, I didn't feel like a failure.
For college, I went to the nation's top party school, the University of Colorado at Boulder,
“You love the outdoors,” my Ivy League-educated dad said. “Follow your passion. You’ll succeed.”
I hiked, biked and learned to rock climb.
“I’m scared!” I said to my partner on a 300-foot route in Eldorado Canyon.
“Trust yourself!” He shouted. "You’ve got this!”
I got comfortable stepping into the unknown and became unafraid of feeling fear. I touched granite so often that my grades weren’t great.
“Find subjects you love," my mom said. I took history classes and got A’s.
According to Dr. Stixrud, when kids are motivated by their own interests, they feel more in control. They are happier, healthier, and work harder.
I graduated with honors and worked at a highly regarded think tank in Washington, D.C. and for top news networks. Now, I teach journalism at prestigious universities, and I write this blog for Psychology Today.
The name of my college has never held me back.
Achievement isn’t only academic
Marty excels, but not on someone else’s terms. Instead of studying for tests, he has other plans.
“Let’s go to the National History Museum and look at fossils,” he said after school recently.
He saw a docent near the dinosaurs.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Is a Stygimoloch a Pachycephalosaur?”
She googled it. “He’s a mini paleontologist!”
He’s a good friend, too. At a birthday celebration, Marty noticed a boy who didn’t get a party favor.
“You seem sad,” he said. “Take mine.”
And he gets people to giggle. One afternoon he wanted me to play with him.
“Stop texting!” he said. I was on a group chat with my besties from Boulder.
I put the phone down to answer the door. When I returned, someone had been added to the chat.
“Becky, who is this person?”
“Sh-t, Marty added my husband’s ex-wife!”
We howled and so did she. I saw her later at a family event. “Your son is really something. Where is he going to middle school?"
Pressure to get on the path
Marty’s school ends in fifth grade. He and his classmates applied to middle schools in a process that felt more like college.
After school, kids went to test tutoring, squash, soccer, Russian math and chess. Friends missed birthday parties to practice violin.
“Childhood has been turned into a period of resume building,” said Boston College child psychologist and Psychology Today blogger Peter Gray, who co-authored a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics that found kids spend so much time studying and in adult-supervised activities that they aren’t building social and emotional skills.
Anxiety among kids is at record levels, said co-author David Bjorklund, a Florida Atlantic University Psychology Professor. “There has been a lot of pressure toward academic learning and to do well on tests, which is not in a child’s best interest.”
Marty wanted to play but I couldn’t find a friend who was free.
“Billy is busy. He has tutoring and test prep.”
“Sam can’t see friends until the ISEE test is over.”
The ISEE (EYE-see) is the Independent School Entrance Examination, a three-hour standardized test that kids take to get into private schools. Students who compete for spots at the most selective schools must learn 6th and 7th grade material by the middle of 5th grade, according to several educators involved in the application process.
“ISEE test preparation for most students requires a tremendous amount of new instruction,” said Brad Hoffman, a board-certified educational planner who runs My Learning Springboard, a tutoring and education consulting firm. “We remind families who are wading into a private school process [that] it needs to be handled with appropriate balance.”
It's hard to feel steady when parents feel their child’s future is at stake.
We’re giving kids the wrong message
I have nothing against Harvard. But there is a winner-take-all mentality that creates a distorted definition of success and even "winners" lose.
Psychologists who work with top-performing students say their self-esteem suffers. Suniya Luthar’s 2004 study, The High Price of Affluence found that teens attending selective schools were more at risk for anxiety and depression than the national norm.
“They feel a relentless sense of pressure,” Luthar wrote in this article for Psychology Today. Too many kids get the message that they aren’t good enough. When the ISEE was over, Marty and a friend played.
“Where are you going to middle school?” Marty asked.
“My mom wants me to go to a good school,” the child said. “But I’m not gifted.”
“You’re smart.” Marty said.
“No. I needed nines on the ISEE (the top score). I only got sevens."
Later, Marty said: “Mom, I want to go to a good school. What are the bad ones?”
Marty applied to three three middle schools that didn’t require the ISEE. He wrote five essays, took two math assessments, and answered questions about social justice, extra-curricular activities, and life challenges.
“Describe a difficult situation and what you learned,” an admissions director asked.
“Ramen is my favorite food,” Marty said. “But I can’t have it. I have Celiac Disease. I’ve learned that I can be happy when things don’t go my way.”
I don’t know what grades Marty will get in middle school but he’s getting a great education.