When I was young, getting good grades came naturally to me.
I was determined to have lovely handwriting and enunciate clearly. I wouldn’t dream of skipping an assignment. I craved praise from teachers. When I entered high school, I was determined to maintain a perfect academic record. At the end, I applied to Harvard and Brown.
But I was rejected—by Harvard and Brown. Thankfully, I had a lovely college experience elsewhere.
But now life has come full circle for me. I’m back at this familiar stage now that I’m the mother of teenagers. As I re-enter this scene, I realize that the game has only been upped in the last quarter century. Academic pressure is more intense than ever. The expectations regarding course selections and extracurricular activities are sky-high. The most selective colleges and universities take an even smaller percentage of their applicants than before.
I find myself on the shore with my children as the quick watercrafts speed by, and I keep motioning to jump in. Let’s go, I want to say. Our friend tells us that his nephew, a high school sophomore, has already taken the SAT twice and is less than six percent below a perfect score.
Oh dear. I want to grab my kids and try for that next boat racing by. The current is only getting faster.
What if we don’t jump in? What happens then? Will I doom my children to mediocrity? And what would staying on the shore really look like?
Here are some reflections to consider:
1. We adults don’t (and can’t) have it all. The same is true for our kids.
The modern lifestyle can leave us feeling frazzled. We’ve got professional obligations, errands to run, and a desire not to serve cold cereal to our families every night. Many times, we have to prioritize, learn to say no, and accept that we can neither have nor do it all. The same should apply to our children. They too must learn to prioritize. They too must be able to to say no. The goal shouldn’t be to have it all, but to have balance.
2. Not every young person is going to have a “passion.”
Would simplifying our children’s lives mean letting them follow their passions? Perhaps, except that even this advice is fraught with American-style ambition. The word “passion” may be overused. It suggests that early in life, one must unearth a particular skill in one activity or subject. It further implies that we should have an other-worldly experience with our “passions”—making us even more driven.
Most kids need time to uncover what really drives them. Most will like and enjoy an activity or a course of study, but not necessarily want to define themselves by it. Resist the urge as parents to turn that fun season of softball into your daughter’s new “passion.”
It’s okay to have no passion. It’s okay to like a lot of stuff a little bit. It’s okay to take time.
3. Our children need to learn self-care, too.
The principle of self-care tends to be something we happen upon in adulthood out of dire necessity. Why not build that concept into our children’s understanding from an early age? Sometimes, that might mean stepping back and letting our kids make their own choices concerning how to spend their time. It might mean taking time for mindfulness. Even young children can learn meditation, for example.
Don’t underestimate the power of good, old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation about this important practice—for kids of all ages.
4. Encourage kids to have life goals, not just career goals.
In the competitive reality of the modern world, many young people’s goals tend to focus on college aspirations and careers they might pursue. Let’s help our children understand that college lasts only about four years, and that a career is just one aspect of a fulfilled adult life. Ask them how they envision a weekend day at different ages. Ask them what will be important to them, and who, rather than what, they want to be.
5. Play the long game.
There’s a great deal of scrutiny placed on our kids these days, and their over-scheduled and often stressful lives often reflect that. Help them appreciate that their life stories will include twists and challenges they won’t be able to foresee. Discuss the fact that there are many routes to success, not just one. Help your kids believe that they don’t need to be in a mad rush. That they can enjoy right now.
That’s good advice for all of us.
Author: Rachel Stewart Johnson
Image: Greg Westfall/Flickr
Editor: Callie Rushton