Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Helping Our Children Understand Success by What We Do and Say

Like many parents and educators, I have read the distressing news articles out of Palo Alto, California, with profound sadness.  It seems that for the second time in six years, there has been a rash of teen suicides as young men and women crumble under the stress they are facing.  In one of the most “successful” places in America, some children are feeling so boxed in that they see no way out. 

We all want our children to be both challenged and supported.  If they are not pushed, they will never find out what they are capable of accomplishing, and might not realize their full potential.  However, if all we do is drive them hard, they may burn out. (Fortunately, at Bosque, I see our students working diligently to produce excellent projects, labs, and papers, but they also appear to be enjoying themselves and seem relatively happy.)

Sometimes, even what we parents consider to be “supportive” comments can be misinterpreted and, in the process, can hurt our children.  I recall many years ago during a meeting with a student and her parents, a young woman said to her very soft-spoken mother, “You always yell at me!”  When the mother asked her daughter when she had ever raised her voice, the young lady said, “Your words are yelling, even if your voice isn’t.” 

The balance between pushing our children but not damaging them came to mind as I read a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times by Matt Richtel, “Push, Don’t Crush, the Students.”  In this essay, Richtel moves from the particular cases in Palo Alto to the greater issues of stress on American high school students as they receive the message from society that they must be perfect in everything, participate in all activities, and attend certain colleges if they are to be successful. 

As Richtel points out, even when we say we want one thing from our children, we may inadvertently be sending another message to them about what is important.  “In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient—a veritable ‘script,’ said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious, and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers, and their children. They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’  Ms. Levine said. ‘The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.’”

Saying or doing things like this does not mean that we’re bad parents or horrible people. We want our children to have opportunities that will open doors for them and give them possibilities. Nevertheless, we, and I include myself in this, may need to consider what messages, both intended and accidental, we send to our children.  As is all too often evident, our children study us as much for what we do as what we say; sometimes with the best of intentions, we may still convey a message that will ramp up the pressure rather than scale it back.

At Bosque, I am repeatedly struck by the sense of balance our students seem to strike and how kind and compassionate our parents are with their children.  Young women and men participate in a variety of activities seemingly for the experience rather than merely accumulating a set of “credits” that they can put on their college applications.  They appear to enjoy what they are doing even when they are sometimes stressed out.  As parents/guardians and as educators, we can continue to help them become successful and healthy people if we remain in communication with one another and guide our children in maintaining a sense of perspective on themselves and their world.