Okay, hopefully I’ve got you thinking that the risks far outweigh any benefits of insisting that kids always do everything possible to maximize their chances of getting into the most selective college possible. Having 80% of our most capable kids feeling chronic stress, with around 50% feeling that stress at a very high level and around 25% being diagnosable as clinically depressed isn’t acceptable, right?
Because those high school students grow up to be college students and ultimately adults, and if that stress and their responses to it have become habitual—which is often the case—then we’ve got a society being led by people with mental health issues, physical health struggles and substance dependencies. That’s not good.
So what’s the alternative? We still need to have goals and rules to guide us as we help them work their ways toward adulthood.
Here’s my not-at-all-exhaustive list of goals that almost every student is capable of achieving and that will leave them well prepared for college and life beyond college. These are the things to focus your energy on, not figuring out which angles to pursue to optimize admission to a specific school. The best thing about this list? It’s filled with things you already know and have probably been helping your kids with for years.
Pursuit of passions. If there’s one thing to encourage above all others, it’s this. Those who have a passion, especially for anything intellectual, will find a way to turn it into a livelihood and will be happy doing it. And the accomplishments will come naturally, because pursuit of something for which one has a genuine passion comes effortlessly.
Strong work ethic. A job well done is its own reward and also pays off nicely in the classroom, in college admission, and in the workplace. It needs to be tempered, though, with…..
Self-awareness/balance. This is so hard to learn and be honest about for many of us, because there’s always more that can be done and because others’ limits may be different from our own. We need to know when to stop working, though, because we need to sleep or eat or relax or go out and have some fun. Trying to push beyond our limits quickly becomes counterproductive.
Honesty/Integrity. These traits are critical to good relationships, whether at school, the workplace, home, with friends—really any interactions we have with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Included under this umbrella is the ability to admit to and learn from mistakes. It can be easy to believe that it’s better to deceive or to compromise one’s principles when one feels threatened or for the sake of expediency or some perceived gain, and kids sometimes need our help understanding why the Golden Rule is such a great core for any personal philosophy.
Perseverance. The ability and willingness to stick with something difficult is another trait that has strong dividends in whatever we pursue.
Work independently/self-start. Kids are so used to having others tell them what needs to be done that it’s sometimes difficult for them to develop that inner drive that’s necessary for success in any field. We need to help them to achieve this independence.
Work well with others. Somewhat important in school, but critical to professional success. Many students will need help navigating difficult interactions with peers who don’t approach work the same way they do.
Prioritization skills. There’s definitely a talent to knowing what to get done first and what can be done later. Avoiding procrastination is a large part of prioritizing. This doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
Self-acceptance. This is the hardest thing to attain for many teenagers. They and their peers can be so hypercritical of themselves, and they need our help to see how awesome they really are, and how unimportant many of their perceived flaws are.
Flexibility. Circumstances change constantly, and learning to be okay with that and to respond to it appropriately and effectively will help at school and at work. And everywhere else.
Ability to assess risks and understand consequences. Whether it’s choosing topics for an essay, Halloween costumes, what to say to others, whether and how much to partake of illegal substances, or any of myriad other situations in which there are some options that may lead to undesirable outcomes, there’s a skill to understanding when one is taking a risk and what might happen as a result of going down certain roads. We can be a big help to kids in developing this ability.
Alright, I could continue, but you get the idea. These are all goals that most have already been working on that are attainable by pretty much everyone. And anyone who’s able to master all of these skills will almost certainly be headed for a life filled with success and happiness.
Not only that, but high school students who have focused on developing themselves in these areas will also likely have the same college options open to them as they would have if they had stressed themselves out the whole time worrying about whether they were doing enough to get into the ‘right college’. Some will even have a wider array of choices, because freedom from symptoms associated with chronic stress will allow them to more fully reach their potential.
In addition to focusing on building these skills, here are a few other things parents can do to help reduce stress in their relationships with their teenagers, if you’re not doing them already.
First, don’t compare them to anyone. Not classmates. Not siblings. Not yourself. Every student has their own limits with regard to how much they’re capable of handling, both in the classroom and in the activities they pursue outside the classroom. And every student has their own interests and strengths when it comes to learning. Comparing them to someone else who may have very different limits and interests will often lead to significant stress and keep them from reaching their potential because they’re worried about not meeting expectations that are unrealistic. Listen and observe, then help them to reach their own potential, whatever that may be.
Second, try explaining your reasoning when you share your opinions about how they should be acting. As you’ve probably figured out by now, the days of saying things need to be a certain way and having your kids accept that without question are over. Admit it—you were the same when you were a teenager. And despite it being undoubtedly annoying on a fairly regular basis, this is actually a good thing, because they’re not going to have you around in a few years, and they need to be able to make good decisions on their own.
Explaining your thought processes shows them rational decision-making skills, and also makes it more likely they’ll actually listen to what you encourage—and, in hopefully increasingly rare cases, compel—them to do. Even if they disagree, it will serve them well to see how someone with greater experience thinks things through as they go off to places where the primary influences on their thinking will be their peers instead of you.
Related to this is my final suggestion, which is to put them in charge of their own decision-making as much as possible. The amount of responsibility you can give to teenagers obviously varies quite a bit from one kid to the next, so you need to decide when your kids are ready to take it to the next level. Those with emotional or substance abuse struggles or who have attention issues will probably continue to need more guidance than others, but it’s important not to forget that they, too, will one day not be living under the same roof as you (yes, I’m an optimist).
Putting kids in charge of making decisions reduces the natural tension that exists between teenagers and their parents, helps them to develop responsibility and confidence, and gives them the opportunity to make mistakes in an environment that includes lots of support in helping them respond to these missteps.
A great place to start this decision abdication is with homework. Constantly checking the school website to see whether assignments have been turned in and/or asking kids whether they have their homework done before giving permission for them to do other things may be useful for those in elementary school, but for most high school kids all it does is create a lot of unnecessary stress for both them and you.
If you’re not already doing this, consider never asking them about homework. Trust that they’ve internalized the work ethic you want them to have, and see how they do with it. If they struggle, talk about this with them. If they continue to struggle, maybe it continues to need to be monitored. But if it turns out that they do just as well without the reminders, they’ll be appreciative—although don’t count on them to acknowledge this—and you’ll have one less thing to worry about.
Okay, I’ve given you much to consider. You, as of course you should, want the best for your children, and each of you is uniquely qualified to decide how to proceed with your own kids.
I’m hoping you’ll come to the conclusion that what’s best for them—and for society as a whole—is to guide them toward goals like those mentioned above that everyone can achieve, and then look to see what colleges are a good fit for them. If they’ve internalized the goals laid out above, they will end up with many strong options for places where they can continue to grow, thrive and prepare themselves well for what lies ahead.
Wherever the future may take you and your kids, I wish you all a life of peace, happiness, growth and prosperity.