When I was pregnant with my first son, I watched a Youtube video of a three-year-old reciting a Billy Collins poem from memory. I was in awe, and thought to myself, challenge accepted. After my son was born, I would recite Shakespeare to him while I rocked him to sleep. And when he turned three, I sat him down with a textbook, determined to teach him to read two years ahead of schedule. I came right out of the gate ready to win this parenting thing.
But my son had other ideas, and is just as strong-willed as I am. After months of knock-down, drag-out brawls, trying to force him to sound out c-a-t, I had to admit defeat. He wasn’t ready and he wasn’t interested. And he could put up a bigger fight than me.
Thankfully I’ve mellowed out a little since then. Seeing him thrive in his own time, in his own way, has reassured me that he’s got this. And having two more children, who were born with their own personalities, their own strengths, and, of course, their own weaknesses, helped me see that my kids will turn out just fine even if they aren’t toddler YouTube sensations.
We have only just dipped our toes into the education system, with my oldest son in the first grade. Even so, I find myself eagerly opening his report card, holding my breath, hoping to see that he’s at the top of his class (he’s not, just for the record).
I can only imagine the self-control I will have to exert as my children get older, enter high school, and start applying to college. But I certainly hope that I rise to the occasion and keep my cool. Because when I step back for a moment I can see what I really want for all three of my kids: to be kind, to be generous, to be responsible, to be determined, and to be brave. And their report cards aren’t going to illustrate their progress in these areas.
“Imagine your child at 40,” suggests Christina Engelerdt, an English teacher at Northwood High School and 2017 Irvine Unified School District Teacher of the Year. In my own life, she has served the roles of master teacher, department chair, colleague, dear friend, and overall inspiration. “What qualities do you want him or her to possess? Do you want your child to be happy? Resilient? Financially independent?”
“As parents, we need to focus on developing ‘eulogy’ virtues in our children, rather than ‘resume’ virtues,” Engelerdt, who is also a mother to a seven, 10, and 13-year-old. “We should consider: What will people remember about you, about how you lived, about what you stood for? Rather than: What was your GPA? What college did you go to?”
But the reality is that most of us would love the chance to see our children give the valedictorian’s address or settle them into the freshman dorms at Harvard. So what is the harm in pushing them in that direction?
Effects of Academic Pressure
“There is certainly room for healthy competition and good stress, but the narrow definition of success that many parents subscribe to leaves too much room for failure,” says Engelerdt, a team member with Northwood High School’s Challenge Success, a Stanford program designed to provide families and schools with the tools necessary to help children create more balanced and academically fulfilling lives.
“Students don’t feel they are ever good enough. They constantly feel inadequate.”
Moreover, our hyperfocus on grades, test scores, and performance actually harms our children’s learning. Students today experience widespread disengagement, a lack of creativity, and an inability to solve complex problems.
“They are so distracted by the pressure to perform that they aren’t developing their ability to communicate, collaborate, think creatively, and lead others,” according to Engelerdt.
The negative effects from excessive academic pressure extend to our children’s health as well, resulting in sleep deprivation, anxiety, depression, bullying, and drug abuse.
Moreover, academic success is not the only gateway to a finding success in life. A 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report showed that students thrive equally among all types of colleges, with no advantage given to Top 100-ranked schools. The report also showed that the experience students have in college matters far more than the prestige of the institution when it comes to their post-graduate well-being and work lives.
So how do we do right by our kids? How do we keep our eyes on the end-game: the happy, well-rounded, responsible 40-year-old?
The following are five important tips from Engelerdt for raising healthy, balanced students, based on the research coming out of Stanford’s Challenge Success Program:
#1 Emphasize learning, not grades
“We need to emphasize hard work, effort, intellectual curiosity, and resilience,” Engelerdt says, “and de-emphasize performance and results.”
Stanford’s research concludes that pressure to achieve only high grades can make students resort to cheating. In fact, 75 percent of middle school students and 88 percent of high school students admit to cheating in school. But many say they don’t see it as cheating; they see it as a means of survival.
“Teach your children that work should always be done with integrity,” she recommends. “Tell them you expect their best. And if their best is a C, then that needs to be OK.”
#2 Choose your words carefully
We can ease the performance pressure on our children by refraining from asking “how did you do on the test?” the second they return home from school.
“It’s hard to avoid!” says Engelerdt. “I’ve certainly caught myself falling into the trap, asking about a test grade.”
Nevertheless, we can do our best. Here are a few good suggestions for open-ended, non-judgmental questions: “How did the day go? Learn anything interesting? Get to spend time with your friends?”
#3 Honor health and wellbeing
We can monitor our children’s wellbeing by engaging in dialogue during dinnertime, family time, and car rides. Challenge Success recommends that when your child wants to talk with you, you stop what you are doing and give him or her your full attention.
We need to be ready to read between the lines if our child says he or she hates school. Perhaps they are being bullied, or perhaps they don’t fit in, suggests the Back-to-School Tips from Challenge Success.
We can also preserve our children’s health by making sure they sleep enough. Research shows that an extra hour of sleep is more important than an extra hour of studying; in fact, lack of sleep leads to issues with short and long-term memory.
“When your child is sleep-deprived, he or she can’t retain information learned and can’t take in new information,” Engelerdt says.
#4 Challenge Success
“Define success on your own terms with your child,” suggests Engelerdt.
Challenge Success recommends we embrace our children’s unique interests and strengths, and discover what they love to do, rather than worrying about what a college admissions officer would like to see on an application.
We also need to debunk college myths, according to Engelerdt. “There are many paths to success, even after high school. Our role as parents is in helping our children find the right fit, whether that’s starting at a junior college, taking a gap year, travelling abroad, or enrolling in a trade school.”
#5 Unconditional Love
According to Challenge Success’s Parenting Tips, “the basis for healthy emotional development is a sense of being lovable.” We need to make sure our children know we love them for who they are, not only for how well they perform.
Challenge Success also recommends we set limits, which help our children understand that they are secure and cared for.
“Warmth is easier, but discipline is equally important,” Challenge Success notes. Discipline helps children acquire important skills like self-control and frustration tolerance.
My own children are still years away from college applications, although I know we will be there in the blink of an eye. When we reach that stage I will be just as likely as anyone to get caught up in the A grades, the best colleges, and the apparent success that follows.
So perhaps the most valuable takeaway I had from chatting with Engelerdt and reviewing Challenge Success’s research was the recommendation to resist peer pressure from other parents. I’m sure we’ve all experienced our fair share through the years — hey, we’ve all been to high school, right? — so we should be able to spot it from a mile away. And if we can stay focused on what success looks like for our family, for our children, we just might stand a chance.
Visit Stanford’s Challenge Success Program for more information, including resources for parents.