There’s So Much Pressure. Do We Really Have A Choice?

Hi. Welcome to Courageous Parenting. Since you don’t know me yet, and I don’t know you, let’s start with a brief introduction. I’m Madeline Levine, co-founder of Challenge Success and author of the NYT bestseller, The Price of Privilege. I’ve been a clinical psychologist working mostly with teens and parenting issues for the past 30 years (Making me sound rather old. Probably an advantage to you since I’ve either lived through or treated most of the things that you are likely to be worried about.)

I’ve thought long and hard about whether our current high-stakes, high-pressure culture is here to stay. Most of us seem to be participating in this culture, often in multiple ways, and just as often, against our better judgment. We worry about the schools our children attend. Are they rigorous enough? Have we done enough to give our kids a “leg up?” We hover over homework, track test scores, push for competitive sports and keep our children endlessly busy with extracurriculars. While all of these topics will be discussed in great detail over the coming months let’s start with what the research says. I’ll then tell you what my experience has taught me.

Kids do not benefit from excessive stress (period!) That’s not to say that having your kid do his homework, or grounding him for an infraction or insisting on chores is too much to ask of “vulnerable” children. Kids for the most part are robust and resilient. We take that strength away from them when we add stress that is out of synch with the well-documented needs of kids. Homework into the night, depriving kids of the sleep that they need for optimal brain development, is out of synch with healthy development and therefore damaging. So is insisting on near perfect grades, outstanding athletic achievement or building water plants in third world countries to beef up college resumes. Kids thrive at the “just right” challenge. That is when they are challenged just beyond their current level of competence. Not when they’re expected to act like rocket scientists, professional athletes or adults.

Actually, a body of research tells us that our kids are most likely to do well, both academically and emotionally when we are aware of their strengths and weaknesses; help them cultivate those strengths and compensate for those weaknesses. When we see them clearly. When we love them unconditionally and still set limits and impose consequences when called for. When we are alert for signs of excessive stress like headaches and stomachaches. And when we do see signs, are quick to protect our children by looking at both our own contribution as well as their schools’ contribution.

But often the pressure seems to be overwhelming. Getting into the “right” school starts to feel (mistakenly) like a matter of life and death. We become “night teachers” working into exhaustions (for both us and them) so that they turn in perfect work (and lose the opportunities to learn from mistakes.) We neglect to make sure that our kids are getting the mandatory “down time” to think, dream, and reflect on their future selves. Instead we pack their days with a schedule befitting a junior leaguer or a CEO.

This isn’t what kids need. They need what kids have always needed. Love, limits, support, unpressured time, goals to reach for and a sense of having something to contribute.

Challenge Success has many goals. To improve best practices in school, to lessen developmentally inappropriate demands on kids, to insure that they learn to make healthy choices, to support parents. But our guiding principle is that every child is unique and has the potential to contribute to himself, his family and his community. There are many ways to be successful in this world and our sons and daughters need to be fully aware that a good life can come just as easily from being a pianist, a teacher, a nurse or a venture capitalist. It’s what’s inside that counts. Every day, parents come up against choices that are tough to make. Do you encourage your son to turn down the traveling soccer team even when he’s earned a spot? Do you choose the play preschool over the one known for it’s academic rigor? Does your child skip chores because there’s a big test coming up? Most of these questions have relatively simple answers.* Challenge Success is here to help you navigate through some of the thornier calls we need to make. So am I.

Comments, questions, proposed topics and criticism are all equally welcome.

*Depending on your son’s age, his athletic involvement should be up to him. That doesn’t mean that you need to give up family life. If the team demands that you do, I’d think twice.

Play-based preschools have kids, who on average, do better academically down the line than academic preschools.

Much more to be learned from completing a chore and discharging a responsibility than from a few extra minutes of more studying.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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