As parents, we all want the best for our children. So when we nag them about getting higher grades, and when we lose sleep at night worrying about test scores, extracurricular activities, community service hours, and the whole college admission process, it stems truly from the best of parental intentions.
But as a high school teacher, daily I see the burden of all this parental, societal and high school stress on the faces of my high-achieving students. And as a mother, I fight the urge to gather my students in my arms, dole out warm cookies and cold milk, and put them down for much-needed naps.
High school students are stressed out
High school students these days are often stressed, sometimes to the point of forgetting that being a teenager can be fun. Life for teenagers has become so complicated due to rising college tuition rates, unemployment scares, social media expectations and no lack of urgent activities demanding their attention. How can we help them slow down and enjoy their last few years at home? How can we send them the message that life is meant to be savored and not conquered?
I did not fully understood the extent that stress plays in the lives of teenagers until my own children reached high school. Then, I finally got the opportunity to see the lives of teenagers three-dimensionally. Not only did my own children face high school stress over classes, grades, sports and activities, they had they added stress of maintaining a successful social life, and making it look like, at least on social media, that they had it all together. They seldom made it home in time for dinner because either practices or work got in the way.
Late in the night they would stay up, studying for a test or writing a paper, fully cognizant of the fact that their parents could not pay for 100 percent of their college expenses, and scholarships were necessary.
On the rare nights there was no homework, there’d be boyfriends and girlfriends to text, tweets to write, Instagram photos to edit. Rarely did they get even close to enough sleep.
This year, as my youngest child sits in my senior AP Literature classroom, I know how it will affect her and her friends when I assign an essay or schedule a test. I feel torn between knowing what I need to do as a teacher to prepare these students for college and the end-of–the-year AP exam, and not wanting to see my students’ jaws tense and their eyes grow cloudy when I pile on obligations to their already overflowing plates.
I face the same issue when grading student work. If an essay deserves an 82 percent, I hesitate before marking the paper, fully understanding what that grade will do to the student who puts pressure on herself to never get less than a 92 percent. But analyzing literature is difficult, and an 82 percent is a good grade for students just learning the skill. So as a teacher, what do I do?
I try to convince my students that grades aren’t nearly as important as their mental health or getting enough sleep at night. We discuss how grades will never, ever define them. I let them know that B’s are perfectly acceptable, and achieving balance in life is what really leads to happiness. But I see the skepticism on their faces.
All around them are stories of how difficult it is to get into college, how hard it is to pay for college, and how tough it is to find meaningful, well-paying work after college graduation. And then there are their parents, losing sleep at night adding the cost of tuition and room and board in their heads, inadvertently adding to the pressure. All too often I hear my students say, “But my parents expect me to get A’s.”
Maybe as parents we can step back and model for our teenagers what a balanced life looks like. I have to check myself. If my daughter comes home for dinner, a rare occasion given her schedule, I have to set aside any work I had planned. Instead, I need to spend time listening to her, laughing with her, and demonstrating how successful adults spend their leisure time. This is difficult when I could so fully fill up my days and evenings with work.
But we owe it to our teenagers, don’t we? After all, every parent I know wants her child to be happy. But so many of our teenagers aren’t happy due to the amount of stress and fatigue they feel. Maybe instead of asking about his test grade, we can ask about his favorite band, or what movie he has been really wanting to see. It won’t be easy. We are primed to be achievers and to raise achievers.
We only have these interesting and creative kids in our daily lives for a short while. Let’s give each other permission to enjoy them and our time together. Let’s realize that GPA’s, a resume full of extracurricular activities, and college admission letters are not the only marks of a successful and happy life.