A few months into his first semester in college, my son texted me: “Am I allowed to get “B’s” in classes?” My mouth hung open in surprise and emotional alarms rang thunderously in my head.
Although immediately proud that he cared about his grades and wanted to talk to me about them, I was instantly apprehensive. The words I said to him when he left for college haunted me— “You have a scholarship, if you lose it, get a job because I’m not paying for it.” He’s a bit lazy and his high school “A’s” sprinkled with a few “B’s” had come easy to him.
I had only wanted to remind him to take his classes seriously. Staring at his text, I worried —Did I put too much pressure on him?
Race to Nowhere
My spark of fear reminded me of the documentary The Race to Nowhere I saw a screening of when my son was in middle school. The film features heartbreaking stories of students across the country who suffer depression, anxiety, and other illnesses caused by over-scheduling, over-testing, and the pressure to achieve.
The greatest lesson I learned from that film — balance — is what I’ve strived for in preparing my children for the independence they will need when they leave our house for college. For first jobs. For life without their mommy to clean up their messes. Their mental health is the most important goal of that balance, but I know they have to play the game and study for standardized tests, and have extra-curriculars.
I’m scared that the testing and scheduling will squash my child’s inspiration. I did my best to heed the warning of The Race to Nowhere.
Balance of Parenting
I think of myself as an informed, but hands-off parent. I want to give my children the tools to succeed and help when asked, but once they hit high school, I let them be responsible for their own successes and failures.
If they forgot a homework assignment, I did not make the trip to drop it off at school (unless it was on my way to work, I’m not a monster). When they complain about a grade or a teacher, if they ask me to get involved, I do. The first time we met with her guidance counselor and I explained my displeasure at a school policy, my daughter called me “scary” and “mean,” but I’m glad she knows I’m there to fight for her if she needs me to.
But now, I’ve got one kid worried about getting a “B” and I argue with the other about taking too many AP classes. My daughter looks around her school and judges her academic accomplishments against others — she thinks if she only takes honors classes and no AP’s, people will think she’s not smart enough and she won’t get into a good college.
Over the summer, her guidance counselor suggested she take two sciences in the upcoming year because it would “look good.” In order to do that, she would have to drop art. I left the decision to her, and I’m so thankful she chose art. After only a few weeks in school, she came to me and said, “you know, mom, art is meditation.” I cried.
When my son was a junior in high school, his hatred for AP U.S. History, one of his favorite subjects, deeply saddened me. The teacher had to move so fast to impart all the information to the students, to prepare them for the standardized test, that there was no time to discuss, analyze and enjoy delving into the past. Sad.
Our school system gives our children much that they need, but it also gives them too much pressure, not enough creativity, or physical activity.
This year, on top of all the regular pressures that have become the norm over the past ten to fifteen years, many children have the added pressure of adapting to an alternative way of learning — virtual school. And so I worry. Not about their grades, or whether they’ll get into excellent colleges and graduate schools or get good jobs. I worry about their priorities, their health, their happiness.
What can I do?
My mother continues to remind me that the most important thing I can do as a parent is to make sure my children know I love them. So, my careful text back to my son was this — Do your best. That’s all I care about. Love you. His response was a “thumbs up” and a then —love you too. I cried. And then I remembered five ideas I vow to remind my kids as long as they’ll listen:
I want my teens to know these 5 things
- I love you. No matter what.
- Participate. Participate in class, in life, in relationships. Positive things won’t happen without you showing up and giving all of yourself to whatever you want to succeed at.
- Relax and play. You don’t need your entire life planned out right now.
- Never compare yourself to others. The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday.
- Go where your passion leads you.
Every day I hope they hear me.