High-Achiever ‘school culture’ isn’t the only problem

In the past few months, four teenagers in Newton, Massachusetts, have committed suicide.  WBUR has a discussion about whether the school’s culture contributes to the stress that leads kids to think that they are failures and asked readers for their opinions: Readers, do you agree that the Newton school culture may be toxic, and more must be done to address that? If so, what?

This blog post is adapted from my comments.

*Get rid of the laundry list of extracurricular activities. If a college doesn’t want to take you because you are only a varsity athlete, then don’t go there. Pick one activity per season/semester and excel at it.

*Point out to students that 90% of kids aren’t going to be in the top 10%, but that most all of them will lead very happy lives. Then act like you believe it by helping your kid to find colleges that are interesting, challenging, and don’t require you to be a superstar.

*Don’t even joke about things like “Where did that A- come from? Why not an A?” It can sound like a joke, but it also sounds like passive-aggressive kvetching about human flaws in your kid.

*Tell your kids that the academic road is long, and it’s far more important to do well in college than to be an outstanding high school student.

*Consider gap years.  I loved my gap year in law school and was pleasantly surprised to learn that my professors thought highly of me for taking it. (“I wish I had had the balls to do that,” was the general consensus around the faculty lounge.)

*Have your kid spend time with people who aren’t in the pressure cooker.  The problem with high school and college is that everyone who isn’t a teacher is your age, under the same stresses you are, trying to do the same things you’re doing, and at the same level of maturity (or lack thereof).  Spending time with adults who aren’t parents and teachers – happy, well-adjusted adults who had their scrapes in their youth – provides invaluable perspective.

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