Preparing our kids to thrive in an uncertain world

fisheye photograph of a city

By Dr. Madeline Levine

Parents continue to harbor unreasonably high expectations of their children in multiple realms: academic, athletic, musical, artistic, social. There was a time when parents were more restrained and discreet when trying to prod their kids to greater heights. Now the pressure is often out in the open, not only from parents but also from peers and teachers. This overt pressure makes kids even harder on themselves and less forgiving of failure. The definition of failure itself has expanded from getting a D or an actual F (I haven’t seen one of those in years) to bringing home anything less than an A. No surprise, then, that teenagers have little tolerance for thoughtful in­vestigation as a way to learn. Deep learning and innovation require time and mental wiggle room, and these kids have little.

Much of my work with families is devoted to helping parents and kids dial down the drive to compete and win, instead focusing on activities that build the kinds of competencies kids will need both in school and in life. This means cultivating curiosity, encouraging ex­perimentation, and acclimating children to risk and failure. It means redefining success from purely metrics­-based to a much broader no­tion of what constitutes a successful and well­-lived life.

Sadly, the parents who are receptive to this view may find that their teenagers are resistant to slowing down. They’ve been infected by peer pressure to compete and have internalized what has long been a cultural emphasis on rewarding individual accomplishment and competitive toughness. Increased anxiety about future jobs and resources has caused students—often more so than their parents—to ramp up perfectionism and competition rather than scale it back.

Regardless of how levelheaded parents may be, the culture of many schools (especially those in comfortable communities) is one of intense pressure. Gone is the collaborative spirit that was com­mon when my oldest son was in public school a couple of decades ago, when the more advanced students would assist those who were struggling. A community effort, where kids reached across grades and ability levels to help one another, used to be part of a school’s culture. This has been replaced by cutthroat competitiveness among students: “If you get into Vanderbilt, that’s one less spot for me.”

While high schools say they’re attempting to scale back the ac­ademic pressure, the fact remains that whether they are public or private, they depend on rankings and scores to attract students, and those are based on test results and college admission rates of the graduates. In the US, only Maryland and the District of Columbia require community service as part of the educational curriculum. Help­ing others is low on the list of most students’ priorities, and schools haven’t done much to counter that. As it now stands, despite the progress we’ve made in broadcasting the unhealthy consequences of an overemphasis on achievement and competition, and a neglect of collaboration and community involvement, many students are more driven toward individual achievement than ever. Let me be clear that this is not an argument against motivation or perseverance. But motivation and perseverance need to be in the service of something greater than simply one’s last test score.

When children feel pressured to perform brilliantly in the public realm and are rewarded for doing so, they have a hard time express­ing or even recognizing what interests they actually enjoy, which friends they prefer, what really matters to them, where they stand. They’re stuck in what psychologists call a false self: Ivy League– bound! Possible baseball scholarship! Queen Bee! These kids have been so successfully trained to seek external affirmation that they have difficulty turning inward and being reflective. They are overly dependent on the approval of others, including their peer group, teachers, and coaches.

Not only are today’s teenagers creating a false self, they’re also urged by the culture and their peers to create a social media self that often bears no resemblance to an authentic self. This persona is a stellar student/athlete/artist/musician/budding entrepreneur/social butterfly and also a compulsive chronicler of his or her triumphs. The correlation between social media and adolescent depression and anxiety is well documented:the decrease in life satisfaction, self­-esteem, and happi­ness among teenagers over the past decade correlates with the arrival of iPhones (in 2007), Instagram (2010), and Snapchat (2011), and texting as the most prevalent form of communication (2007). As compared with adolescent boys, adolescent girls use mobile phones with texting applications more frequently and intensively.

The ill effects of social media are not limited to overt events such as online bullying, body shaming, or social exclusion. One col­league told me that his client, a 15­-year-­old boy, had vowed not to get involved with any girls in high school because of what he called “the audience.” Girls would want to post selfies with him, he wor­ried, which would then be rated in likes. The girls would be texting their friends, and the friends would weigh in on the boy’s attractive­ness, coolness, and whether or not he was texting the girl enough or saying the right things. Dating required a twenty­-four-­hour per­formance, no goofy comments or missteps allowed. The public ex­posure completely unnerved this boy and was delaying his social development. I have to admire his courage, though: he managed to figure out his own values despite intense peer pressure.

And what about the girls? They’re subject to exactly the same audience, with even greater scrutiny applied to their appearance. As they become more engaged with their online selves and less involved with real-­life relationships, their development gets impaired too. A preoccupation with one’s social media “self” delays and distorts the development of an authentic self.

Ready or Not

READY OR NOT. Copyright © by Madeline Levine. Reprinted here with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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