These days are often anxious times for high school seniors and their parents. Many seniors are hearing whether they've been accepted at the college of their choice -- or rejected. Our troubled economy only adds to their stress. And during these weeks parents will often seek to reassure kids by dispensing the usual bromides: "You can be happy at many different colleges," we'll say.
Or: "It doesn't matter which college you go to as long as it's right for you."
But kids often see through these platitudes. For many years, teens have lived with the gap between what adults profess and what they convey day to day about the importance of high status achievement.
Over the last several years I've heard from high school and college students about this gap. They say that parents are "really anxious" about their attending prestigious schools and accidentally let their "emotions show" or describe parents who make too big a show about not caring about grades. When parents tell teenagers to achieve at a high level so they "can have options," teenagers often sniff out that their parents are talking only about certain high-status options. "What if I want to be a beautician?" a sixteen year old asked her "option"-touting mother.
I decided a few years ago to make sure my 17-year-old son knew my true feelings. I told him that what I wanted was for him to go to a college that really worked for him and that a high-powered school didn't matter. He was nice about it, but I won't soon forget what he said. "Dad, you teach at Harvard. All my older cousins have gone to high status schools. We live in a community where going to these colleges is important. You got me an SAT tutor. The only reason you can tell yourself that you're not putting pressure on me to achieve is that there's already huge pressure on me to achieve."
It took me about five seconds to realize that he was right.
As parents, we need to be far more alert to the hidden messages our children are receiving from us and from their communities about high-powered achievement. Our children will notice--and we should notice-- when we find ourselves repeatedly mentioning with our friends the prestigious colleges our kids are applying to while we fail to mention the less prestigious colleges our kids are most interested in. Our children will notice when we find ourselves checking in on their competition, asking what colleges accepted or rejected their peers. It should be a red flag when dinner conversations are consumed by achievement talk or when we find ourselves popping vocabulary cards at the dinner table.
Yet perhaps more important, these college decisions create a rare, terrific privilege, a chance to listen to and know our kids, to understand who they are and what they want, and to talk about what matters in a life. How much should we value the things that high status achievement can bring, including power, wealth, recognition? How have these things mattered in our own lives? What are the downsides of making power, status or wealth priorities? We should follow our children in these conversations but we can also guide and lead. We can convey the simple truth that their well being is far more likely to be determined by how hard they work at things that are meaningful to them than by what college they attend.
But our kids aren't likely to hear this message or open up to us if we don't sort out our own conflicting feelings about achievement. That means, in part, disentangling our many good reasons for wanting our children to achieve at a high level--attending selective colleges does, for instance, make certain options more possible-- from our irrational motives. Too many of us are caught up in petty status concerns and competitive feelings with other parents. As the writer Alissa Quart notes, some parents are in terror of their children being ordinary. Many of us have an unconscious script in our heads, written in our own childhoods, that high profile achievement is the only way to secure recognition or love, a kind of tragic condition that can be passed from generation to generation in ways and with consequences that are worthy of the Greeks.
My guess is that sooner or later more and more young people, like my son, are likely to rebel against this achievement pressure and call us on our hypocrisy. We can wait for them to rebel, or we can do something challenging and lasting. We can sort through our own feelings about status and achievement-- and think hard about what makes our children tick-- and be useful to them during this nerve-wracking, reflective, powerful time in their lives.