This is the first post in a series in follow-up to Parents: Let Harvard Go.
For quite some time now, I’ve pondered this follow-up piece to “Parents: Let Harvard Go.” As college admissions decisions roll in, now seems to be both the perfect time and a most imperfect time to offer a follow-up piece. For high school seniors who’ve applied to selective colleges and universities, what’s done is done. Application decisions will be admit, deny, or wait-list. Hopefully, kids will have some decisions to make from those results. And in the meanwhile, the cycle is starting again. A lot of high school juniors will spend their spring and summer breaks touring colleges and perhaps even interviewing. They may know their “lists” already and likely have given some thought to courses for their senior year. They, as much as the seniors, are waiting to hear this year’s admissions decisions, for this informs them of their peer context. They will take it all in, and they will respond. This series of blog posts is about supporting our kids as they prepare to embark on this next chapter in their young lives.
Though in some senses this blog is for a general audience, I direct it toward parents because that’s what I know best. Combining my significant experience as a higher and post-secondary education expert with my own parenting and leadership with youth in our community, I seek to offer some ideas that will further our conversations in home, at school, and in our communities. I don’t pretend to know everything. These are all my own opinions, cultivated from a combination of skills and experience – but most of all, I write from my heart. I care very deeply about how kids live in our community and in our world, especially teenagers – those kids from whom we seem to expect the worst while simultaneously expecting them to become the best adults once the last school bell rings. Teenagers just plain fascinate me, and I seek out opportunities to interact with them. In a perfect world, they would feel as though the world is their oyster. My own teen daughter announced last week, “I feel like I could do so many amazing things!” I hold that close to my heart and pray that she never ever loses that feeling.
Yet … I know she doesn’t always feel that way. She’s wrapping up her freshman year of high school, and there are times when her cheery nature is buried under a to-do list that I’m not sure she should even have. She sat down to plan her four years with her advisor recently, an exercise that, while necessary, troubled me a bit; there seems to be so little room for changing her mind or for pursuing passions organically. While kids need to meet requirements for graduation, they also now have to meet perceived expectations of a university system that has become so esoteric that a translator, in the form of a college counselor, is required for access. To me, this is like the work of a good poker coach: they can help you to increase your odds of a win, but they can’t predict the cards you’ll be dealt no matter how hard they try. Parents pay thousands of dollars for answers that no one can give. I mean, read this piece by an anonymous “tutor” in the New York Post for an example. In fairness, a good college counselor can help with a lot of things. But a parent cannot buy, or plan, or arrange a kid’s college admissions. It’s like I said in my last blog post on this subject: that’s all up to our kids.
So, let’s talk about this idea of our kids authoring their own life story. Let’s talk about how to grow kids who will transform from troublesome teens into responsible adults. Let’s talk about how to grow kids who actually enjoy high school. Who feel like they have options. Whose achievement of their dreams isn’t tied to a brand or a measurable outcome like a bank account but, rather, is tied everyday – including right here, right now, on this day – to how they feel about themselves and their place in this world that they are making.
I know – it’s a crazy idea, right? to expect teens to feel – gulp – good? But they’re so emo! and hormonal! and incomprehensible! I mean, being disaffected is what being a teen is!Well, for goodness sake, one would think many parents and community members were never kids at all. Teens are a whole lot of things, that’s true – they can be emotional, and difficult, and obstinate … just like their parents. And also just like their parents, they kinda just want to be happy. They actually don’t get off on their upset and stress. They crave the same things we all crave: stability. wellness. friendship. Starbucks. Let’s start by treating them like the people they are rather than like aberrations, and let’s focus on how they grow.
It’s intentional that I use term “growing” kids rather than “raising” them in part because it just feels like “growing” is a little more out of our control. After all, our kids grow in height with no intervention from us; so, too, do they grow inside with minimal intervention. We can “raise” all we want, but, at the end of the day, their growth is their own. When I was born, I came home to a large farm in rural West Virginia and spent my most formative years barefoot in that dirt, surrounded by cousins and family and a whole lot of growing things that needed the same stuff I did in order to thrive: Sunlight. Water. Good nutrition. Rest. Fruit trees are no different from vegetables or cattle -- and no different from children, really, not when it comes to the bare necessities. So let’s double-click on one of those things that all living things need, and one that is most amorphous in teenage years: rest.
How much sleep does your teen get? The Mayo Clinic suggests they need nine solid hours. Is your teen in bed by 9 pm to wake at 6 am? in bed by 10 pm to wake up at 7 am? No? Whose is?! Well .. this is a problem. Adam Strassberg, MD, a psychiatrist, recently wrote a guest piece for Palo Alto Online addressing, head-on, the question: “What can we do right now to decrease the risk of suicide in our children?” His #1 answer? Make your teen sleep.
The sad fact is that we have had far too many teen suicides in my community. And after each of these tragic, horrific, desperate acts, our community comes together in some form. We grieve. And we can’t pretend to know what happened, what factors contributed, why, why, why. So, we talk. We host forums. We propose later start-times, and block-schedules, and talk of homework reduction. We look to a whole lot of places to make change. But I don’t hear a lot of talk about tending our gardens at home – about growing our kids and our role in that as parents. I can write about “letting Harvard go” all I want to, but our kids have to be alive and well to have a shot at Harvard. Some irreplaceable children have been lost. Too many others remain unwell. The time for systemic change everywhere, perhaps especially in our homes (because that’s what we parents can, to some extent, control), is right now. We need to make our kids sleep. Beyond that, we need to help them get real rest.
What does that mean? Well, to continue the farm metaphor, sometimes fields have to go fallow in order to produce a good crop the next year. Our kids, they have no downtime – not even in summer. We have packed summer with internships, service missions, enrichment classes. In my community, I know very few kids who do paid work in the summer, but sometimes, that’s a factor, too. You know what I don’t see? Kids doing what I did during the summer: resting. Reading books. Swimming with my siblings and friends. Riding my bike to the library to get more books. Watching VHS tapes with friends during massive sleepovers. Maybe babysitting a little to earn money for more movie rentals or candy. And we were always available for these sleepovers because no one did anything. Summer meant doing nothing. But summer also meant everything to us. We all did the competitive library summer reading program because for every 5 or 10 books we read, we got a free ice cream cone at Dairy Queen. We didn’t let our brains rot. But we sure as hell weren’t inside all day every day in a lab working a 40-hour week so that we could convince a school that we’ll make great doctors. We weren’t doing math worksheets every day to keep our edge. There was a general assumption that summer was for downtime, for play. That was the stuff of our childhood, one that was not governed by what we may or may not do at age 18. In fact, we never talked about college much at all. We just … played.
So here’s the thing: at this point, a lot of parents are nodding along, maybe even fondly remembering their own childhood summers. But at some point, they’re going to shake their heads sadly, thinking “my own kids don’t have that luxury. They have to stay competitive.”
You know, when crops compete, they fail. Something chokes something out. There isn’t space for everything. Tell me: is that how we want our kid to grow? or would it feel better to make space in our gardens such that all of our living things can flourish? so that there isn’t pressure to be closest to the sun? so that the competition wanes as we encourage our kids to spend time on things they actually care about in the summer rather than on some mythical checklist for college admissions? Kids enjoy so many different things. If we give them time to choose and the space in which to do so by unscheduling them, what might happen? Why not ask your kid?
Perhaps I haven’t convinced you, and it’s true: the days of kids doing nothing are, indeed, probably gone. But we parents can force balance, and we can give our kids a vote. If we feel strongly that our kids need to “do something,” let’s counter that by giving them at least half of a summer, or half of a break, or half of a weekend. When they have no downtime – when they have no rest – they are destined to fail. And the chance of catastrophic failure from lack of rest and the potential for related depression is too damned high. I can’t promise that our kids are going to fare better or worse in college admissions if they work all summer or half or not at all because it’s one piece of a bigger puzzle. But I can share that the college applicants for whom I felt the saddest – the kids for whom making a decision greatly challenged me – were the kids who were never kids at all, who spent full summers interning even before reaching high school. Some of them enjoyed it, but, for most, the lack of passion – the idea of “I had to do this to get into your school” – shone through more than you might think. As a lowest-bar standard, there should be no kid whose vacation is less than what we can take from our own jobs. Kids need breaks in order to avoid breakdowns.
On that note, let’s circle back to sleep. Your kid has too much homework to go to sleep by 9 or 10 after sports practice and dinner. Let’s assume, say, an 8 am – 3 pm school day and sports or drama practice from 3:30 – 5:30, home by 6, dinner, homework started by 7. Yep – 2-3 hours doesn’t seem like enough time, does it? So what’s your strategy going to be? Shut off the internet router at 10 pm? (I’ve done it!) Just put up with it? This is where the conversation needs to head. Schools have implemented hosts of solutions. Later starts. Reduced homework. (Howard Gardner thinks it’s a good idea.) Packets given out before a weekend. (This, I think, is bullshit – kids shouldn’t have weekend homework, period, because they. need. to. rest.) And yes, I hear the hoardes of parents who wrote in last time and said “my kid doesn’t want to go to bed; she wants to finish her work, else there will be consequences. She feels her own pressure to keep up with her peers.” Well, this is where you parent, by doing a few important things: sending a message to your kid that her health matters more than her grade, teaching her how to stand up for what she needs, and partnering with the school to find a better way. Note: this does not mean battling teachers, but it does mean talking with them – even in high school. I haven’t found a teacher yet who would not welcome a conversation over a parent’s concern that a kid is sacrificing sleep for their homework.
And frankly, this is where you have to rewind the clock a little, too: if your kid feels like staying up all night to achieve an outcome (usually finished, A-grade work) because she thinks doing so assures her success, defined as admission to a great college – well, who set her up with that idea? what gets lost in that mess, especially given admissions statistics these days? She will compete with her peers no matter what you do, but if the tone in your home is one of “do your best” – not “be the best,” not “we only accept straight-As,” not “why’d you get that C” – then yours is the voice she will hear. Her friends will change many times in high school; you are her only parents. She knows you love her and are there to stay. She will hear your voice the loudest if it is one of unconditional support for her to become a healthy human being and if she knows that is tied to absolutely no expectations of academic performance at all.
Let me emphasize that last point the most: If you haven’t had that conversation with your kid, you really need to have it. I heard from an unbelievable number of our own local teenagers that the gift my “Parents: Let Harvard Go” post gave to their families was a vehicle for that very conversation. Dozens of children said to me “I’d never heard from my parents that I don’t need to be perfect” and “they said they just want me to be happy, and I’d never heard that before.” We can blame our schools and homework and peer pressure all we want to for the state of teen mental health, parents, but we need to look in the mirror, too. If we’re not telling our kids that we love them as they are, that we want the best for them but that “the best” isn’t defined by an outcome on a test, well, we’ve failed. We can do better. We must do better. This doesn’t mean that we give them a free-pass to blow off all of their schoolwork, but this does meant that we need to think about our approach to those moments when they will falter. That response can’t be “you screwed up.” It can be “let’s look at this together and see if we can make some corrections and learn from them.” It means that we need to be gentle with each other. Isn’t gentleness pretty much always the best path in life, anyway?
So if do all of this, if we reexamine our priorities and want our kids to grow healthfully, and we prioritize rest (some downtime, not expecting kids to work year-round) and sleep (not expecting kids to sacrifice it for grades or for anything else), and we tell our kids that they’re good enough … well, then, how do we get our kids into college?
That was a trick question. We still don’t get our kids into college, parents. They have to do that themselves. And some ideas for that will be forthcoming in the next post.