In the “Education Life” section of
The New York Times (8/2/15), author Julie Scelfo described the progress of freshman college students—the super-ambitious, high-achieving, high school students—who spiral into deep depression and sometimes even commit suicide. Who did the author blame for the increase in suicide rates among 15 – 24 year olds? The main culprits are (you guessed it!) parents—particularly “helicopter parents” (those who hover) and the more extreme “lawn mower parents” (those who presumably “mow over” their kids while micro-managing them even at college).
Do you remember when mothers were blamed for schizophrenia? Supposedly mothers were driving their children into madness and hallucinations with verbal double binds, according to R. D. Lang. (Later research proved schizophrenia was biological and genetic, and Lang’s treatment methods were exposed as dubious at best.) Remember when mothers were blamed for autism? Supposedly “refrigerator moms” withheld touch and created emotionally disconnected kids? (Autism has zero relationship with early parental touch, BTW.) Yeah, and not too long ago the psychology community even blamed mothers for creating gay sons. Remember that in the 1960’s? Or maybe you don’t want to?
As a parent, are you tired of being blamed for doing your best for the people you love most in a difficult world?
Does it ever occur to whoever is writing these articles and cooking up recipes for parent bashing that there might be more going on than individual parents making mistakes? There are powerful forces in our culture and our environment that encourage precisely those parenting styles which create stress and depression in today’s young adults. American parents are not raising their children in the Garden of Eden or some other Utopia. Like our troubled and overwhelmed teenagers, we’re struggling with chaos, economic scarcity and urban crime, along with aging and caring for elderly parents. At the same time we want to set our kids on the path toward a better life than we had. Isn’t that every generation’s dream?
Dreaming used to be part of being American. Daring to dream was declared a birthright. But somewhere along the way the American dream turned into an advertisement and then a reproach for failing to live up to glossy magazine covers, media expert advice and perfect TV relationships. Instead of historical figures, movie stars become role models; movies glorified clever cheats (Catch Me if You Can) instead of hard work and kindness (It’s a Wonderful Life.) To be fair, Julie Scelfo also blamed social media for promoting the outward illusion that students are happier, more popular and confident achievers than they are on the inside. But haven’t TV shows and magazine covers been doing this for decades? Did anyone ever meet the family in “Leave it to Beaver” or “The Brady Bunch?” Where are these perfect American families? Only on TV.
According to the Times article, some Ivy League schools have nicknames for faking it when students are feeling hopelessly depressed and unable to live up to an unattainable (but nevertheless stereotypical!) picture of happiness and success. At the University of Pennsylvania, appearing confident and happy even when miserable or anxious is called Penn Face. Being “effortlessly perfect” at Duke is called Duck Syndrome. Here the duck floats calmly across the pond, while its webbed feet paddle furiously below the surface.
While it’s both alarming and tragic to learn that six Penn students committed suicide in 13 months and Cornell faced six suicides in the 2009-2010, can we really assign ALL the blame to parents and social media? That seems an easy way to avoid looking at the bigger, more complicated picture. Why initiate sweeping cultural change when we can keep up the status quo instead, blaming parents (the old standby) and social media, the new whipping boy of the conservatives? Cut-throat competition among high school students to get into elite colleges may be worsening, but academic pressure from parents is NOT a new phenomenon.
As a proud baby boomer (who graduated from Vassar in 1978), I remember feeling incredibly pressured by my father and mother to get into a top school, as did many of my classmates. Did I have “helicopter parents?” Definitely not. With little parental academic supervision throughout my school years, I was simply expected to do my absolute best and land at a top college. Reasoning that tuition costs were pretty much the same for an elite school as a lesser institution, my parents wanted the “best value” for their dollars. “Why go to the Holiday Inn when you can be at the Plaza for the same price?” they repeated throughout my high school years. Not surprisingly, I remember feeling depressed, anxious and worried about disappointing my family during high school and college. How many of you can relate to that?
Maybe admission to the Ivy League is more competitive now than ever before. But I heard that same story when I was applying to colleges in the 1970’s. At the time, my college guidance counselor (also the school principal) at Trinity here in New York told me I was an “over-achiever.” He actually said he didn’t believe I could or should
apply to top colleges. But I did anyway. After I was accepted to Vassar, the principal skipped congratulating me in favor or remarking dryly: “Let’s see if you can stay in.” Four years later, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa
with a double major in English and psychology. Over 30 years passed before my son Max applied to top colleges, and his guidance counselor was almost as discouraging as mine had been. In fact, nearly all my son’s friends were told to scale down their expectations, yet many parents—including Henry and I—persisted in the pursuit of top colleges. The good news is that my son and most of his friends got into their top choices, graduated, and are making their way in the world.
But, in a cultural climate where popular and talented students at the University of Pennsylvania can commit suicide (as Madison Holleran did last year and as Kathryn DeWitt almost did) the mental health of young adults SHOULD be a priority, in the media and at the universities where these tragedies occur. I’m glad Julie Scelfo wrote her story “Fear of Failing” for The New York Times.
However, I believe that blaming parents (the easy scapegoats) fails to explore the heart of the problem. Until our society changes the way it evaluates human beings—from nursery school to adulthood—young people will literally continue dying for success (or the perceived lack of it).
The world has been, and always will be, a very competitive place. (Remember Darwin?) Parents need to help their kids explore, identify and pursue their talents and strengths from an early age, while accepting that MOST offspring are not Ivy League material. Schools must also learn to value and nurture their B and C students, so the message is consistent. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses; academics are not everything. (Didn’t Einstein fail math?) And ALL kids should be encouraged to do their best, learning from disappointments and failures as well as successes. What about teaching respect and compassion for diversity of skills and intelligence (as well as skin color and gender) from an early age? Isn’t it time we started raising kids to become more resilient and confident adults, who can ultimately face the challenges of the 21st century without self-critical perfectionism and crippling performance anxiety?
The big question now is: how do we redefine the meaning of success? Can our understanding of a successful life become broader and more inclusive? Will society make room for young adults, like my daughter Sarah, on the autistic spectrum in myriad professions, not just buried in mail rooms or hidden behind computers at software companies? When will law firms and large corporations begin to consider non-Ivy graduates who’ve demonstrated ingenuity and achievements outside the classroom? Honestly, are we EVER going to allow the “have-nots” to have a little bit more by raising the minimum wage? Until we can start answering these questions (and many others) affirmatively, high school students will continue to be stressed out, sleep deprived and depressed as they continue to apply to Ivy League schools in droves. Like salmon swimming upstream, how many of our American children will not survive pushing against the current?