Tonight we have a graduation party. For our puppy. Except he isn’t exactly graduating because he is 3.5 months old and apparently it is recommended he keep taking this weekly class until he is 6 months old, at which point he then moves up the next level. So far he pretty much obeys Sit, Leave It, Let’s Go (for walking). He has done pretty well, especially since he is by far the youngest in the class. I wanted to start off on the right foot especially because everyone tells me labs are brilliant, and I know from having an older dog and two teenagers, the work you put in on the front end is worth every bit of effort. In our first class, we went round the room and shared our puppy’s name and something interesting and one of the owners shared that her puppy is bilingual. A part of me immediately felt the need to teach our puppy at least another two languages.
Our oldest kid is graduating this month too, but unlike the puppy, she is really done with high school. She got to experience three high schools on two continents, and she is more than happy to move on. We moved to the DC area when our kids were going into 8th and 11th grades and it was in some ways a total culture shock. For one, this area has a great amount of wealth, which in practical ways means many of the kids have Uber accounts and credit cards in middle school (which means, a certain disconnect from parent interaction and oversight). The other thing that really hit me was the amount of emphasis on achievement, or rather, over-achievement, which has created an inordinate amount of stress and anxiety on local youth.
I decided that our first year here, my main priority was going to be to do whatever I needed to do to be the calm, safe presence and protect the calm safety in our home, as my husband transitioned into a new job and my kids figured out how to survive and find their new sweet spot in their new schools. So I didn’t throw myself into things, instead deciding to have a BS year (Be Still). Of course, this was not exactly executed because of my need to be doing interesting things, but for the most part, I took a listening stance. I wanted to see what was going on here, where there is most need, what is the culture like, etc.
Not long after we moved here, I met someone who does college admissions coaching. I had never heard of this, but apparently it’s a Thing here, and other areas. They have different levels of coaching (i.e. price points) but we are basically talking, thousands of dollars to have someone give your kid a checklist with structure and accountability, and help them with their essay (all things their high school counselor and website provides, FYI). I asked this person why she had gotten into this and she said that when her oldest was in middle school, she felt like some of her friends weren’t motivated enough, and that this type of coaching would help the kids make better choices now, if they were already thinking of college and how important it is to be doing well as early as middle school.
As I listened, I thought, OK, part of me thinks that makes sense. Our choices can definitely help us or hinder us further down the line. But part of me thought, that is terrible - to stress our kids out so early about college! Of course, I was also thinking that based on what I know of mental health, when kids are doing stupid stuff, for example drinking in 7th grade, it’s not because they lack vision and focus as much as, there is a good chance they are hurting because of trauma, family conflict, etc., and making poor choices are a way for them to escape discomfort. In my years of coaching, and of working with people with addiction, I have never heard, “I really wish someone had put more pressure on me to achieve and be a better student.” If anything, I have repeatedly heard, “I really wish my parents hadn’t pressured me so much to do well in school/sports/music/my weight… I wish they had asked me what I wanted, and listened to the answer, even if it was, ‘I don’t know, but not this.”
I totally get the urge to give our kids the best we can to set them up for “success” and provide the most opportunities. Remember that moment I described above, where I felt a twinge (shame? Competitiveness? Inadequacy?) because my puppy only understands one language? And that is for a freaking puppy. So I totally get it when it appears, thanks to Fakebook, lawn signs, local newspaper announcements and features, school parent forums - that everyone else’s kid is receiving awards, recognitions, getting recruited, getting “verified” on social media, turning down Ivy League offers. It’s no wonder so many kids are spending their summers in Kumon tutoring, SAT prep courses, un-fun summer camps. It makes sense that so many parents are making their kids get a special plan so they can have special accommodations for test-taking (before you get all worked up, I know, some kids do need these, but definitely not to the extent that we are seeing, especially in affluent areas where parents have figured out how to game the system). That whole college scandal we just witnessed? I just see it as an extreme version of what so many people are willing and wanting to do. It is so easy to judge when we are not in the position or have the temptation to do something. But if we dial it back and bring it back to our own context, may that maybe look a bit more like our reality? For example:
A little while ago, a mom was anguished over her high school aged son, who is in treatment for substance use disorder and depression. Apparently he had just relapsed. She was miffed, saying, “We gave him everything! We could tell when he was really young how much talent he had, so we gave him the best coaching, got him on the best teams, etc. Now we give him this great treatment program and this is what he does?!” I thought, “Did you ever ask him if this was what he wanted?” I imagined what it must be like to be this young man, feeling that he has disappointed his parents who see him as unfulfilled potential, someone who “wasted” all of his opportunity. I thought, how hard for him to carry his parents’ burden this way - no wonder he feels compelled to escape.
I know how hard it is, probably one of the hardest parts of parenting, to know what our kids are capable of, and to watch them flounder, or be distracted, or have priorities that perhaps don’t match our vision for them. We parents are excellent at two things: future-tripping and catastrophizing. So it seems like we are being super helpful when we sign them up for all of the things, make sure they get 10,000 hours in at least one of them, and freak out if they trip up. In complete transparency, I have to check my own mindset and motives every day. Last fall, our 9th grade son was involved in 4 sports at the same time. I know, right now you are thinking, “and you are telling me to CTFD???” (CTFD= Calm The F-k Down). Bear with me. He was finishing up a summer Triathlon program, doing a brief Learn To Row through his high school, on an in-house hockey team, and checking out his high school hockey team. I knew this insanity was temporary and I allowed it as he wanted to do this, and I was curious to see where it would go. When he decided to prune a couple of things, we talked about how sometimes it is wise to know when a season has ended. Our culture loves to vilify quitting (unless it’s smoking or heroin), but I think it’s an important value to teach our kids, especially if we are going to teach them about self-care.
Often, I tell my kids, “if everyone is doing something, it’s probably either stupid or not right for me.” I admit for a minute I considered getting a college admissions coach for my daughter since it seemed like everyone else here was doing it, and I wondered, what am I missing? Fortunately, she told me that was stupid, so I didn’t. (And she got in everywhere she applied). I remember when she was in 6th grade, I was talking with another parent, who was hoping her daughters would go to an Ivy League school (they weren’t even in middle school yet) because of how many opportunities this would bring them. I replied something like, “I really don’t think that where a kid goes to college ultimately determines how happy and well-adjusted they are adults. I think that if someone really wants to do a certain type of work, using their strengths, and they feel it is meaningful work, they will find their way there and be successful - no matter what school they go to.”
Now, six years later, I still believe that. I heard Dr. Lisa D’Amour say, “Today, middle school is high school and high school is college” in terms of the pressure to achieve and perform. That is crazy - no wonder so many kids are losing sleep and freaking out. As parents, I think we can all agree that our primary role is to keep our kids safe and provide them with unconditional love. I think it would be an excellent thing to ponder on a regular basis, whether or not our child feels like we doing this? We lock the doors, push for safe schools, safe water, etc. - but are we doing our best to nurture their tender hearts and souls?
“The idea that ‘I need to be happy’ or ‘my child deserves to be happy’ comes from a sense that the present moment is somehow lacking. In other words, we see our life through a lens of scarcity, noticing all the things we don’t have instead of the abundant way the universe provides for us. And so, as the Declaration of Independence sanctions, we set off in “the pursuit of happiness,” not realizing that this can never bring us happiness. On the contrary, it’s the breeding ground of discontent and disappointment.”
So, how do we parent in a way that we are connected with our child, see them and hear them and accept them as they are, while also guiding them through this achievement-focused environment? I think that like all things I coach with, there is no one size fits all. Some kids are innately achievement-focused and they thrive under huge amounts of stress, happily taking on five AP classes while starting a new club and leading several teams and launching a foundation to end world poverty while running a marathon to raise money for childhood cancer. We need these kinds of kids, just as we need the kids who are not quite as driven, or haven’t yet grown into their drive. I think as parents it is important to try to tune out the insanity around us with other parents (at school forums and in parent Facebook groups), listen to our kids and allow them to show us what they need, and be discerning. Don’t believe a lot of what you hear about what it takes to get into college, what your kid “needs” to do, and what success means and how to get there.
To learn more about how to help your kids by being a more connected, mindful parent, check out our upcoming workshop: Connected Parenting.
Motivational coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.