Academic High School Pressures

A friend recently sent me this article from the Atlantic, written by Derek Thompson, wondering if I had some thoughts about it. If you haven’t seen the article, in brief, he wonders if the discussion about teen well-being has been missing considerations of academic pressures as drivers.

I’m sorry, WHO exactly does he think has been missing this?

I’ve been living in Palo Alto for the past nearly two decades, and in this area, where all students are above average, nobody has been missing this at all. For a few years, we had parent volunteers and professional guards stationed at our train crossings to make sure that more students didn’t throw themselves onto the tracks, primarily at finals time, when the academic stakes felt highest.

There were practically fist-fights at a Board of Education meeting where there was a proposal to try to limit the number of Advanced Placement classes high school students could take, trying to calm the competition between students. With students trying to stand out for a college admissions officer, it was a race nobody could win, as students sought to keep up with their peers in ever-increasing academic loads. Unfortunately to my eyes, the proposal was ultimately voted down, with some parents outraged that their students might be disadvantaged against students in other districts with no such restrictions. 

When I moved to Israel in 2017, I would try to explain to my new friends what we had been escaping, what it was like in Palo Alto. I talked to one of my first-graders’ parents, telling them that back in the United States, we lived in an academic pressure-cooker environment. “More than here?” She looked at me in surprise.

I looked at her with even more surprise. As far as I could tell, my kids spent their days in Israeli schools with only the slightest of academic expectations weighing on their shoulders. Their teachers had opened every parent-teacher conference with questions about how they were enjoying themselves, who their friends were, suggesting possible playdates, and only afterwards giving the slightest sketch of their academic progress.

A friend of mine in Israel had narrated with frustration that her high schooler was failing his math class. When the parents sat down with their student and the teacher to discuss his performance in class, the teacher had started out raving about their son. “He’s so wonderful,” she said. “Always helping other students in the class, and friendly, and so polite!” She went on and on about how much she adored him until the mother finally protested, “well, but he’s failing the class!”

“Oh yes, that’s true, but I just have to tell you how much I adore your son.”

The (formerly American) parents were frustrated. And this is what I got from a lot of other American parents too.

I would explain: “We have a guard at our train tracks, because there is so much academic pressure on kids that they were literally throwing themselves on the track.” (This does not entirely accurately represent what I think the issue was, but it was a good shortcut to draw the contrast for an audience for whom this was shocking).

“To be honest,” one American parent said to me, “we could use a little bit more of that academic pressure around here.” She laughed. I didn’t. Hadn’t I mentioned that we were talking about suicide  in the face of academic pressure? I had literally fled thousands of miles to escape what she was wishing for her children?

While she lamented that the schools didn’t supply enough pressure to motivate her children, I didn’t tell her what an enviable position she was in. Without so much pressure on her children, she could continue to urge them towards her values of academic success. Her children could take lightly their assignments and she could tell them, “put some more effort in!”

I felt I could never do that. At every juncture, I felt I had to affirm: mental health above academic pressure. As a parent, I was in the position of constantly having to assure my children that it didn’t matter so much. Lest they get the message that their scores had anything at all to do with their success in life, I had to constantly be telling them, “it’s okay, it won’t matter what grade you get on an assignment in fourth grade.” Which is to say, the ambient level of upset and stress was already so high that my role as a parent had to be to minimize the importance of every assignment.

I wanted to be the parent who encouraged my student to put in a little more work, because they cared about what they were studying, because it was fun to learn and research a little deeper. Instead, fearful of what my town would eventually bring to my kids, I learned to say: “And what do you think will happen if you don’t do well?” In order to preserve their mental wellness, I had challenge their inconsolable conviction that the world would end with poor performance on a test or assignment.

The summer before high school, my incoming 9th grader was so completely paralyzed by the thought that he was going to fail miserably, and that this failure would spell the end of his prospects for a successful future. 

“Good. Fail,” I said. “That would be great.” 

“WHAT?” He said. “Then I’ll never get into a good college,” he informed me certainly and with great indignance for my stupidity.

“Who told you that?” I ask. “That’s ridiculous. You’re going to fail some time in life, you may as well learn what it’s like now.”

He looked at me dumbfounded.

“In fact,” I say. “I’ll pay you $100 if you fail a class. You’ll get the money, no strings attached.”

I mean this. I mean it desperately. I can see that the dread of failure is much, much worse than any failure would be. I want him to learn 9th grade English, sure. But I more want him to learn: when the world ceases to compliment him, he can still survive. He can look like a failure in someone else’s eyes but still be a good person.

So I have been the parent I never wanted to be.

My parents never bribed me to achieve high grades, and I was always somewhat suspicious of parents who did. It seemed to me like a kind of extrinsic motivation that was superficial and likely to backfire. Now as a parent, I recognize that it was an act of desperation, an attempt to communicate via currency a set of values, to motivate a set of behaviors that regular communication might not be able to get across.

And I have done the same thing. All my assurances that “it won’t matter” ring hollow so I have put my money where my mouth is: financial reward for bad grades. So he can know that I’m serious when I say it. So we can explore together what it feels like to not be a success in someone else’s eyes and to define our own successes. So he will know that the world won’t end with a bad grade, or a bad year. And, most of all, so that he will have the chance to practice the fortitude to stay off the train tracks.

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