The Age of Anxiety: Stop Stressing Out Your Kids

By Debby Shulman

When I was a freshman entering high school, our well-known, endearing and ultra-conservative principal gave the same welcome speech year after year. Word for word, he spoke to us about the excitement of high school, exploring new activities with different groups of friends, recognizing we were still so ‘little.’ His well-rehearsed and most repeated phrase?

 “Green things grow.”

And while E. J. Duffy’s words and memory still linger throughout the hallways of my alma mater, I am particularly reminiscent of his child-rearing philosophy these days. Troubled from reading story after story of stressed-out teens, anxiety-ridden college students and young high school freshman worried about their college applications, it’s clear that this type of aggressive, insecure pressure is coming from the top down.

So, people – WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

“Green things grow,” meant we felt free to make mistakes, free to figure it out on our own and free to not even think about college until we registered for our ACT. AP courses? Those weren’t on anyone’s radar until senior year, and many schools didn’t even offer them. Honor courses were designed to challenge, not befuddle and I would venture to guess we liked school more because there wasn’t so much crazy being passed off as curriculum.

Today’s high school freshman (or their parents) want the inside scoop: What do I need to do to get into the school of my choice and how do I get there?

But at 14, the focus should be on having fun, doing your best and embracing this carefree age. Age 14 should NOT be concerned with how to navigate the college application process; 14 should be secretly watching “SpongeBob” and playing video games, 14 should smell like boy sweat and Oreos; 14 should be awkward as hell because that’s what 14 is all about.

“Green things grow” meant you had time to try on some hats before finding the one that really fits.  Not so much today. Not so much anymore.

 We can blame the Internet, we can blame social media and we can blame our educational system but I believe the fault lies with us.

Driven to outrageous levels of competition – both athletic and academic – our generation can’t keep a lid on it. I’m not sure if it’s for boasting rights or to feel falsely empowered by getting your little one on the fast track to college before they walk through the door of high school. It seems a bit much, right?  And even as I talk about it with parents and friends – I try and minimize the freak out.  I try and put this all in perspective. Let’s watch, let’s wait and see. There’s no rush. We seem to be overlooking the necessary exploration that adolescence requires.

Lost in the fray, drinking that cutthroat Kool-Aid and master-minding their four years BEFORE they’ve had a chance to take a breath, all result in kids who quickly become anxious, stressed and angry.

What’s up with that? It’s bad enough we have to endure their unforgiving and uncontrollable hormones … but you want to offer up more baggage?

This latest trend in Competitive Parenting is not going to help our kids in the long run.

Public discussion of proposed freshman courses for our teens brings nothing more than panic and insecurity. As if you didn’t have enough to worry about – now you have to listen to Starbucks Mom talking in her outside voice, about Honors Physics and Advanced Geometry and how Tommy really wants to set his sights on Penn … but Tommy is 14!!

Tommy doesn’t even know what he wants for dinner.

Why the growing concern about college at such a young age? Yes, there are reliable statistics that suggest the application process is more competitive and we know this to be true. We also know that more teens are applying to college today than at any other time in our country’s history. But even armed with that information, we all know that somehow they all go to college, somehow they all find their way and no matter how much WE want them to perform in a certain way, or attend a certain alma mater, ultimately it will be up to them.  “Green things grow.” But they need the space to do it.

I have the luxury of age and experience – not only professionally, but personally, too. I explain to nervous parents that the most important thing you can do for your freshman is to watch and listen. Never bombard an immature student with too many honors courses: That will backfire. Test scores that indicate presumed competence and academic success within a certain subject might just be a great day at the races. What parents need to think about is whether that test score seems commensurate with their child’s emotional development; does it warrant that honors placement?

My MC (Middle Child) did very well on said placement tests, but I knew his immaturity and lazy work ethic would result in devastating consequences. I actually had to beg the department head to put him down into a regular biology course. She told me it would be too easy, that he would “appreciate the challenge of the subject matter” – and while that may have been true, I had a little guy, a young 14-year-old who had no interest in pushing himself. And my intuition proved right – he actually got a C in regular, garden variety, biology.  OH MY GOD … HE GOT A C.  It was one of several.

Sit down, folks. It all worked out in the end. He was green and he grew.

If you have a child who will find success in a survey class or a ‘G’ class or a team class or a Level 2 class … GO FOR IT. Embrace it. Enjoy what you have and stop trying to keep up with Starbucks Mom because she talks too loudly, with an air of presumed knowledge and conceit. (Be mindful that Starbucks Mom does this to make herself feel good amidst the parents she yearns to compete with … poor Tommy is not the REAL subject here).

This is not The Emperor’s New Clothes, there’s no need to keep up with the conversation or prescribe to the hyperbole that is slowly taking over this right of passage.

We need to let our children develop organically; proving to themselves just what they are capable of doing. The rest will all fall into place.

Green things grow – all in good time.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.  Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice. 




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