September 22, 2004

Helping Teenagers Develop Into Happy Adults

By Wendy Mogel

Somewhere in America last June, two 12th-grade boys hosted a post-prom “after party” in a rented nightclub. The boys charged $40 admission and hired a DJ, strippers, and bouncers; most students had fake IDs that easily fooled the bartender. When girls got too drunk to stand, bouncers dragged them to a makeshift infirmary. The rumor was that many students got stoned, and there was sex in the limousines on the way home. The hosts netted about $15,000, and the students who attended the party apparently reported that they had a good time.

Somewhere else in America, there was an eighth-grade party. Mom or Dad took pictures and sent the film off to the lab. One of the shots came back with a surprise: in the background, two partygoers could be seen having oral sex near the shrubbery. What upset the parents most was that the students weren’t even trying to hide. At the same school, just weeks later, a few upper-school students made a pornographic video starring themselves. It was an accident, they claimed — two kids just fooling around, and someone had a camera. Accident or not, they showed the tape in the locker room. What followed was, of course, a big scandal.

Incidents such as these leave most adults blinking in disbelief. What degree of bad parenting could have resulted in such Caligula-style excess?

When word got out about the after party, school officials offered to meet with parents to discuss the general community discontent about the event. The discussion instantly turned prickly, as parents and administrators argued about who should take responsibility for the bacchanal. Some parents blamed the parents of the boys who hosted the party. Other parents blamed the administration and argued that the school should discontinue proms, then there would be no after parties, limousines, or fake IDs. Others blamed the parents who allowed their children to go. The school psychologist blamed the media. When Madonna and Britney Spears kiss at the MTV Music Awards, he said, how can we expect our students to behave with decorum and modesty?

I was struck by how quickly everyone found a reason, a scapegoat, a solution. I also wondered what these parents expect their progeny to do at a party. Listen to a chamber group accompany the gymnastics team going through its routines? Talk about the best hope for a Democratic ticket? I do not condone the party, but I think it’s important to put it in perspective of the lives these students lead. These students attend an academically competitive school where a great deal is expected of them. Like their counterparts in other competitive schools, they may work harder at their studies than any teenagers in history. Most days, they are unusually and perhaps unnaturally serious, organized, and mature. And they have very little downtime during the week or even on weekends. Given this, it should not seem surprising that they would seek relief in extreme forms of recreation. Their lives are intense and on edge. They work hard and, at this party, they played very, very hard. Too hard for real fun. Too hard for safety.

To a certain extent, all the forces named by the parents are culpable: the culture, school, Madonna and Britney, weak-willed parents. But pointing fingers or throwing up our hands in despair is the easy way out. More difficult is understanding why so few parents or school administrators are willing to recognize extremes and say no to them — be they extreme parties, study habits, academic pressure, or expectations of our children. I have a few ideas about this, and a few suggestions about how parents and schools can begin to turn things around.

What Parents Can Do

Many parents are reluctant to discipline their high-achieving children. They are willing to ignore lack of modesty, lack of dignity, and the presence of danger lest they destroy the equilibrium that is resulting in those high grades. But just because the children are getting top scores on every calculus test and taking three AP classes, it doesn’t mean they know the difference between what they want and what they need. Children need parents who are firm, respectful, and able to set limits, even if setting limits makes them uncool and unpopular; even if it upsets the equilibrium.

Daughters need the burden of our culture’s extreme sexuality lifted from their shoulders by parents who are willing to say, “No, you can’t wear that outfit out of the house.” Teenage boys need parents who will help them gain some control over their hormones by keeping them away from situations of high temptation, such as an after-prom party in a rented bar, even if “every single one” of their friends is going (they aren’t). Our children can’t always say “no” to themselves; it breaks every rule of adolescence and would probably fry their synapses. They must rely on the adults around them to teach them about self-respect and how to recognize dangerous environments.

It’s tempting to think we can solve the problem of our children’s precocious and terribly casual sex by offering cold and clinical sex education classes in school. We try to fight extreme sexual behavior with extreme scare tactics: One careless drunken act at a party and you’ll die from AIDS! Dead, dead, dead! And at home, if our children ask us about our own histories, we tell them, “Times have changed. Sex wasn’t as dangerous back then, and I never did anything anyway. There are other ways to have fun.” Or as a recent New Yorker cartoon dad said to his cartoon daughter, “Sure, I fooled around with drugs when I was your age, but that was to protest the war.”

Our children need to learn about sex, respect, and love from their parents, but hypocrisy and scare tactics clearly don’t work. Shortly after the porno video was screened in the locker room, I had the privilege of meeting with parents at that school to discuss the scandal. My approach was to enter the conversation through a conceptual back door, to discuss self-respect and respect for others by considering the example we set for our children. Do we treat them with respect? Do we get off our cell phones when we pick them up in the carpool? How about respect for the community — do we follow the carpool rules, even if no one else is? Do parents treat each other with respect? Do children see their parents making time for each other — time that has nothing to do with the kids? Do parents go out on dates together, and not just on their anniversary? Finally, I asked the parents to think about their own sex lives. I didn’t ask anyone to say anything, just to think. The room was silent, but one woman’s hand shot right up. I called on her with some trepidation.

“Are you kidding?” she asked. “We are sooo tired. We cart the kids around all afternoon, from practices to SAT prep to orchestra rehearsals. Then we come home and fall asleep catatonic by 9 p.m.” The room was again silent, but, as I scanned the audience, I noticed a few dads gently elbowing the moms. I kept looking and saw a few moms elbowing the dads back a little harder.

The fallout from hyperparenting is not only that we are too tired to have sex, although that is definitely cause for alarm. Worse, however, may be the fact that we have failed to make adult life alluring to our sons and daughters. To many children, adulthood looks like no more than an opportunity to resolve complex scheduling conflicts, get stuck in freeway traffic, periodically unfreeze the computer, and fall asleep catatonic by 9 pm. In a recent high school survey, one student wrote, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I know what I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be like my mom and dad. They seem so sad and scared and stressed.” Why should our children believe us about sex, or anything else having to do with pleasure, if our lives seem so impoverished?

The one thing all parents can do to counter casual sex is to show our children how self-respecting, civilized, happy grown-ups behave; to prove, by our example, that we have a more rewarding alternative to offer. We can begin by following the carpool rules even if it means being late to the orthodontist. We can take our eyes off our children’s future long enough to notice our spouse or partner, complimenting each other in front of the children. This will do more to increase your son’s or daughter’s sense of self-worth than if you hop up and down about how well he or she did on a French mid-term. Then go to your bedroom, shut the door, and light some candles.

What Schools Can Do

Steven Frank, a sixth-grade teacher, told me that he won’t be surprised if we soon face the largest class-action suit in history. He fears that our children will sue us for stealing their childhoods and their future. Our expectations of them are so high, the academic and extracurricular demands so extreme, that while they may be accepted to the Ivy League or other highly selective colleges, far too many will stumble once they arrive. Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, writes that some of the incoming freshmen resemble “dazed survivors of some bewildering lifelong boot camp.”

College deans have names for these students: “teacups” and “crispies.” Teacups are so fragile that they are easily broken by the knocks of college life. Crispies are so burned out that they are too brittle to enjoy anything. An increasing number are actually returning home after first semester, unable to cope. And there is evidence that no student, no matter how outstanding, feels up to the task of getting accepted at the “right” university. When reporters crowded around 16-year-old Olympic ice skater Sara Hughes and asked what she planned to do after winning her gold medal, she replied, “I just want to keep up with my schoolwork and get in the high 1500s on my SATs.” Apparently, she wasn’t convinced that her extracurricular activities would be sufficient to get her into college.

The stress that incoming college freshmen are feeling was once reserved for adults who had been toiling in the workplace for many years. There is a connection between this level of effort, anxiety, and burnout, and the adult-style diversions high-school students require in order to escape the strain of their workloads. Many college students report that college is easier than high school. By pushing adult-level responsibilities on our teenagers and acting as if their entire future is riding on every test grade, parents are turning their teens into prematurely angst-ridden 35-year-olds. High schools and middle schools are their willing partners, and must share in finding ways to curb the achievement frenzy.

Some colleges are taking the first steps in this effort by making concrete changes and recommendations. They are accepting, without prejudice, students from schools that have eliminated AP classes. They are also recommending that students take a year off between high school and college and offering to hold their place for them. They look favorably on students who have done ordinary summer jobs like working at a Baskin Robbins or as a counselor at a Girl Scout camp rather than going to Oxbridge to study international law in French. They are also weighing teacher recommendations on par with SAT scores and GPAs.

Independent schools have long provided students with individual attention, stellar academics, and, of late, an ever richer menu of offerings. But we can’t keep expanding, or we will all burst. By actively educating parents about the effects of extreme academic pressure, we can help them and ourselves. If a school decides to scale back by setting maximum homework standards (no more than 40 minutes, per subject per class meeting, would be a radical reduction at many schools), or by limiting the number and duration of practices per week, or the number of AP classes a student is allowed to take, the school will need to provide parents with a context for the changes. Introduce the parents to the concept of teacups and crispies. Scare them a little. Offer parents a longer view of children’s development: some find their academic rhythm in middle school, some not until junior year of college — you can’t tell when your flower will bloom. Early in each school year — at back-to-school night or grade-level parent meetings — administrators and teachers can talk to parents about the classroom consequences of inadequate sleep and insufficient downtime, and about how excessive pressure causes even the brightest students to lose their confidence and joy in learning.

Schools can also take the lead in educating parents about the importance of dress codes, honor codes, parental discipline, and supervision of off-campus social events. What’s needed is partnership. The Parents’ Association of the Francis Parker School in San Diego has created a document called The Parker Cares Understanding. It reads: “I take the responsibility to ensure that all social events in my home for school-age students will be chaperoned and free from alcohol and drugs.” Parents have the option of signing or not. The school then distributes a list of the signatories to the parent body so that parents can send their child to a party with confidence that it will be actively chaperoned and supervised. Many schools are writing “Parent-School Covenants” to put parents and schools on the same page (find some fine examples here on the NAIS website).

Schools can also establish grade-level meetings with parents to talk about the most common social issues for students, normal child development, and the impact of our over-stimulating, hyper-competitive, consumer culture on family life. This is an opportunity to address parental anxieties — about the increase in homework load, social exclusion, etc. — so the school and parents can work in partnership.

Will lower academic stress and stricter rules guarantee a return to spin-the-bottle instead of front-lawn sex? I believe that if our teenage children are treated as youngsters instead of workhorses, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they won’t be quite as driven to extreme partying. Naturally, teenagers will always test limits whenever they can, but if they understand that the adults around them value them as individuals, not just academic machines, it can profoundly affect their behavior. If parents can convince their children that they care more about their character than their test scores, teenagers might think twice before choosing to get falling-down drunk in front of their classmates. If some of our children are clueless about self-worth and self-respect, it may be because the adults in their lives haven’t made it clear that these traits really matter. It’s not too late for schools and parents to change the trend.

Empathy, Optimism, Humor

An Alfred P. Sloan Foundation study of adolescent satisfaction revealed that adolescent happiness varies inversely with parental income. Children in the lowest socioeconomic strata generally report the highest level of happiness, upper middle class children the least. Why? The fast pace of life and expectations for extreme grades and school placements puts a burden on privileged children. The pressure to surpass their parents’ already high level of achievement is daunting. How can parents resist the virus of competition and escalating expectations? Consider the following:

  • You don’t want your child to live up to his or her potential by the time she is eight. Let her save some for adulthood.
  • Be alert to a new form of childhood misbehavior: over-studying. Practice unmotivating your child by disciplining him or her about bedtime and downtime. And watch out for double standards; practice what you preach
  • Unless it’s clear your child has a rare and deep passion for something, discourage him or her from trying to do “great things”: playing club soccer, taking lots of APs, playing the cello in the orchestra, serving on student council, writing for the newspaper.
  • Be a salmon swimming against the tide. Band together with other parents who share your values.
  • It’s not just about getting into college, but about getting out. If your child has been overprotected and overpressured in high school, he or she runs the risk of not making it through.
  • Remember, education is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Daniel Goleman, writing about adult success, tells us that most CEOs, world leaders, and people who have made major contributions to the arts, science, and culture did not have straight A’s. I often ask my audiences if they got straight A’s; very few did, yet most are highly successful in their work. Too many children today feel like failures if they don’t get A’s. If not tippy top grades, what qualities do high achieving people have in common? They have emotional intelligence. Goleman’s research shows that the qualities that predict adult success are not academic, they are, instead, emotional: empathy, optimism, flexibility, the ability to work as a member of a team, a positive reaction to setbacks, and a good sense of humor. So instead of asking your daughter how she did on her math test, think about the most amusing thing that happened in your day and tell her about it when she comes home from school. You might be surprised how much this helps the both of you.

— Wendy Mogel

Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles, and author of the best-selling parenting book, The Blessing of the Skinned Knee. She lectures nationally about managing parent expectations of independent schools.

September 22, 2004