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Sporadic photos and notes from a Psyche-midwife, cheerleader, anthropologist--aka clinical social worker in therapy practice. Photos are usually mine except for those of historical events/famous people. Music relevant to the daily topic is often included in a web video embedded below the blog. Click on highlighted links in the copy to get to source or supplemental material. For contact information, see my website @ janasvoboda.com or click on the button to the right below. Join in the conversation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Kid's Aren't Alright: The Pressure for Excellence

I began counseling teens while I still was one.  I still do and I still love it.  But the kids I see today are battling different demons.  Perfectionism and anxiety have replaced the semi-angsty depressions and predictable adjustment issues of the past.  Every November and April my answering machine is inundated with calls from stressed out teens and parents.  The timing isn't coincidental.  That's peak pressure period for college decisions, SAT/ACT and  extracurricular events.

When I was in high school, there were maybe two or three "honors" courses.  It was assumed that not all of us would go to college, and for those that weren't inclined either temperamentally or academically, there were reasonable options for making your way in the world.  It wasn't necessarily a badge of honor to go the vo-tech (vocational/technical school) route, but it wasn't a badge of shame either.  And most of those that did made a fine enough living, getting a two to four year head start on building a life while the rest of us chalked up some student loans and debts.  At 25, most were settled into careers whether or not they had a graduate degree.

My parents didn't talk to me about college, though there was an assumption I'd go.  There were no late night marathons of form filling, or many of homework for that matter.  I went to school-- most days-- and did the work, and graduated, and went to a college 25 miles from my hometown mostly because my sister broke her neck that summer (she's fine now, BTW-- no thanks to me transporting her home from our day at the lake in the back seat of a VW bug).  I'd thought I'd be going to Iowa, but KU worked out fine, and I learned from some great profs and from immersing myself fully in what I wanted to learn.  Maybe it helped that I'd known I wanted to be a therapist since I was 12 and had some great local mentors.  But on the whole, a lot of my learning occurred outside of the classroom-- from volunteering at a crisis center, working as a psych ward aide, working with the sexual assault response team, and reading like crazy.

I was an exception.  Most kids don't know what they want to do when they grow up, and that's just fine. It's developmentally quite appropriate.  The benefit of a liberal arts education is supposed to be to expose people to all kinds of things, so they can decide-- decide what sets them on fire, and where their individual strengths are.  I think my high school served that function, and I knew I loved biology but pretty much sucked at math, and I loved social sciences and did well there.  My course was set and it was fine with me.

Now, I see kids under immense pressure to know in advance what they want to do for a living.  They seem less concerned with vocation (from voca-- get it?  Voice.  A calling, not a command) and more with how to get into the Right School and earn money.  I don't think there's anything wrong with the latter.  But there's a whole lot wrong with how we tell kids they need to go about it.  We've raised a generation of kids thinking that self-worth is based on GPAs, AP classes, extracurricular activities that "count" (read: look good on the college application) and getting into the Right School.  We've reduced intelligence to IQ scores, and success to academic achievements.  What good does it do to get to Harvard but be so emotionally wrecked you cannot sustain an intimate relationship, sleep at night, or find any peace and pleasure in the life you lead?  To graduate from the Right School with $100K plus of debt and little prospect of finding a decent job, with decent hours and pay, that also allows you to have a life?

And the big lie is now there are hardly any jobs anyway.  Most young people today are not going to have the standard of living their parents had.  They aren't going to get going on careers as young, or even earn livable pay with benefits for the most part. Apprenticeships for teens are gone. Vo-tech is gone.  Even community colleges require minimum standards in English and Math that will deny some very bright students the ability to complete a 2 year degree.  And 2 year degrees are barely acceptable for jobs that pay minimum wage.

When I worked in a community counseling center in southeast Texas, I had clients who could barely read or write but who made adequate incomes to raise families and buy a home.  They were mechanics, or worked in oil fields, or raised cattle.  They were smarter than me by far, but today most of them would be unemployed because of minimum standards for jobs. The workforce has changed. The requirements don't seem to have much to do with the actual jobs in many cases.  I see bright people stuck in low-end jobs not because they lack experience or ability but because they lack a degree.  I see very competent 40 somethings being supervised by 26 year olds who have no real idea what they are doing, but they do have an MBA.  I see 25 year olds with master degrees working as waitresses because no one wants to pay them for what they DO know.

And I see way too many 16 and 17 and 18 year olds torn up because they aren't completely sure already what their paths should be.  Doing 5 hours plus of homework a night.  Who don't know how to socialize, play or be curious.  Who have no idea what it is to simply ponder and putter.

I'm not blaming the parents-- I got sucked in too.  In the whole No Kid Left Behind testing marathon, we ditched the kids completely and went for the scores.  We were told these were the most critical  fill-in-the-blank (years/tests/elasticities/applications/choices) our kids would make; and if we let them slack, their failure would be our fault.  We would have hamstrung their future.So we pushed and nagged them into frenzied versions of midlife adults completely undone by premature decision making.

There is something very wrong here.  And it is up to us, the adults, to put it back in order.  The kids don't sure as hell don't have time.  They are too busy being tutored, cramming for tests, writing entrance essays and worrying about getting accepted to the Right School.  Grown-ups are going to have to do what grownups are meant to do, and take care of them.  Teach them kindness, curiosity and balance.  Teach them to live with failure and imperfection.  Remind them that many of their heroes took various paths to greatness.  And even remind them that the definition of greatness is considerably debatable.

There's a movement afoot.  I'm hoping to bring the movie in the trailer below to Corvallis, and to talk to parents about how we can advocate for our kids to have a childhood instead of an entrance exam.  Please take a minute to watch the video below.  It should break your heart.  Want to help?  Send me a note.

1 comment:

Lisa Wells said...

Thanks Jana! I agree wholeheartedly. Teens need to be teens. Hang out, play (magic cards...), fail, and pick themselves up again. They don't need to know what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. I don't even know that.