A San Marino teenager hopped on a bus in June and ran away rather than face her Scholastic Aptitude Test. She returned home safely, but the media attention has shed light on the yin and yang of attaining academic superstardom, underscoring the dark side of constantly pushing students toward high scholastic achievement.
Ethan sat at the piano playing Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, sounding for all the world like a musical prodigy. Except he wasn’t — he was 9 years old and tears were streaming down his cheeks. When his mother asked him why he was crying, he told her he hated the piano; he hated practicing, and he’d rather be outside playing Little League with his friends in his Palos Verdes neighborhood. She said playing the piano would help him get into college, and he had to practice every day for two hours. She added that he could quit when he was 18.
For some students, such intense parental pressure can simply be too much. At 9 there are tears; at 16 some run away — or worse. Annette Ermshar, a clinical neuropsychologist based in San Marino, believes that the problem starts with parents’ values — there’s too much focus on competition and achievement, and the dire consequences are spreading. “I am seeing a rise in mental health symptoms — test-taking anxiety, social anxiety, depression and cutting behaviors,” she told Arroyo Monthly, referring to the practice of cutting one’s arms, legs, etc., to look “terrific on the outside but literally and metaphorically [be] bleeding on the inside.”
“Seven percent of high-schoolers are engaged in cutting — more girls than boys,” Dr. Ermshar continues. “Twenty-four to 50 percent of high school students who report depression blame it on stress, claiming academic pressure as the major cause. The perception of others is extremely critical, and recent studies reveal that 95 percent of high school students have admitted to cheating and that the fear of failure is more motivating than a commitment to achievement. It is common to hear kids say they are abusing substances as a great escape from pressures.”
In the San Gabriel Valley, academic achievement is often the most important status symbol for families, who arrange their lives, both geographically and professionally, around their children’s education. They move to the best school districts or pay for private schools, tutoring and admissions counseling. “An acceptance letter from a prestigious college can feel like a reward for a job well done and is often the only acceptable return on an investment that stretches over decades,” says Ann Lee, co-founder of HS2 Academy, a college-prep business with offices in San Marino and Arcadia. It also allows parents to savor well-earned bragging rights. Whether we admit it or not, we see ourselves in our children. But it pays to remember that when a child doesn’t turn out well, parents shouldn’t get all the blame — at the same time, when he or she does, parents shouldn’t get all the credit. A loving and nurturing relationship with your child is more important than any grade. However, it’s really hard to convince parents of this when their only goal is to get their son or daughter into Harvard, especially when they have success stories to point to like Amy Chua, who eventually parlayed her Harvard College credential into a Yale Law School professorship and bestselling memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin Books; 2011), which introduced the controversial concept of extreme parenting to the public.
One prominent feature of tiger parents is they have enormously high — and often unreasonable — expectations for their offspring, especially when it comes to academic achievement. But, in fact, UC Berkeley psychologists were already studying three kinds of child-rearing — authoritarian (too strict), permissive (too lenient) and authoritative (a combination) — as far back as the 1960s.
Research suggests, and Dr. Ermshar confirms, that authoritarian parenting, which includes tough academic pressure, can lead to poor mental health outcomes for kids and teenagers. Authoritarian parents tend to be inflexible, accepting only A’s. If students receive a B, tiger parents want to know what went wrong. They drill their child until the grade goes up, and if they don’t see enough progress, they often question the ability of their child’s teacher. When all else fails, they may transfer their child to another school. They tend not to encourage typical adolescent activities: having a boyfriend or girlfriend, sleepovers or play dates, watching TV or playing computer games regularly, participating in team sports, acting in school plays, choosing their own extracurricular activities or playing any musical instrument other than the violin, cello or piano. Socializing is irrelevant to tiger parents. Not surprisingly, recent research shows that their children often have poor social skills from spending too much time working in isolation. Such parents can also be verbally abusive, controlling their youngsters by calling them names or otherwise shaming them, and corporal punishment isn’t an anomaly.
But authoritative parents are usually supportive of a student’s performance. They are warm and understanding, and a B, or even a C, is acceptable if it was the “best you could do.” They set boundaries, and they explain their reasoning. They might ask, “How can we solve this?,” understanding that problem-solving is more effective if the child has a voice. They forgive mistakes and failures. They encourage their children to work hard and emphasize the importance of learning, not just the final grade. (Many students who don’t learn that lesson and just cram for tests and grades don’t retain the information and end up in remedial math or English when they get to college.)
The same week the San Marino student ran away, the Pasadena Star-News ran a front-page story about William Hua, a 16-year-old Cal State L.A. grad heading for his doctorate in applied math and statistics at Johns Hopkins University. His pressure, however, was largely self-imposed. His mother, Linna Hua, told the newspaper she would have liked her son to become a doctor, but she considered it important for him to enjoy his life’s work. “I don’t think people can do a good job if they don’t like” their career choice, she said. “Let them make their own decisions. I can help, but I cannot force.” She’s a great example of an authoritative parent.
Most parents fall into that category. They want the best for their children and pressure them out of love and because they think they know best where they should go to school and what they should become. But the insistence on better grades, higher test scores and more activities can be a formula for disasters so devastating that even suicide can result. And when all a child ever hears is how important it is to get into the right college, he or she can effectively skip childhood and turn into a little professional way too early.
So how do parents and students find balance, and what are the ramifications if they don’t? “We need to figure out a better recipe for the greatest chance for the success of the child,” Dr. Ermshar says.
There’s a lot of data about teenagers’ stress, depression and suicide that should spur schools to examine how they measure achievement, how they pressure teens to succeed and how teens pressure themselves. Unfortunately, federal education policies that require high marks on mandated tests — No Child Left Behind (instituted in 2002) and Common Core (since 2008) — are the driving forces behind most schools’ curriculums. The pressure to score well is coming not only from parents, but also from school district, state and federal policies, all of which trump decision-making by individual schools. Teaching to the test is the norm rather than the exception.
Two recent documentaries demonstrate the stress students endure when there’s too much or not enough pressure on success. Race to Nowhere (2010) shows the problems parents and students face in the current academic culture, where the only thing that matters is “painting” oneself to look good for college, with an attractive grade point average, SAT score and extracurricular activities. The film suggests that we’re not focused enough on critical thinking and questions whether memorization for the sake of a test is really learning. Waiting for Superman (2010) illustrates the problems endemic to our failing inner-city schools and suggests their culture is to blame. What both films ultimately reveal is that the quality of the teaching is what matters most in a child’s education.
Who is going to Harvard by the way? Too many parents feel they’ve failed if their son or daughter isn’t accepted by Harvard or Stanford. (Don’t misunderstand, we’ve nothing personal against either university — Patt’s late husband was a Harvard grad, and Diana’s ex-husband went to Stanford.) But consider this: Why would you want to be another big fish in a pond of other big fish? It’s likely that most students accepted by either institution are in the top 1 percent of their class. Doesn’t logic suggest that they can’t all stay in the top 1 percent? Aren’t many of them going to end up going from big fish to bottom fish, because even at Harvard and Stanford there’s such a thing as a bell curve? They can’t all get A’s like they used to.
According to theivycoach.com, the Harvard Class of 2018 is among the most ethnically diverse in the school’s history. Its 1,667 students, who surfed an acceptance rate of 5.9 percent, were drawn from a global pool that included 3,400 students ranked first in their class. More than a third of all applicants scored 700 or above on the critical reading and writing sections of the SAT, and nearly half scored that high in math. As a group, applicants who identified themselves as Indian (2,312) or East Asian (2,304) earned higher SAT scores than all other ethnicities. Legacies scored 59 points higher on combined scores than non-legacies. However, SAT scores for recruited athletes were 188 points below the class average.
The average unweighted (that is, not counting extra credit for AP classes) GPA for an incoming freshman was 3.93 out of 4 (one student was admitted with a 3.3 or B average). Harvard freshmen reported taking the SAT an average 2.14 times and scored an average composite score of 2,237 out of 2,400, placing the average Harvard student in the top 1 percent of all SAT test-takers. About 8 percent of the students earned perfect scores.
Such an exacting filter screens out a lot of excellent candidates. So guess what? We can’t all go to a top college, much less Harvard or Stanford. (Frank Lloyd Wright was a high-school dropout and so was Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald’s.) We’re all good at different things.
So what should kids aim for? The famous University of Kentucky basketball coach, John Calipari, offers a good strategy that applies to life as well as it does to sports — all he insists on is maximum effort. As Calipari recently told The Wall Street Journal, “Sweat in practice so you don’t bleed in the game.”
Diana Palmer is a Pasadena–based educational consultant and former K–12 teacher for LAUSD, and newspaper columnist Patt Diroll is the proud mother of three adult children raised in San Marino and Arcadia.