Teenage fixation on ‘success’ bad for mind and spirit, according to panelists
By the time psychologist Madeline Levine met the girl with the "cutter" T-shirt four years ago, she knew the field of adolescent psychology had changed. With a chatty demeanor, healthy physique and long sleeves hiding the word "empty" the girl had carved into her wrist, the patient had become a metaphor for the adolescents that increasingly filled Levine's office.
No longer were they the traditional "problem children" from broken families and harsh upbringings; they were overwhelmingly upper-middle-class teenagers who "looked incredibly good on the outside, but, metaphorically or not, when you rolled up their sleeves, they were bleeding underneath."
Such troubled teens epitomized the problems highlighted at a public discussion May 11 that kicked off the fourth annual "SOS—Stressed-Out Students" conference. The two-day gathering, co-sponsored by the School of Education, the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health and the California Endowment, explored the problem of acute pressure on middle and high school students to succeed and the dire consequences that can accompany it.
"Kids are expected not just to be good, they're expected to be good at everything," said Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist in Marin County and author of The Price of Privilege. "This notion that children are supposed to be good at absolutely everything they do is so unbelievably wrong, and not only wrong, but damaging."
The pressure has manifested itself in a dramatic rise in teen mental health problems, increased incidences of cheating and a pervading stress that characterizes the lives of many students, said Denise Pope, a lecturer in the School of Education and director of SOS.
Twenty-two percent of girls from affluent families suffer from clinical depression, three times the national average, Levine said. And when Pope researched her book, Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students, she found that 75 percent of high school students said they had at some point cheated on a test, and 90 percent had copied homework.
In addition to causing psychological stress, the fixation on achievement is impeding the process of true education, said Maureen Powers, dean of students at Stanford. "If all you've done is filled your pail with a bunch of A's and a bunch of titles, and you haven't had a passion for genuine learning, you will have people who have very high grades but who are not up to the job," she said.
Beyond practical implications, Levine explained, is the development of life skills, character and happiness. "When our kids start to feel that they're only as good as their last performance, we set the stage for the inability to construct an internal sense of self," she said. "No matter how affluent your home may be, if your internal home is impoverished, it doesn't do you any good."
The focus on external achievements over inner growth comes largely from well-meaning parents who overprotect their children in the hopes of helping them succeed but forget the importance of learning to overcome obstacles, said Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and author of The Blessing of a B-. "Good parenting feels like neglect," she said. "We are overprotecting our children, overindulging them, expecting them to be perfect in every sphere, academically, socially, athletically. But we are neglecting to require of them integrity, respect for adults, self-respect."
Mogel, who quit her practice mid-career to study Judaism, draws much of her advice from religion. "We have to re-teach our children how to sweat," she quoted from the Babylonian Talmud. "It's really good for kids to be sad, to be frustrated, to experience heartbreak in high school. We want them to be able to deal with difficult things." Mogel believes that many of today's adolescent psychological issues are really "problems of character and problems of culture," which parents are in a much better position to fix than psychologists.
Despite this, Levine said, many parents operate under the mistaken belief that getting into a top college will afford their children a better chance of achieving happiness and wealth. "I think our definitions of success are miserable," she said. "There's this tremendous preoccupation with getting into a particular school, based on nothing." Studies show no correlation between academic success and happiness or income later in life, she said.
Zev Karlin-Neumann, a Palo Alto High School senior and incoming Stanford freshman who was one of three teenagers who spoke at the conference, presented an alternative picture of success. He chose to take only one Advanced Placement class this year, and he emphasized the importance of "keeping things in perspective."
"Building your life around a desire to get into college is wholly unfulfilling," he said. "The important thing is to have time to do a few things you love well."
Karlin-Neumann, Audrey Baker from Woodside High School and Hanna Malak from Junipero Serra High School suggested ways that teachers could help reduce the stress on students, such as instituting a master school schedule so that exams could be spaced apart, and assigning creative projects to enhance student interest and discourage cheating. Most important, Baker said in a remark that echoed the other students' sentiments, "I just want to eliminate the constant pressure and talk about getting into a good college and future success."
The following day, 25 middle and high school teams composed of students, teachers, parents and administrators from around the country participated in a full day of workshops to create plans to reduce stress and increase academic engagement at their schools. For the next six months, a Stanford-trained coach will guide them in implementing the plans, and the teams will reconvene next fall to examine their progress.
"Reforming schools is very hard and painfully slow, that I know," Pope said. "But we also know that if you get enough people around a table and let the school come up with a specific action plan that's just right for their school, we might get to nudge forward a bit of a change."
Annie Jia is an intern at the Stanford News Service.