How the Push for Superiority is Killing Our Kids

According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens ages 15-19 and the third leading cause in children 10-14.

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Dr. Ellen Braaten, a widely respected expert in the field of neuropsychological and psychological assessment, at the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) Spring Conference . During her presentation, Dr. Braaten spoke about what she called "the curse of the average child" and how the "push for superiority" is changing the landscape of school selection and admission. She noted that while the level of competition that exists during the college application process is fierce, the pressure kids feel to "perform" doesn't begin in the junior or senior years of high school. In fact, for many segments of the population this high stakes "make or break" mentality is ingrained in children beginning in the elementary years and it is, in fact, breaking them.

This is a problem.

In the past few years the media has begun to highlight the impact of what is often referred to as the "mental health crisis" on college campuses. Suicides at the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane and Yale in recent years have prompted college officials across the U.S. to re-examine their counseling offerings and implement plans for raising awareness and prevention on campus. The American College Health Association found that more than 50% of college students reported feeling "overwhelming anxiety" in the past year and, according to National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression, 1 in 12 U.S. college students makes a suicide plan.

Each month I send a message to the parents of our students that includes links to timely articles on topics relevant to the college application process. My favorite piece that I shared this past year was a blog post entitled Hey Mom and Dad, Applying to College is Killing My Mojo. Here's a snippet:

"You see, I remember when it was simpler. When I was little there were no limits on my future. I miss that. I miss being valued for my creativity, personality, kindness, and uniqueness. Now, let’s face it, I’m a number. I’m a GPA, an SAT or ACT score. I’m a quantifiable entity. Plug me into an algorithm to determine my future. It sucks. There’s so much more to me. I’m a multi-layered unquantifiable badass collection of atoms that is one of a kind. And that’s a scientific fact, dammit! But no one seems to care. Now, I’m a name on an application. I’m a hurry up and get those essays written. I’m a how are we going to afford this. I’m a strategy for getting accepted at a college I’ve been to once."

No limits on her future. Valued for her kindness and creativity. Being unique! Instead we are telling kids that their value - and their hope of making any impact on the world - lies in numbers and grades. Their potential to be the greatest version of themselves depends solely on who they rise above, regardless of what it takes or who they hurt to get there...including themselves. Even worse off are those labeled "average" who, no matter how hard they try, will never meet expectations arbitrarily set by those around them.

The stress and anxiety our children are feeling is real. The statistics are glaring, and the reality is scarier. We can't tune out the campus tour guide when they share that free counseling services are available to all students, just assuming our child will never be "that kid" who needs them. We can't be the parents who blame their child for dropping out of the college we chose for them. We can't live vicariously through what we deem as their successes - yet show them with downturned mouths when they've not lived up to our standards. We can't continue to steal their mojo and try to quantify their every milestone.  We can't avoid the topic of mental health and just hope our kid isn't the one in twelve who is staring at the bottle of pills, wondering if it will be enough to do the trick.

We just can't.