The Perils Of Pushing Kids Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn To Back Off

Kids in elite high schools face increasing pressures from peers, teachers and parents.

Francesco Zorzi for NPR

On New Year’s Eve, back in 2012, Savannah Eason retreated into her bedroom and picked up a pair of scissors.

“I was holding them up to my palm as if to cut myself,” she says. “Clearly what was happening was I needed someone to do something.”

Her dad managed to wrestle the scissors from her hands, but that night it had become clear she needed help.

“It was really scary,” she recalls. “I was sobbing the whole time.”

Savannah was in high school at the time. She says the pressure she felt to succeed — to aim high — had left her anxious and depressed.

“The thoughts that would go through my head were ‘this would be so much easier if I wasn’t alive, and I just didn’t have to do anything anymore.’ ”

Looking back Savannah, now 23, says the pressure started early.

She told us her story as we sat at the kitchen table of her childhood home in Wilton, Conn., a wealthy community near New York. Her dad commutes to the city where he works in finance.

From the outside, Savannah’s life may have appeared picture-perfect: two well-educated, loving parents; a beautiful home; siblings and lots of friends.

From an early age, Savannah says, she was considered one of the smart kids, and when she arrived at Wilton High School, she was surrounded by many other high achievers. Lots of kids take a heavy load of Advanced Placement and honors courses. They play varsity or club sports and are involved in lots of extracurricular activities.

But by sophomore year, the high expectations began to feel like a trap. Like many kids at her school – and at elite high schools across the country – she felt compelled to push herself to get good grades and get into a top college.

“Even though I was getting A’s and B’s, mostly A’s, in all my classes — all my honors classes — I still felt it wasn’t good enough,” Savannah says.

No matter how well she did, someone else was doing better. “The pressure I put on myself was out of control,” she says. She says she felt the pressure all around her — from peers, teachers and her parents.

Newfound awareness of these kinds of struggles, has started a conversation — and new initiatives — in her community. A group of parents is trying to shift the culture to balance the focus on achievement with an emphasis on well-being. Part of the equation is freeing up kids to find their own motivation and life path. There is a growing body of evidence pointing to elevated risks of anxiety, depression, and drug and alcohol use among kids raised in privileged communities.

A wake-up call

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, feels she was partly to blame for the pressure Savannah felt.

“I know I was talking to her by eighth grade,” Genevieve recalls, “about how she needed to find out what her passions were, so she could get involved in the right activities … so that would look good on her college applications.”

But after Savannah’s problems began, Genevieve says, she backed off. She helped Savannah drop some of her tougher courses. And the family started to focus on well-being.

“Up to that point, I totally bought into the idea we’re supposed to push our kids to achieve. When they encounter obstacles, we push [them] to overcome those,” Genevieve says. But pushing too hard can backfire.

Given the pressure-cooker environment in her community, Genevieve wondered how many other teens may also be struggling.

In order to find out, she got together with some other parents and counselors — and worked with Wilton High School to do something very unusual. They hired a psychologist to come in and assess the student body.

On the day we visited, the seniors were preparing for graduation. In the main hallway, there was a bulletin board on which students have each pinned the logo of the college they plan to attend. We saw Dartmouth, Yale, Vanderbilt, Harvard — and many other highly selective universities.

Clearly, many kids here excel. But the results of the mental health assessment showed that a lot of kids struggle, too.

“The survey results definitely suggested that Wilton High School’s rates of anxiety and depression with students was higher than national averages — significantly higher,” says school principal Robert O’Donnell. He says he was surprised and concerned.

About 1,200 students — almost the entire student body — took the survey, known as the Youth Self-Report. The survey found that compared with a national norm of 7 percent, about 30 percent of Wilton High School students had above average levels of internalizing symptoms. These include feelings of sadness, anxiety and depression. It also includes physical problems that can be linked to emotional distress such as headaches or stomachaches. Often, kids may hide these feelings.

The survey also found that rates of alcohol and drug use among Wilton students were higher than average, too. We asked the psychologist who did the assessment whether she was surprised by what she found.

“This is by no means unique to Wilton. It’s a common phenomenon across high-achieving schools,” says Suniya Luthar, professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College and founder of Authentic Connections, a nonprofit that aims to build resilience in communities and schools.

Luthar has been studying adolescents for more than 20 years. She has published several studies that document the elevated rates of drug and alcohol use by kids who grow up in privileged communities — where incomes and expectations are high. Surprisingly, she says, the rates rival what she has documented in low-income, urban schools.

“What we’ve found is that kids in high-achieving, relatively affluent communities are reporting higher levels of substance use than inner-city kids and levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms are also commensurate — if not greater,” Luthar says.

Her most recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that rates of substance abuse remain high among upper-middle-class kids, as they enter early adulthood. The alcohol or drugs are a form of self-medication.

Savannah’s mother, Genevieve Eason, says she is not surprised by Luthar’s findings.

“People choose communities like this to give their children opportunities, but it comes at a cost,” Eason says.

The survey findings have been a wake-up call for the community of Wilton. “A lot of people were in denial,” says Vanessa Elias. The mother of three children is the president of the Wilton Youth Council, which aims to promote the emotional well-being of the community.

“People don’t talk about these things,” Elias says. Families often struggle silently, not realizing that their friends’ or neighbors’ kids are experiencing the same struggles. “So having an opportunity to create a conversation about this was really important,” she says.

Dialing back the pressure

The community has lots of ideas about how to tackle these issues.

The high school is focused on continuing to train counselors, and student-directed initiatives are aimed at raising awareness about anxiety and depression.

Wilton is also offering a resilience training program — GoZen! — to elementary school students. It’s a research-based program that teaches coping and happiness skills. There’s a body of evidence to show that resilience training can help reduce symptoms of depressive or negative thinking among children.

At home, Elias says, she has tried to create a low-stress environment for her children. For instance, she limits the number of after-school activities her kids participate in so they don’t spend every afternoon being driven around, overscheduled. She also limits homework time in the evening for her youngest daughter — a third-grader. As a result, “there’s a lot less friction in the household,” she says.

And when she realized that the focus on standardized testing was making one of her daughters anxious in first grade — and giving her stomachaches — she opted her two youngest children out of standardized testing.

Elias says she has been influenced by the book How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, which aims to help parents break free of what the author dubs the “over-parenting trap.”

But to really change things — to dial back the focus on academic achievement at all costs — will require a culture shift, says Eason.

“We have to broaden our definitions of success and celebrate more kinds of success,” she says.

For Eason’s daughter, Savannah, this means forging a new path.

“I don’t want to work on Wall Street; that sounds miserable to me,” Savannah says.

She enrolled in culinary school, and she is training to be a pastry chef.

“I’m never going to live the same lifestyle I did growing up,” Savannah says, “I’m not going to make that much money, but that’s OK.”

She has her own set of priorities. “It’s not about how big your house is and what kind of car you drive. It’s about happiness and peace.”

This is a different kind of success, one that her parents are now celebrating with her.

“I spend hours making a cake, and my favorite part is when you cut it up and people eat it,” Savannah says. “That’s the part when you bring joy to people, and that’s what’s important to me now.”

Tips To Dial Back The Pressure

Start a conversation — and keep it going

“Ask your kids the question ‘Am I pushing you too hard?’ ” says Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator. Don’t just ask once, she says, ask it periodically and keep the line of communication open.

Don’t supervise everything

“It’s OK to let them out of your sight,” says Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that promotes childhood resilience. Let kids choose activities to do by themselves, like going to the store or walking to the park. Try this exercise from Let Grow for giving kids more control, which can buffer anxiety and foster self-confidence.

Let them play

Unlike supervised activities, Skenazy says, free play teaches kids how to negotiate, compromise, make friends and communicate. “When we deprive children of unstructured playtime, they don’t learn how to mature or deal with frustration or fear,” she says.

Underschedule

“Try to counterbalance the highly competitive culture,” says parent Vanessa Elias. Resist the temptation to overschedule your kids. Encourage them to limit their organized activities, and emphasize family time and downtime.

Kids do not spend nearly enough time outside. Here’s how (and why) to change that.

May 29 

(iStock)

As the weather turns warmer and the days are longer, many parents are looking forward to spending more quality time with the family. A great place to start is by taking your kids outdoors — a lot. As the parent of a 6-year old and a 10-month-old, I think a lot about how our family can provide experiences that help them reach their potential. As the head of the National Wildlife Federation, I am also focused on where children spend their time, and how it impacts their lives.

Here is a sobering statistic: The average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen, often at the expense of unstructured play in nature. The good news is departing from this trend is easier than you think, and quality outside time can fit into even the busiest of schedules. It is worth the effort; the benefits go beyond a little time spent in the fresh air.

Over the past few decades, children’s relationship with the great outdoors and nature has changed dramatically. Since the 1990s researchers have noticed a shift in how children spend their free time. The days of the free-range childhood, where kids spend hours outside playing in local parks, building forts, fording streams and climbing trees, have been mostly replaced by video games, television watching and organized activities such as sports and clubs. We have traded green time for screen time — and it has had an impact on kids’ well-being and development. Our approach to raising children has changed as well, as parents who allowed kids to play largely unsupervised from dawn to the dinner bell have yielded to “helicopter parents” who are afraid to allow their children to roam free, because of perceived safety concerns.

So if childhood has changed, why is it still important for kids to spend time in nature? Here are a few of the benefits:

  1. Better school performance. Time spent in nature and increased fitness improve cognitive function.
  2. More creativity. Outdoor play uses and nurtures the imagination.
  3. Much higher levels of fitness. Kids are more active when they are outdoors.
  4. More friends. Children who organize their own games and participate in unstructured group activities are less solitary and learn to interact with their peers.
  5. Less depression and hyperactivity. Time in nature is soothing, improves mood and reduces stress. It can also increase kids’ attention span, because things move at a slower pace than they do on the screen.
  6. Stronger bones. Exposure to natural light helps prevent vitamin D deficiency, making outdoorsy children less vulnerable to bone problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other health issues.
  7. Improved eyesight. Time spent outdoors can help combat increasing diagnoses of nearsightedness.
  8. Better sleep. Exposure to natural light, and lots of physical activity, help reset a child’s natural sleep rhythms.
  9. A longer life span and healthier adult life. Active kids are more likely to grow into active adults.

And the best part, all of these benefits — especially those related to health and well-being — also apply to the adults spending more time with their children outdoors.

Kids who play more outdoors have fuller and more wholesome lives. Often, when they go outdoors they transform. I love watching my older daughter’s smile grow as her senses awake to the sight of birds and butterflies, the smell of flowers and trees and the sounds of water rushing or leaves rustling. Importantly, she gets a vital break from her intense indoor, too often digitized and highly regimented lifestyle.

Here are the NWF’s top tips for helping children and families reap the benefits of spending time outdoors.

  • Explore wildlife with Ranger Rick — From colorful birds to playful squirrels, wildlife holds a special fascination for children of all ages. Taking time to learn about and explore local wildlife with the children in your life is a great way to get kids engaged with the natural world and spending time outside. The National Wildlife Federation’s outdoor ambassador Ranger Rick and his friends provide countless ideas for family outdoor adventures at rangerrick.com.
  • Commit to a green hour — Whenever possible, set aside an hour of nature play time for kids each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control agree an hour of free play and moderate activity daily is a prescription for lasting health. Increasing a child’s time in nature and the outdoors does not have to be a heavy burden for parents and caregivers; a quick stop at a local park on the way home from school, fishing in a local stream, or an impromptu picnic outside all count. More information is available at: nwf.org/greenhour.
  • Garden for wildlife in your backyard — Every family, whether they have a windowsill in an apartment or a yard, can take small actions that make a big impact for children and wildlife. Planting native plants and providing wildlife with food, water, shelter and places to raise their young can transform any space into a bustling wildlife destination and help kids cultivate a love of nature: nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife.

At a time when parenting can seem fraught with complexities, one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our children is simply opening the door and stepping outside.

Collin O’Mara is the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation and a father of two. Find him on Twitter @Collin_OMara.

Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School

The Atlantic

The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals.

The author’s sons enjoying summertime in their younger years. Jessica Lahey
Most schools across the nation have marked the end of another academic year, and it’s time for summer. Time for kids to bolt for the schoolhouse doors for two long months of play, to explore their neighborhoods and discover the mysteries, treasures, and dramas they have to offer. This childhood idyll will hold true for some children, but for many kids, the coming of summer signals little more than a seasonal shift from one set of scheduled, adult-supervised lessons and activities to another.

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play,  daydreamingrisk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.

Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.

The authors studied the schedules and play habits of 70 six-year-old children, measuring how much time each of them spent in “less structured,” spontaneous activities such as imaginative play and self-selected reading and “structured” activities organized and supervised by adults, such as lessons, sports practice, community service and homework. They found that children who engage in more free play have more highly developed self-directed executive function. The opposite was also true: The more time kids spent in structured activities, the worse their sense of self-directed control. It’s worth noting that when classifying activities as “less structured” or “structured,” the authors deemed all child-initiated activities as “less-structured,” while all adult-led activities were “structured.”

All of this is in keeping with the findings of Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray, who studies the benefits of play in human development. In his book Free to LearnWhy Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, he elaborates on how play supports the development of executive function, and particularly self-directed control:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.

When we reduce the amount of free playtime in American preschools and kindergartens, our children stand to lose more than an opportunity to play house and cops and robbers. Some elementary programs recognize the importance of play and protect its role in preschool and kindergarten. Montessori schools and Tools of the Mind curricula are designed to capitalize on the benefits of self-directed free play and student-initiated activities. Tools of the Mind programs, for example, place even more importance on developing executive function than on academic skills. In their terminology, “self-regulation” is the key to success both in school and in life:

Kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as the most important competency for school readiness; at the same time, these teachers report that many of their students come to school with low levels of self-regulation. There is evidence that early self-regulation levels have a stronger association with school readiness than do IQ or entry-level reading or math skills, and they are closely associated with later academic achievement.

This is not news to most teachers, who, when tasked with educating increasingly crowded classrooms, hope and pray for students with well-developed executive function. The ability to self-direct can spell the difference between an independent student, who can be relied upon to get her work done while chaos reigns around her, and a dependent, aimless student, who is distracted by his classmates and must be guided from one task to the next.

Parents, if you really want to give your kid a head start on coming school year, relinquish some of that time you have earmarked for lessons or sports camp and let your children play. That’s it. Just play. Grant them time free from your ulterior motives and carefully planned educational outcomes. Let them have dominion over their imaginary kingdoms while their evil dragons, white wizards, marauding armies, and grand battles for supremacy unfurl according to their whims and wills.

The Catholic School Difference

The Wall Street Journal

A new study shows the benefit of demanding student self-discipline.

Students cheer for preschoolers during the annual Preschool Kentucky Derby at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bowling Green, Ky., May 4.
Students cheer for preschoolers during the annual Preschool Kentucky Derby at St. Joseph Catholic School in Bowling Green, Ky., May 4. PHOTO: BAC TOTRONG/DAILY NEWS VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS
For the thousands of nuns who have served as principals at Catholic schools, their emphasis on self-discipline must seem like common sense. But a new academic study confirms the sisters are on to something: You can instill self-discipline in students, a virtue that will help them in their studies and later in life.

The study was conducted for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute by University of California-Santa Barbara associate professor Michael Gottfried and doctoral student Jacob Kirksey. The authors analyzed two waves of national data on elementary school students collected under the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study for the National Center for Education Statistics. They compared children in Catholic schools with those in public schools and other private schools, religious and secular.

The authors found statistically meaningful evidence that students in Catholic schools exhibited less disruptive behavior than their counterparts in other schools. “According to their teachers, Catholic school children argued, fought, got angry, acted impulsively, and disturbed ongoing activities less frequently,” the authors write. Specifically, students in Catholic schools “were more likely to control their temper, respect others’ property, accept their fellow students’ ideas, and handle peer pressure.” In other words, they exhibited more self-discipline.

The authors concede their findings aren’t causal, meaning there might be unobservable differences between students in different schools that account for the striking differences they have found. But the correlation is strong between the focus that Catholic schools put on self-discipline and better student behavior. We also know that, especially in urban areas, black and Latino students who attend Catholic schools show higher achievement, higher graduation rates and higher college enrollment than those at nearby public schools.

At a time when the different suspension rates between minority and non-minority students has become a toxic debate, the authors offer three key judgments:

First: “Schools that value and focus on self discipline will likely do a better job of fostering it in children.” If other schools “took self discipline as seriously as Catholic schools do, they wouldn’t have to spend as much time, energy and political capital on penalizing students” for bad behavior.

Second: “Assuming that these results reflect a ‘Catholic Schools Effect,’ other schools might consider both explicit and implicit methods to replicate it.” The report notes that some “no excuses” charter schools are already doing this, through the curriculum or the way students interact with adults and teachers who model self-discipline themselves.

Third: “Don’t underestimate the power of religion to positively influence a child’s behavior.” Religion isn’t the only way to foster self-discipline, the authors emphasize, but it’s effective compared to most of the alternatives in channeling youthful energy into productive self-control.

Though the authors offer no easy prescriptions, they do say it is a “tragedy for the nation” that so many Catholic schools continue to close when they are most needed. Their lessons are worth preserving.