Our Push for ‘Passion,’ and Why It Harms Kids

The New York Times, Motherlode

By LISA HEFFERNAN APRIL 8, 2015

Standing on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game I chatted with the younger sibling of one of his teammates. “I don’t really have a passion like my brother yet,” he explained, glancing over at the field. “But my parents are helping me look for one.” I waited for the note of irony that never came.

At some point in the last 20 years the notion of passion, as applied to children and teenagers, took hold. By the time a child rounds the corner into high school and certainly before he sets up an account with the Common App, the conventional wisdom is that he needs to have a passion that is deep, easy to articulate, well documented and makes him stand out from the crowd.

This passion, which he will either stumble upon or be led to by the caring adults in his life, must be pursued at the highest level his time and talent, and his parent’s finances, will allow. It is understood that this will offer him fulfillment and afford him and his family bragging rights that a mere dabbler would never earn. This is madness.

Our parental obsession with passion is encouraged by the college admissions process and fed by our own fears. Anyone making the rounds of college visits and sitting through the endless parade of information sessions will have heard the word “passion” uttered dozens of times. Every school, we are told, is brimming with qualified applicants, students who have the numbers. But the distinguishing factor is the student who shows passion, the proverbial oboe player, who stands out by standing alone in the devotion to her true love.

When The Washington Post disabused parents of the top 10 college admissions myths, No. 1 was that colleges want well-rounded students. Instead, it explained, “The word they most often use is passion.” When U.S. News & World Report offered suggestions on how to create a “killer college application,” it too listed passion in the top spot.

We have come to believe that only those who have passion find fulfillment and success professionally. It’s as if passion is life’s magic pixie dust. We want success for our children and believe that only passion can lead them there. We hold on to this myth despite considerable evidence that millions of people have lived long, happy, useful lives filled with joy and contentment and devoid of a defining passion.

And if passion is what makes our children look as special to colleges as they are to us, it’s also what lets us off the pushy parent hook. If a child has a “passion,” we’re not overdoing it in our zeal, or pursuing our own agenda. We’re just making their dream possible. Really, it has nothing to do with us.

If passion were just a matter of semantics, a word heedlessly thrown around in place of interest or pastime, this might not be a problem. But seeking a passion in childhood or adolescence has become an obsession in itself, and it is not without costs.

When children can’t find their elusive passions, yet feel compelled to proclaim one, they grab onto an interest, label it a passion and buy the requisite instrument or equipment. This is not a harmless charade, because fake passions crowd out real ones. When you are busy playing on the lacrosse field six days a week because in seventh grade you liked going to practices with your friends and your coach once mentioned you might have some talent, you may never discover that computer graphic design is your calling. When you take every opportunity to play piano daily in a band, orchestra and private lessons, you could easily miss the once-in-a-lifetime joy of being a member of a field hockey team. Pseudo passions can eat up our days and lay waste to any chance of finding a real ones.

Children don’t miss the message that they are supposed to find their laser focus early, and that dilettantes don’t earn accolades. They feel lost and unnecessarily pressured when they hear the relentless stories of classmates who have found their calling. Parents’ Facebook postings up the ante with quips like “Dance competition triumph. #Upatdawn #Passion” The drum beat gets louder in middle school and deafening in high school, when they know they will have to commit passion to paper in the form of the Common App, reporting accomplishments on a school, state and, yes, national level. It is hard not to feel that their chance to reach that level lessens every day.

And what becomes of us, the passion pushers, as we try to make something out of nothing every time our children show the slightest interest in an activity that does not involve a game console? Just look in your garage. O.K., I’ll go first. There are skates for the child who joined a team and went to two practices before realizing that he was not well suited for hockey. There are drum sticks and one of those funny little practice pads (thank goodness they play on those for months!) for the child who soon lost interest in percussion. There are easels and badminton sets and there was even a squash racket, but it has had a resurgence with another son.

I’d like to think of it as evidence that we let our children try new things; instead, I think it’s proof that we ran to the music, art, book, or sporting goods stores at every opportunity, lest a passing interest fail to bloom into a passion because it lacked parental money or dedication.

For most children, childhood isn’t about passion, but rather about exploration. Our job as parents is to nurture that exploration, not put an end to it. When we create an expectation that children must find their one true interest so early in life, we cut short a process of discovery that may easily take a lifetime.

To get into college, Harvard report advocates for kindness instead of overachieving

The Washington Post

January 20

As your oldest child begins to fill out her college application, it is hard not to feel a rising panic. For the last four years she has thrown herself into her school work, taken AP classes, studied for the SAT, worked on the school paper, played on the field hockey team and tutored elementary school children.

Yet as she methodically records her activities on the application, it becomes clear that this was simply not enough. There are 10 looming blank spaces and although her days have been overflowing with homework, activities and volunteering, she has only five activities to report. There are 15 spaces to record the four AP classes she was so proud of taking.

You wonder who the kid is who can complete all of these blank spaces, and what has gone wrong that this is what applying to college now means.

A new report released today by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, takes a major step in trying to change the college admissions process to make it more humane, less super-human.

Parents, educators and college administrators have long wrestled with the unintended negative side effects of the admissions process, like the intense focus on personal achievement and the unfair advantages of more affluent students. The report, entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, aims to tackle these complex issues. It lays out a blueprint for addressing three of the most intractable challenges facing college applicants today: excessive academic performance pressure, the emphasis on personal achievement over good citizenship, and the uneven opportunities available to students of varying income levels and backgrounds.

Many colleges have tried to address these concerns over the years but it takes a unified effort to make a big impact, says lead author Richard Weissbourd. More than 80 stakeholders, including admissions officers (like Harvard’s), deans, professors and high school counselors have endorsed the report.

“It’s the first time in history that I’m aware of” that a group of colleges is coming together to lay out what is and what isn’t valued in the admissions process, says Weissbourd.

“Yes, we want students who have achieved in and out of the classroom, but we are also looking for things that are harder to quantify, [like] authentic intellectual engagement and a concern for others and the common good,” explains Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University, one of the report’s endorsers.

In response to the report, Yale will be adding an essay question on next year’s application that asks applicants “to reflect on engagement with and contribution to their family, community and/or the public good,” Quinlan says. Yale will also “advocate for more flexibility in the extracurricular sections on both the Common Application and Coalition Application, so that colleges can more easily control how they ask students to list and reflect on their extracurricular involvement.”

The University of Virginia is also in agreement with the report. “We supportTurning the Tide because we philosophically agree with many of the principal points in the document, [like] promoting, encouraging, and developing good citizenship, strong character, personal responsibility, [and] civic engagement in high school students,” says Gregory Roberts, the school’s dean of admissions.

Like Yale, several of the report’s endorsers have already modified their admissions efforts or practices as a result of these findings. Weissbourd said that over the next two years, Making Caring Common will work with college admissions officers, parents, high school guidance counselors and others to further implement the report’s recommendations. He hopes that many of these points will eventually be incorporated into the Common, Coalition and Universal applications as well.

Here are five highlights from the report, along with tips from Making Caring Common for how parents can help turn the tide:

1. Reduce stress by limiting course loads and extracurricular activities. Admissions offices can reduce undue pressure by sending a clear message that “long brag sheets do not increase students’ chances of admission.” To make this point, the authors recommend applications provide room for only two to four activities or ask students to describe two to three meaningful activities in an essay. Tallying up a lengthy listing of AP credits should be discouraged in favor of more sustained effort in areas of genuine interest.

Parent tip: Help your teens by encouraging them to find activities, classes and volunteer experiences that are meaningful to them, but that do not create undue stress.

2. Value the different ways students make contributions to their families and communities. Current applications often disadvantage students from less affluent backgrounds who may make important but overlooked contributions, such as working part-time to help support their families or taking care of a family member, leaving them no time for extracurricular activities or community service. Colleges need to clearly communicate the high value they place on family contributions and give ample opportunity for applicants to explain their role. By doing so, the authors hope to redefine achievement in broader terms.

Parent tip: If your teens help to run the household, babysit a younger sibling after school, or make other significant family contributions, make sure they write about it on their applications.

3. Stress the importance of authenticity. At the heart the report is the notion that admissions committees are looking for students who are authentic and honest about their interests and accomplishments. Students are encouraged to find the right college fit by remaining true to themselves, keeping an open mind about their options and examining a broad range of colleges. It should also be made clear that over-coached applications can jeopardize admission. Confidence and integrity are best reflected in the student’s own voice.

Parent tip: College admissions officers can sense when an application is not authentic or trumped up. Help teens present themselves in their best light, while still staying true to who they really are.

4. Alleviate Test Pressure.  Some colleges have already taken steps to de-emphasize the weight of the SATs and ACTs by making these tests optional. Admissions offices can reduce the pressure surrounding standardized tests by doing this or clearly explaining the test’s weight in the admissions process.

Parent tip: Try to discourage students from taking the same standardized test more than twice, as it rarely results in a meaningfully higher score. Remind your children of that.

5. Engage in meaningful community service. The report highlights a common misconception that volunteering for certain high-profile causes or traveling to exotic countries will make an application stand out. It will, but for the wrong reasons: namely that it looks inauthentic.

Parent tip: Help your teens find sustained community service opportunities that extend for a year or more where the student can be fully engaged in something that is important to them and, in turn, have a meaningful impact. Community engagement can take many different forms, from addressing local needs to serving in a soup kitchen to volunteering on a political campaign or making meaningful contributions at home. Look for opportunities where teens can work side by side with the people they are helping, instead of for them, which can sometimes feel patronizing and may not create as rich an experience.

There will be some applicants who will try to game these new recommendations by engaging in community service in which they have no real interest and later writing insincerely about their experience. However, Weissbourd notes, even students who engage in community service with misplaced motivation may have a powerful learning experience. Research shows that for many students service activities are an opportunity for maturity and growth, even when they are mandatory or driven by the college application process.

Lisa Heffernan writes about parenting during the high school and college years at Grown and Flown. You can follow her on Twitter and Grown and Flown on Facebook.

Jennifer Wallace is a freelance writer based in New York, where she lives with her husband and their three children. Twitter: @wallacejennieb.