Saving the World One Teen at a Time - Column on Parenting Tweens and Teens

The Pressure for School Success.

by Abby Margolis Newman


I sat down the other night with my two older boys, Jonah (16) and Aaron (14) to watch "Race to Nowhere," a new documentary by Vicki Abeles about today's teenagers and the intense pressure to succeed (particularly in high school), and how it is counterproductive and damaging in countless ways. The film looks at the definition of "success" held by a large segment of our culture - which includes getting into an Ivy League college or the equivalent - but which is, in reality, crushing our children's spirits, creativity and love of learning.


Abeles (a mother of three from Lafayette, CA) traveled the country - filming at high schools in California, Indiana, New York - to talk to kids about the obligation they feel to get good grades, to take AP classes, to get into one of "the best" colleges. Several high-school students in the film talked about the anxiety and pressure they have felt, going back at least to middle school, to be perfect academically, to be "well-rounded," to look good on college applications. I asked my boys if they felt that kind of pressure.


(In the interest of disclosure: my two older boys are freaks of nature. I have never had to push, plead, cajole, or bribe them to do their schoolwork. They just do it. So as I'm telling this story, I do recognize that my older boys are not typical. In fact, my youngest may yet present a whole different challenge. The gods are laughing at the prospect.)


Aaron, a high school freshman, responded to my question: "Mom, you just don't do that. You give moral support for good grades, but that's it. And I'm not going straight from freshman year to thinking about college." He mentioned that some of his friends' parents promise monetary rewards for good grades - or conversely, withhold things or create consequences for bad grades. Jonah, a sophomore, added, "If you go through high school just thinking about going to a good college, you're defeating the purpose of high school, which is to learn things." Aaron said, "If you don't like what you're studying, why go for all those AP's?" They both said they don't feel as stressed as the kids in the movie.


One of the things my husband and I have done from the beginning is never to make a big deal out of grades. We never wanted grades to take on that kind of importance, to have that kind of power; what we wanted was for the boys to be interested in learning, and simply to do the best work they could. And watching these kids in the film - one after the other - discuss the pressure they feel from their own parents, not to mention from teachers and peers, I felt we'd somehow dodged an epidemic.



I agree that stuff like that shouldn't be stressed about too much. I'm lucky, my family didn't care what grades I got so long as I passed but I ended up getting mostly As with the occasional B and my college accepted me not because I was in everything and "well rounded" as defined by most schools today but because I was involved in the clubs and activities that really interested me!

Since your boys are in highschool you might like this site. Actually they'd probably really like it too! Its just starting out but I'll keep adding to it regularly.


Thanks for posting. I saw the documentary at a Oakland showing and was very inspired. Even as I contemplate kindergarten for my first child, I must resist the urge to focus on the wrong things. The film really helps with keeping things in perspective.