by Risa Green
I saw the movie Race to Nowhere last week, and boy, did it scare the crap out of me. If you haven’t seen it yet, the brief synopsis is that our kids are stressed out to the point where it’s become dangerous. They’re in this vicious cycle where they’re worrying about getting into a good college so that they can get into a good law/medical/engineering school so that they can get a good job so that they can have a nice house and support a family and take nice vacations, and in order to achieve it they pile on AP classes and involve themselves in dozens of extracurricular activities. They end up with six hours of homework a night, which they can’t start until they get home from their activities at 7 or 8 pm, and so they stay up until two in the morning doing homework, they’re sleep deprived, they don’t eat enough, they have no time with their families or friends, and they realize that they have to cheat in order to keep up. We learn, horrifically, about a thirteen year-old girl who killed herself because she wasn’t doing well in math.
For five years I worked as a college counselor at a high powered high school in Los Angeles, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that what I saw in this movie is exactly what I saw every single day in my job. The pressure that these kids are under to succeed – self-imposed, imposed by friends, imposed by parents, imposed by society – is simply unbearable. Every educator knows this. Every college admissions officer knows this. And yet, nobody seems to want to do anything to stop it.
The truth of the matter is, though, that not every student is meant to go to a highly selective college. There are lots of really fantastic kids out there with good grades and solid SAT scores and resumes packed with extracurricular activities. But most of those kids will struggle to get into a “name” school. And I’m not just talking about the ivies. I’m talking about Emory and Washington University in St. Louis. I’m talking about the University of Michigan, NYU, and USC. When I started college counseling in 1999, if you were from Los Angeles and you had a 3.3 and an 1100 on your SATS, Boston University was about as safe a bet as you could make. By the time I left in 2004, if you wanted BU, you needed to have a 3.7 and a 1300 just to have a shot.
There are a lot of reasons why it’s harder to get in today – for one thing, there are more college-aged kids today than there were in 1989, which means that there are more kids applying to college, which means that colleges can be pickier about who they admit. And, as an article in the New York Times this week explains, colleges are actively recruiting more applicants, simply because it makes them look better, which further allows them to reject more kids. But the bottom line is that, as parents, we need to understand that there are plenty of unsung colleges out there that that can give our children quality, top-notch educations. Just because you’ve never heard of them doesn’t mean they’re bad. I had a colleague once who used to say that you shouldn’t worry if you’ve never heard of a particular college, because they’ve never heard of you, either.
My point in writing all of this is that it starts with us. As parents, we have to let our kids know that all we expect is for them to do their best, and that the grades they do or do not get, the work they do or do not do, and the colleges they get into or don’t is not a reflection of who they are as people. We have to stop using the term “good college” the same way that so many of us have stopped using the term “good mother.” It’s the same thing. Just as there is no such thing as a “good” mother, only mothers who do their best, there is no such thing as a “good” college, only colleges that meets your needs and that you get into. But it’s hard. Especially if you yourself are a type-A, high-achieving perfectionist.
After I saw the movie last week, I sat down to have a heart to heart with my daughter. Now, my daughter is a great student, and school comes really easily to her. To this point in third grade, she’s excelled at everything. But I told her that one of these days, whether its next year or sixth grade or ninth, some things are going to get hard for her. And when they do, she might not get As anymore. She might get Bs, or Cs, or even Ds. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean she’s not smart, and it doesn’t mean she’s not a good student. It just means that a particular subject is difficult, and as long as she does her best to try to tackle it, I don’t care what the end result is. She kind of shrugged me off with an “I know,” but it’s a conversation that I intend to have again and again and again, because eventually, she might not know. But then, just two days later, I actually had to put my money where my mouth is. Her class is doing something called Read Across America, where they have to write book reports and find facts about different states in each region of the US. They’re only required to do reports on two states in each region, but my daughter told me that if they do more than two, the teachers said they would get better grades. She told me that most of the kids in her class were doing three, or even four reports, but she was only planning to do the required two because it’s a lot of work, and, she said, they make her kind of stressed out.
I won’t lie. My first instinct was to pressure her to do the extra reports, because when I heard that other kids were doing it, the competitive side of me raised its hackles. But I paused. If I tried to talk her into doing the extra work, I would be sending such a mixed message. I’d be telling her that I don’t care about results, honey, as long as they’re good. And so instead I took a deep breath and I told her that I’m proud of her for knowing what she can and can’t handle, and for not getting sucked into all of that. It’s not going to be easy, I know, but I’m going to do my best not to get sucked into it, either.
Also on MommyTracked:
The College Admissions Race 
Cheating on Homework to Get Ahead