Last year, at 36, I decided to go back to college and finish out my degree, hopefully entering into a new field. I’d been out of school for over fifteen years. In returning to college, I’ve been fortunate enough to join classes, extracurriculars, and a fellowship program with my peers. I’m usually one of the older, or even the oldest students there. I jokingly tell them to call me “Grandma”. But this article isn’t about me, or my experience returning to school.
It’s about them.
The kids who are 18,19, in their early twenties, and who are so complex and varied yet so similar to how I was at their ages. Their experience and their world is SO. FREAKING. DIFFERENT. I have seen these kids offer up vulnerabilities and rawness in group chats and breakout rooms, I have seen “get to know you” ice breakers result in tears all around. Their openness and willingness to be real astounds me.
Oh, and if you want to come “at me” talking about how the younger generations are spoiled, or snowflakes, or haven’t been raised to handle the real world, get outta here. Who do you think raised them, anyway? And you’d be wrong, by the way.
These kids have the GUTS to talk about their mental health issues, their anxiety, their struggles with substance abuse or self-harm. They have the STRENGTH to admit that they went to a bigger school, and it was too overwhelming, and they dropped out, or moved back home, or got pregnant, or had to take a year off due to a breakdown. They’re working three jobs plus school full time. They’re taking care of relatives or siblings. They attend class in their cars, in parking lots, using their phones. They hop into a lecture when they can on their lunch break. They have DRIVE, determination, and willpower. They amaze and inspire me. And time and time again, I hear how well-meaning schools, parents, even friends pressured them to the point of breaking.
They are influencing how I raise my own children. These kids talk about how they went to academically competitive high schools, and the demands and stress were insanely intense. Someone was always holding their hand or dragging them along into fields they weren’t sure about. They didn’t get to make mistakes, they weren’t taught that they would still matter if they weren’t super high-achieving and multi-talented. The pressure that kids face these days to be successful, to be the best, to rack up clubs and internships and leadership positions is slowly poisoning a generation. They are terrified to fail, and terrified of being average. I do not want to put my own kids into a position of feeling that way. I don’t want to continue this ever increasing legacy of competitive parenting and striving for excellence in all things, at the cost of children’s health and happiness.
I know from being an involved parent of kids who are in college, high school, middle, and elementary (all at the same time!) that modern parents are pushing their kids too much. I have done it myself. I have friends who obsess over their kids’ every waking moment- grades, class rank, a well-rounded resume, networking, athletic excellence. I know middle schoolers who already have impressive LinkedIn profiles. I know high schoolers who barely sleep, who obsessively check their GPA online several times a day, who are cracking at the seams but no one seems to notice.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve had a friend start to open up about worries they feel for their teen, then stop themselves with, “But she’s doing great in school, so that’s a relief.” When did academic success usurp our children’s wellbeing? Why are good grades an indication that they are okay?
Can we stop pushing them towards some narrowly defined ideal of excellence and success? Can we stop blasting the narrative to them that they have to be the best at SOMETHING in order to make it? Can we stop pushing STEM careers on all kids, because some just want to sing or dance or paint or study anthropology, and that’s ok? Can we stop basing entire school programs around LEADERSHIP, because not everyone is a leader, and that’s ok?
Can we tell our kids that what we really want is for them to grow up and be happy?
Not a doctor or lawyer, just tell them we want them to find something they love and be happy? Can we tell them that just ok is good enough? Can we say it in a way that they believe it?
Can WE believe it?
I’m going to try. And talking to these college students of 2021, who are somehow keeping it together in a pandemic and inspiring me daily, is a pretty good reminder of my priorities as a parent. For them, and for all kids, let’s please talk about being excellent a bit less and being healthy and happy a bit more.