The Challenges of Parenting Teenagers

web.ae_.racetonowhere.picA_There’s probably not a day that goes by that I wonder if I’m doing the “right” things in raising my children. Am I too laid back? Am I too permissive? Do I not push hard enough?  Do I push too hard?  Do I not set the right expectations?

Last week I went to see the new documentary “Race to Nowhere.”  It is a documentary by a mom turned film maker about the heightened pressures on today’s youth (placed upon them by the school AND parents), and the resulting ill effects – stress disorders, depression, and ultimately suicide.  From the moment they enter high school (and for many kids this pressure has started years earlier), they are grooming themselves to be accepted by “the right” college.  They need to get straight As, they need to excel at a sport, which many times means year-round and multi-hour daily commitment.  They have to be involved in all the right extra-curricular activities, and hopefully have a leadership position.  They have to put in their community service hours every week, and at the same time figure out just what is unique about them that will capture an admissions officer’s attention.  A pretty tall order, even for the most motivated and accomplished kids.  Is there any downtime in these kids’ lives anymore?  Not much. Well, maybe their meals.

Everyone seems to be playing this game.  Unfortunately the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act several years ago has removed much of the creative oriented and problem solving curriculum from the schools.  Teachers have been forced to teach to the test, and in doing so need to forego styles and practices of teaching which would most likely be so much more beneficial.   A professor from a medical school was interviewed in Race to Nowhere.  She stated that the transition in the types of students coming in to school over the past 10 years is dramatic.  These students want to be told exactly what is going to be on the test.  They don’t know how to problem solve or apply critical thinking.  ”What’s going to happen with our future doctors when a patient walks in with obscure symptoms?”, she asks.  These students won’t know what to do.  That’s pretty scary stuff.

High Schools are in a race to offer more AP classes, and encourage kids to participate in more of these demanding courses. What once was an opportunity for seniors – (I remember taking 2 AP classes my senior year) – is now being pedaled to sophomores, and is dominating a good part of the Juniors and Seniors’ schedules. Now it’s a race to see how many AP classes you can have on your schedule or resume.  My children’s high school has a local business funded grant that pays for performance on AP exams.  Score a 4 or 5, and earn $100.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  My head and heart tell me it is a bad thing, but I know there are many that disagree.

Colleges too are playing the numbers game.  With the common application, annual applications are increasing by the double digits year after year, allowing the colleges to promote their lower yields.  This makes the importance of achieving high (near perfect) GPAs and SAT scores all the more critical, as these two measures serve as a sorting mechanism in the application process.

Another output of this “perfect storm” of pressure is that cheating is at an all time high.  In our school system, which is a completely integrated system, you see kids of all types.  There are children arriving at school who have horrific home lives – perhaps living in a shelter with one parent, while the other parent is in jail.  It’s hard to imagine how these kids can hold their lives together – and if anyone cheats, you would imagine it’s those that get no support outside of the school, and may lack any direction or motivation within the school.  But no, the cheating is happening at the other end of the spectrum.  And it’s rampant.  Kids passing along cheat sheets during an AP US History exam…. or someone pulling out their iPhone to google a question.  This drive to succeed, when there is little time to breathe, is backfiring.

Homework is another culprit.  I know parents who have pulled their children out of the public school system in elementary school because they weren’t receiving enough homework.  They would almost boast , on the sides of the Little League field, of the 3 to 4 hours of homework their 4th or 5th grader would get in the private school.  Homework, to some, serves as a marker for success.  However, research shows there is no correlation between homework and success.  In fact, studies show that homework can hinder success.   An AP Biology teacher  interviewed in the movie decided to reduce the amount of homework he was giving by 50%.  The result? More success on the AP exams.  As is true everywhere, homework dominates the nightly dynamic at home – kids sitting in their rooms, trying to get through pages upon pages of monotonous, dry text.  The time is being logged, but is anything sinking in to this exhausted mind and body at 10PM?  At least in college you don’t have to be up by 6, and put in a full day of class and athletics, which typically gets you home by 6 or 7, at which time you need to sit down for another 6 hours to slog through all the homework.

It’s interesting that this movie is hitting us at the same time we’re learning about the practices of the “Tiger Mom” – the lawyer from New Haven, Connecticut who didn’t allow her two daughters to have play dates or sleep overs, who demanded straight As, who would force a child to sit at a piano for hours until a piece was perfected (even foregoing dinner to do so).  What is the result?  Well, she has two very accomplished daughters, who have earned straight As all through school and are extremely talented musicians.  Yes, they most likely will be admitted to “the college” their parents have in mind for them.  But are they happy?  Were the sacrifices of having a normal, balanced childhood worth it?  It’s ripe for debate.

Contrast the Tiger Mom ‘s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother to another book that was just recommended – The Blessing of the B- by Wendy Mogul.  More interesting to me is the fact that this recommended book was offered up in a quick by chance exchange and not preceded by any of the foregoing discussion.  This whole dilemma is obviously front and center in so many of our minds.

It’s a baffling volleyball of emotions with no clear way to navigate.  So… do we push for the A, or settle for the B-?  Do we ask for their personal best, and be satisfied with the result, no matter what it is?  I don’t know what the answer is – and it’s a topic that takes up some share of mind on a daily basis.  I do know that it is worthwhile to keep a pulse on our children’s well being, help them keep all the craziness in perspective and find some downtime.


  • gentle reader Says:
    2-16-2011 20:10:52

    Love your post! I am grappling with the same issues. Just saw Race to Nowhere (they showed it at our elementary school, which I consider a good sign), and also planning to read the Wendy Mogel book (I read her earlier one, The Blessings of a Skinned Knee–which was great). Don’t want to push too hard, but also want my kids to put in their best efforts–oy! It’s all so difficult :)

  • Charlotte Says:
    2-16-2011 20:45:46

    In the scheme of how a teen can fall off the tracks, I’d take a hard earned B minus over all the other distractions including drugs, alcohol, the wrong crowd and that ultimately derail teens.

  • Deidre Says:
    2-16-2011 21:08:47

    On a daily basis, I am am torn between pushing my son to do better (he is taking 4 AP classes this year), to appreciating the fact that he does not get stressed out and pulls mostly B’s with minimal effort. Is he healthier for this, or is he learning to just “get by”? Could he pull mostly A’s with more effort or are the B’s okay? No easy answers. Many of his peers do “cheat” – smart kids from families that punish for bad grades. I am thinking he is healthier than alot of his peers, so I should be thankful..

  • Elaine Says:
    2-17-2011 07:15:51

    I think your last line says it all – “I do know that it is worthwhile to keep a pulse on our children’s well being, help them keep all the craziness in perspective and find some downtime.”

    That’s the best way for parents to help their teens navigate this uber-competitive world we live in.

  • Sheryl Del Gigante Says:
    2-17-2011 16:53:15

    Being the parent of a now 20 year old hind site is 20-20, but seeing the outcome is what makes things crystal clear.

    The number one key to raising a happy and relatively sucessful kid is to instill good morals, values and support and encourage them as much as possible. The rest should more or less fall into place (eventually).

    You can prod, you can insist, you can yell, you can reward, you can punish and the bottom line is they are more of their own person than we usually give them credit for and will do what feels genuine to them at the time, not us.

    If they aren’t studying or engaging in school to the degree that we want them to, the chances are they aren’t lazy, they probably have some kind of issue and or learning attention problem.

    Kids will generally live up to our expectations and their capabilities, if at all possible (again eventually)

    Another thing I’ve learned is that they DO hear you, even though they walk away and it seems as if they are not listening and even if they do not behave the way you want them to, at that time.

    Repeating the same thing over and over has vitually no benefit, in fact it has the complete opposite effect and I know in my case, most of the time,it was really just an attempt to quell my own anxiety that something bad was going to happen and that I was a terrible parent.

    Lastly, just when you think all is lost and they won’t have a direction or the type of future you hope for them an amazing thing happens. It’s called Maturity. And the next thing you know they are sensible, logical young men and women who finally “get it” and really do want to be happy and successful. At that time they start to implement all of the things you’ve taught them over the years and those things they’ve heard you say the very first time, but we’re not ready or capable to adopt until now.

    That’s when you’ll look at them and say “Wow, I did a good job after all!”

  • Anne Says:
    2-18-2011 08:55:26

    Wow – Sheryl – thanks for your great point of view. Makes a lot of sense, and I’m sure you’re right on target. I think as parents as long as we’re sensitive to making sure our kids are not totally over extended and stressed, I think you’re right that they’re their own person, and things will all settle out for the best in the long run.

  • Anne Says:
    2-18-2011 08:56:36

    Gentle Reader – when you read “The Blessing of the B-” let me know what you think, as my literary expert!

  • Cindy's Coffeehouse Says:
    2-19-2011 14:54:03

    Sheryl, I agree with you. I have three children. Each is different, of course, but two of the three are now at least 18 years old, and as they enter that age range, I see them settling more into who they really are. I sometimes have to remind myself of the new brain research on teens, which says their brains are rewiring themselves even faster than they did when they were 2-3 years old! No wonder it’s difficult for them and for us — not to mention that we’re changing as well. So I find myself learning and RElearning new parenting skills with each kid. I think with all the pressure everyone is under these days, it’s easy to put too much pressure on our kids — and ourselves. I think it helps when we can lighten up and do something fun together.

  • Sophie Says:
    2-20-2011 09:55:03

    Anne: I love your article!!!
    As an immigrant from China, how to raise ABC (American Born Chinese) is a challenging job for me… We would like to take the best of the west and east. However, a lot of times that I found that there are some conflicts between those two cultures. Without any guidance, in one hand I feel like that I am in the middle of discovering myself; on the other hand, our children will very easy get lost in this land without us…

  • Sabina Says:
    3-7-2011 12:27:45

    There is no mother in this world that doesn’t ask herself whether she is doing the right thing regarding their children…I try to remember what I didn’t like about my parents and try to avoid being that person. It usually works

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