"IVY FEVER" IS THE REAL SCANDAL
By Cynthia Chazen
Many parents dread the day their child is ready for college. 2 years of assemblies and guidance meetings await. Forms, loans, the language of admissions, due dates, visits, and so much worry! Noone at the assembly mentions the 4000 US colleges serving all levels of learners. The talk is all about "getting into the best school." The over-arching idea has shifted from: every child should strive to be his best to the notion that the only way to guarantee a successful life is to attend a top-tier college! Of course, it isn't true, but the message is not being repeated loudly enough, by any of us. But our kids are buying into this notion, and it is hurtful to their mental health.
For wealthier students, college is preceded by years of enrichment classes, summer internships and volunteering. No 21rst c. kid hangs out anymore, or works after school - unless they have to support a family. Anxious families push-push-push for years in hopes of padding kid's college resumes with extracurriculars worthy of an adult CEO. Ambitious students also drive the fury, developing perfectionism, anxiety, and other mental health problems along the way, as they sign up for as many AP college-level classes as they can, or maybe can't, handle. The crucial downtime to rest, socialize, dream, and the interactions necessary to socially and emotionally develop have been exchanged for the poor substitute of social media interaction screened in during endless hours of studying.
Have kid's freedoms been replaced by organized sports and chaperoned playdates? When I was a kid (by cracky) we had a ton of free time! We biked in a pack, and played field games where we learned to negotiate and interact. It wasn't always fun or fair, but neither is life. In HS, one sport or club after school was seen as enough. A grade of B+ was still acceptable. So, we had time for friends. In the 80s, there was a social event sponsored by my high school every Saturday night.
Years ago, during an anti-drug brainstorming session, I suggested my district provide weekend socializing as a way to keep teens out of trouble. I learned administrators and teachers don't want to be liable, or give up their free time to chaperone weekend events, which given their pay and the demands on their time, is reasonable. But parents also chimed in that they didn't want to organize chaperones/security personnel for events. I thought back to my town's feuds over who (out of many volunteers) would coach the little league games, or chair the PTO on behalf of the younger kids. Without safe, fun weekend social activities, teens end up in basement parties, often with drugs, or they are home alone! And they are bored. Social media steps in.
We give little kids waaaay too much oversight, then - poof! - offer teens nothing! If we as parents and as community can afford to provide sports and after-school enrichment, then we can subsidize/staff social events at schools for our older children! The prom alone is not enough.
This simple idea may still be seen as unrealistic, wishful thinking. People here in NJ seem wedded to the notion that high school kids don't need weekend social time, they need to get down to work. This sets kids up for social awkwardness and for mental burnout. We all have bought into unrealistic academic expectations, and over time these ideals have become realities! Should we stay silent on the homework debate, the grade inflation debate, and the college admissions debate, while sacrificing what teens need most to become well-adjusted: time to be together, safely, and time to just "be" before having to uphold adult standards? I'm glad I'm not a teen today. It's miserable and they're so unhappy. They are speaking out at events and online.
HS teens are not adults or college students and they shouldn't be worked as such!
I see the pressure every day in my work as an SAT/ACT tutor. When I started tutoring the AP US History exam I recognized that kids were being expected by The College Board to think and write like adult historians! These tests are excruciatingly hard! The recent celebrity admissions scandal exposed the levels to which some will go to have average learners join the elite. But, believe me, the lust for top-notch admissions isn't just in Hollywood. It's filtered down and it is everywhere. Average students are being driven to study more/harder at the expense of their development and their mental health.
When is it enough?
Do 16 year olds ever say on their own, "Hey! I'm dying to do medical research" ? Are 15 year olds really interested, unprompted, in starting a non-profit? Should their bodies withstand athletic demands that would injure an adult professional? No. They are being pushed. I have seen teens in my town held to these exact extremes and I have witnessed resultant mental health issues in many young people in college or their early 20s through The Stigma Free. They are not happy, they are burned out and anxious. And the sad truth is we are creating the expectations. We are the ones perpetuating the myth about needing to join the academic 1%.
What was wrong with asking 99% of our HS kids to do their best and just be well-rounded ?
At every SFZ youth mental health event I have attended, this no-holds barred frenzy is recognized as having a huge effect on the mental health of young people. It needs to stop. But who will make the change? The answer is, of course, we all can.
College admissions professionals must set a more reasonable level of student achievement, and refuse to consider credentials submitted beyond that bar in admissions decisions. They also could refuse to be training grounds for professional athletes, but this is unlikely.
But is it not the duty of HS administrators to communicate children's needs to college admissions policy-makers? Schools must reinstate a less stressful childhood with personal time provided, as a right, and insist that the strict work and study standards applied to adults aren't forced on youth. Every parent, teacher, or school official can help set the standard in his district. Every guidance counselor can educate parents on the cost of erasing a child's developing years. We can all recognize and praise the wide availability of very decent college educations for all levels of learners, and halt the current "Ivy Fever." The mental health of our children cries out for this.