High-Performance Parenting

Clearly, a book with this title deserves my attention.

Here's the thing about four-year colleges, and architecture schools in particular, and my own alma mater most particularly of all. They promote an altogether false and harmful belief that their world, in which students are firmly and financially ensconced, is the ONLY world. Success or failure in their classes denotes success or failure in life. A lack of inspiration or a fit of malaise marks you as dull or lazy. 

So, okay, prepare your children for this, or go the safer, cheaper route with two years at a community college first. But what if this prevailing attitude of cutthroat competition, of days upon days in which where everything is always at stake, were present before college? In high school, or even earlier?

One academically talented girl in Levine’s care is knocked off her feet by self-loathing and grief after she’s rejected from a particularly desirable college. She “lies in bed for days,” Levine writes. “She will not get up, and when I visit her at home, all she can say through her streaming tears is: ‘It was all for nothing. I’m a complete failure.’ ”

Other kids cheat, take drugs, drink, shut down or, worse still, keep up their tightrope act of parent-pleasing, Ivy-­aiming high achievement while quietly, invisibly dying inside. “The cost of this relentless drive to perform at unrealistically high levels is a generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims,” Levine writes. “They become preoccupied with events that have passed — obsessing endlessly on a possible wrong answer or a missed opportunity. They are anxious and depressed and often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Sleep is difficult and they walk around in a fog of exhaustion. Other kids simply fold their cards and refuse to play.”

Levine has spent 30 years with these unhappy children, as a therapist and a mother of three sons who attended high-pressure schools. And now, it would seem, she’s had it. She’s had it with schools that worship at the altar of high achievement but do everything they can to undermine children’s growth and well-being: eliminating recess; assigning mind-deadening amounts of homework; and ranking, measuring and valuing kids by narrowly focused test scores, while cutting out other areas of creative education in which large numbers of students who don’t necessarily test well might find success and thrive.

Even at a school exempt from state assessments, and that stresses religious education and family life, I have seen too much of this pressure in my students' eyes. The age of instant Internet success has pushed them to make something of themselves early on, and then to sustain that something indefinitely.

Sports are a particular trouble spot: practices start early and continue late, coaches shame students who miss to study for a test or attend a family member's birthday celebration, and athletes hurt themselves with alarming regularity and ferocity. As freshmen and sophomores, they are already looking for (and worrying about) college talent scouts. As juniors and seniors, they are arriving to class mentally and physically exhausted, utterly unable to cope with character development or geometric proofs. Their parents? Are behind them in this, and in many cases are pushing them to this.

But academics, too, can take center stage in an unhealthy way. One mother refused to pay me for tutoring services after her son's test scores didn't improve as much as she had hoped. A different student used to wait after class almost every day to ask me about assignments two and three and four weeks in the future, fear clouding her straight-A eyes.

Even seemingly innocent diversions, like part-time jobs and music lessons, can become the sole focus of a student's life much more quickly and threateningly than I could have imagined. Students feel tremendous pressure to specialize early on (I play the clarinet in chamber groups; I have my own pet-sitting business) and then be the very best at that specialty for as long as their young bodies and minds can sustain it.

Opt out. Unfortunately, I see no other way. And it looks awfully pleasant.