I just returned from a weekend where I was flanked by other college admission “experts” who were all delivering a fairly common message to families with regard to their adolescent children: have no weakness, show no vulnerability, master the process of college admissions at any cost. It was as if the entire process, from year one to high school graduation, must truly revolve around getting into university. In this scenario, there was not even one particular university, just a “top university”. This means that we are putting pressure on kids to achieve something specific, yet we don’t even have an idea of what the definition of our pressure means. Is it Stanford? Sure. Harvard? Sure. University of Virginia? Sure. Whitman College? “Wait. Where? I’ve never heard of that. No. I don’t want my kid to go there.” Well, maybe it should be.
I juxtapose this with some time I spent a few years ago working with College Summit (now called PeerForward) in Stockton, California, and recall the main message we delivered to these students who had significantly more challenges throughout their childhoods and adolescence: expose your vulnerability, tell your story, embrace the challenges and imperfections that you have risen above and which have made you a stronger person. The few days with the College Summit kids were really wonderful in many ways but mostly because those moments were about flaws. Flaws bring people together and build empathy and give us the ability to relate in the world … in college and beyond.
So which method is correct? I am not here to say with complete certainty that it is the latter. However, I do know that the majority of research points to the fact that over the course of the past 15 years there has become an ever-increasing delay in the development of the pre-frontal cortex. In other words, the adolescent brain is haunting young men and women years beyond traditional “adolescence”. I cannot help but reflect on my experience from my recent weekend without feeling disheartened by the message which echoed those halls of test prep and private tutors, who push branding and think a university wants to hear about a student’s trip to build houses in Costa Rica as a learning experience. In any best-case scenario, admitted to the “perfect” school or not, these children suffer their parent’s ambitions. They are given no room to breathe, play, have fun, and make mistakes. The emphasis to craft a cohesive resume trumps the skills needed to navigate difficult social situations or communicate their fears and anxieties to those who wag a finger in their face for anything resembling weakness. Between test preparation, rigorous curriculum, extracurricular activities and hours upon hours of community service, all piled high with the understanding that everything which builds a student’s “brand” and adds weight to his/her resume is good and anything else, not worthwhile, one could easily begin to believe that teenagers who wish to pursue fun for the sake of fun are foolhardy and undisciplined.
I had a family approach me with the question of whether their son could take up sailing as it’s something he thinks would be enjoyable and has a great deal of interest in. Sadly, I knew exactly why they were asking and why, in the context of that weekend, it was a relevant question. They were excited to learn that my outlook on such an activity was sunny with a chance for growth. Regardless of whether it ends up as his college essay (which I assured them it should not), we must not teach young people that the only time in life in which we learn valuable lessons is when we pursue something toward a very specific outcome. Which begs the question, what are we teaching adolescents about the concept of process versus outcome? How might this figure into the late maturation equation?
There is a level of resiliency that is essential for development. Many people need to understand this concept, particularly those parents who have a zero tolerance policy for failure with their kids (and have a very loose definition of “failure”). From a developmental perspective, it’s important to note that this could pose significant opportunities for growth, as much of what we learn about ourselves and the world around us comes at times when we are least comfortable and facing failure- or have failed. These are often the same parents who view their number one job as getting their kid out of the house and into a “top” university at 18. Yet, as we continue to see, the reality of adolescent development at 18 is a far cry from what it was 40, 30, even 20 years ago. I’m quite certain “see no evil, hear no evil, smell no evil” is not applicable for the relationship between parents and their students just because the latter left the house. On the contrary, when the students depart for university at 18, underdeveloped, there is a clear correlation to the rise in virtual parenting as well as a strong connection with binge behavior. These can both be connected to the above concepts by the overwhelming rise in adolescent anxiety and social stressors. Never in history have the mistakes of teenagers had such lasting and severe consequences. Yet for a majority of young people, these mistakes will be the challenges and obstacles that they must learn to overcome. Parents even tell them such things. For those remaining, they hear and internalize an idea that says they have not been given permission to falter. Let us hope these superhero teenagers do not make their first mistakes when they’re C.E.O.’s of Fortune 500 companies or, worse, parents, themselves, and the well-being and lives of others depends on their judgment and resilience.
My take-home point with all the families I meet is to not treat high school and adolescence as a separate, insulated process which is to be managed tightly so that the image may remain squeaky clean. This does not prevent young people from acting with abandon. It just delays it until they are out of the house and into an environment in which they can do so in a manner which is more dangerous and has more extreme consequences for themselves and those around them. This is why we need to allow imperfection in our children and also to communicate the importance of the journey, rather than an idealized, superficial goal. It is imperative.
This is my plea.
Sit down and let your teenagers express their fears without judgment. If you cannot be an objective party for them, find someone who is able. I know this is not easy to read: it is not about you; support them in their stumbles and encourage their uncertainties. It’s time to remove your ego from your teenager’s life.