Many of our young people are coached by consultants and tutors from the time they're in diapers, pressured from first grade to excel in a sport or develop a special talent that will get them into the "right" college, and deprived of family time and relaxation. According to "Time Out or Burn Out," a paper published last month by Harvard admissions officials, our young people are growing up to resemble "dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp."
Two studies published in last month's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology tracked anxiety in thousands of children from 1952 to 1993. They found that the average American child in the 1980s and early '90s reported more anxiety than did child psychiatric patients in the 1950s--and documented a significantly large increase in anxiety among college students.
Is this what we think of as a successful life for our children, and is it worth the price? The college application and waiting period offers an unparalleled opportunity for parents and kids to talk openly, often for the first time, about the spiritual struggles we encounter throughout our adult lives. How do we hold on to an awareness of joy in the present moment when we are striving to fulfill our ambitions? How do we develop our God-given talents without sacrificing our relationships and our values? What does it really mean to be "in the world and not of it"? Here are six questions to help turn the precollege period into a time of spiritual growth for your teen and yourself.
William H. Willimon, dean of the chapel and professor of Christian ministry at Duke, told me the story of a man whose son got rejected by Duke and called him, saying that the son had spent the past three days lying on the sofa, staring at the ceiling and crying. "How can I get him into Duke?" the father asked Willimon.
"A story like that," Willimon told me, "makes me ashamed to be part of the process."
"There are many, many ways to be successful in worldly terms, and very few of them require a Princeton education," observes the Rev. Stephen L. White, chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Princeton. "A really motivated person will find lots of ways to be happy and successful." All of us can think of quite a few adults who were extremely happy going to schools without big names and now lead fulfilled, productive lives.
Are we focusing on learning as well as grades? Nothing squeezes the joy out of learning like a grim focus on the GPA. Instead of asking a teen, "How did you do on your history test?" try discussing the course material itself, such as: "What century are you learning about?" "Does anything surprise you?" "Does the course shed any light on this year's presidential election?" "Are the class discussions lively?"
Is my son or daughter only concerned with resume material? As an alumna interviewer, I meet kids who have packaged themselves so carefully that it's sometimes hard to connect with their natural spontaneity or why they're involved in all these activities in the first place.
We must communicate to kids that it's OK to take time for simple, restorative tasks and pastimes that won't pump up a college application--playing with the dog, baking a cake for a sibling's birthday, playing catch, practicing guitar, even lying on the sofa. These provide a welcome break from the pressure and help restore balance.
Are we listening to our son's or daughter's dreams? "Those of us who work in college admissions recognize that college is only one of many destinations in the fast lane," write the authors of the Harvard paper. Next comes the "right" graduate or professional school, the "right" job, the "right" home in the "right" neighborhood, and so on. If teens are to create a path for themselves that reflects their own interests, talents, and values, they need to know their parents appreciate their uniqueness and are open to helping them develop and achieve goals they want.
Are our teens feeling connected to us and to the community? In the Journal of Personality study cited above, high anxiety levels were associated with low social connectedness. Today, the fabric of family life is torn in even more directions, as parents work longer hours and kids load their schedules with activities. Increasingly, family vacations are being replaced by sports tournaments and practices held during school breaks. "Families should allow for 'down-time' during vacations, weekends, and during the week at mealtimes or at any other break in the action," advises the Harvard paper. Keep the focus on enjoying one another's presence--not on homework or college applications or discussing the college search.
What's faith got to do with it? With their self-worth so tied to SAT stats, interviews, and acceptance letters, teens need to know that they're loved for no other reason than that they are God's children. Of course, many teens are in a period of questioning, doubting, searching, or just plain sleeping in on Sunday mornings, but knowing they are part of a congregation that values them is a source of nurture and connection. For instance, our church presents a scholarship to each graduating high school senior, and we pray every Sunday for each college student in our parish by name.
These months of waiting to hear from the schools they've applied to are always nerve-wracking for high school seniors. But the waiting brings a precious opportunity for parents to encourage kids to look inward, to reflect on what really matters--and not, this time, to help them write a better college essay, but to prepare them for a life worth living.