I know anxiety isn’t a new phenomenon. In high school I had a friend who spent the last days of summer throwing up amid waves of back-to-school social fears. In my college dorm, evidence of anxiety was easy enough to find. And in my early twenties, having moved to the west coast by myself, I remember feeling frequently apprehensive and untethered. If I was kidnapped or hit by a bus, how long would it be before anyone knew? (My catastrophizing likely had something to do with my arrival in San Francisco a mere two weeks before the Loma Prieta earthquake. For weeks, the ground had been literally shifting under my feet.) Even apart from the earthquake, I was alone in a new city with all the certain structures of my life dissolved: no more class schedules, meal plans, or housemates; I was on my own and fully responsible for myself. Looking back, a little anxiety seems understandable.
Anxiety and anxiety disorders are common, with about a third of the population affected at some point in their lifetime. And though many feel anxiety has reached epidemic proportions, research doesn’t necessarily bear that out; it may simply be that we are better at seeking help.
Still, anxiety today seems more noticeable to me now than it did then. On Fresh Air back in May, Dr. B. Janet Hibbs and Dr. Anthony Rostain, the authors of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years, talked to Terri Gross about what they were seeing on college campuses (as well as in their own homes). Students today - as many as 25% of whom are on prescription psycho-active medication when they arrive on campus - are struggling to manage their own day-to-day lives independently. Parents, Hibbs and Rostain say, used to promote autonomy but now exert far more control than past parents. One of the reasons, they theorize, is that both parents and kids are operating under the assumption that there is only one path to a successful and secure life. Because parents are anxious for their children’s futures, they spend much more time “helping” and protecting them from failure. This in turn leaves students with twin messages: that they can’t mess up and that they aren’t competent on their own. Some high achieving kids fall prey to “destructive perfectionism,” unable to tolerate being imperfect at anything.
I was interested to read in the Manchester Union Leader recently a story about a principal in a town not far from mine. Bob Jozokos, the new principal at Bedford High School, is seeking to change the handbook to include a prohibition on “snow-plow” parenting. The article describes a variety of ways parents have been counter-productively “helping” their children - things like calling them in sick when a project isn’t finished on time, dismissing them from school when a pop quiz is announced, and re-writing their papers. (Shoot. I know there have been a few times when I’ve been far too helpful an editor. It’s so tempting to rewrite a sentence or two or three.)
I think about how I developed the independence to go far from home for college or fly across the country to see what it might be like to live in San Francisco. I can’t remember a paper I wrote that my parents read, much less edited. I will say that back in my twenties, I could have really used some of the technology that is available today to keep in touch. With Facetime and group chats, I might have felt less alone and less worried about being hit by a bus without anyone knowing. That same technology, though, is keeping parents and kids tightly intertwined and may be adding to the message to kids that they aren’t competent on their own. A better message when kids struggle or stumble, Hibbs and Rostain say is one like, “We expect you’ll be able to figure this out.”
As parents, as hard as it is, we have to be less helpful. Kids have to be able to get themselves up, make themselves food, organize their work, and write their own papers. As teachers, we have to make sure that our messages and our actions are aligned. Do we really value risk-taking and mistakes? Do we give students the time and space to mess up and figure things out?
On a school visit this year we talked about this idea with Colleen Meaney who is head of the Sizer Teacher Center at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School. She said something that stuck with us: “We’re willing to let the student feel the bottom, not bottom out, but feel the bottom.”
The message to students when we allow them to struggle through something difficult is that we really do think they can figure it out. But as parents and teachers, our implicit and explicit messages aren’t always aligned. Denise Pope, a lecturer at Stanford and a founder of Challenge Success tells a story about asking high school students and parents about their definitions of success. The students noted things like getting into the right schools, making money, and getting good grades and high test scores. The parents of these same students were more apt to say that success was related to happiness, fulfillment, and making contributions to society.
It’s likely these students have gotten some mixed messages. Our implicit messages tend to be the ones that convey that mistakes are costly, that getting into the right school is paramount, that perfect grades and high test scores are ever so admirable. Our implicit messages often convey our belief that there is one straight line path through life and you better not mess up.
We must stop conveying that message, but we’ll only be able to stop when we stop believing it’s true.
To listen to some interesting podcasts on this subject (or read the transcripts), click on the links below:
Fresh Air with Dr Anthony Rostain and Dr B Janet Hibbs (authors of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years)
On Being with Krista Tippett, conversation with Abraham Verghese and Denise Pope
And if you want to read about the principal who is combatting “snow-plow” parenting, click here: