Parents Going a Little Nuts Over College Admissions

Our college counselor Christine reports from Silicon Valley:

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"I would give my left testicle for my son to get into Harvard."

Appalling? Absolutely. Actually said? You bet.

Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County, California and author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected, Unhappy Kids, shared this quote from a patient's father during a recent talk I attended in Palo Alto, California. Her point was clear — the stress wealthy communities put on kids is inappropriate and unhealthy. In some cases it is even killing them.

As the parent of three little ones, I left the talk feeling almost ill. Levine pointed out the skyrocketing suicide rates among young teen girls, how school, homework, and structured activities fill up 16 hours and more a day for your average high schooler, and how the craziness of traveling sports teams for kids starts as young as 7 and 8 years old.

Kids like those Levine treats used to have it made. They had involved parents, comfortable homes, and lived free from financial concerns. In the last decade, though, these upper-middle class teens have shown shockingly high rates of mental illness. It used to be that depressed kids looked depressed — poor hygiene, sucky grades, behavioral problems in school. Now the kids in Levine's office have acceptances to Stanford and Princeton in hand. They look like they have it all together — until they lift their shirt sleeves and you see the cutting marks.

My read on this — based on reading Levine's book and on spending the last 8 years parenting in Silicon Valley — is that more and more parents in elite communities view their children as products to be perfected. Sending a kid to the Ivy League is like having your initial public offering outperform all market expectations.

None of this is to say that aspiring to raise kids who are academically successful is bad in and of itself. My own progeny are the IPOs of two Ivy League-educated parents. It wouldn't surprise me if they were academically able enough to attend elite schools someday. I certainly won't discourage them. Levine's point is that the problem comes when the child's identity — and that of their parents — revolves completely around achieving that dream. If they want to be a lifeguard, a pirate, and a lawnmower man (my kids' current aspirations at 7, 5, and 2), I feel like my job is to help them be the best they can be. Well….maybe not the pirate.

Many of the things Levine recommended to save our kids I am already doing — trying to ensure that my kids get good sleep, trying to lay off the pressure. I just wonder how to maintain this when it seems like I am a fish swimming upstream. It's hard to not worry that your kid is missing out when everyone else is spending the summer at tutoring centers and language immersion camps and you know yours will be eating popsicles and playing in the backyard sprinklers.

The only positive? More than 1,000 Palo Alto area parents turned out for Levine's speech. Perhaps we can start a trend.