11 teen suicides in 9 years. In one community. In my community.
How does that happen?
Your first answer might be to blame the parents. Where were they? Didn't they know they were putting too much pressure on their son? Why didn't they do something?
But it's not that simple. It is not just the parents. It is not just the peers. And it is not just this community. So, if you are sitting outside Silicon Valley thinking it's all those Type A, high pressure parents, think again. I talk to parents all over the country--all over the world--and a central question is how to push one's child to be his best and at the same time not pressure him too much. Parents who expect nothing of their kids are letting them down by not supporting excellence. Parents who pursue excellence at the cost of everything else pay a very steep price--in this case, the ultimate price.
I wish I knew THE answer. The solution. I don't. But one of the reasons I became a parenting coach was because I saw a big shift in 7th graders. At the beginning of my career they were like puppy dogs, full of energy and curiosity believing the whole world was theirs. By the end of my career, it was more like they were already carrying the weight of their parents' hopes for them on their shoulders--very often a hope that only had one path.
There are sociological reasons as to why the shift in parenting, parents and kids over the twenty-five years that I will go into some other time.
Today I want to give you my best--but still way too inadequate--answer to what can parents do to find the balance between high standards and crushing pressure.
See Kids as Being in Process
It used to be that kids would say, "My parents are going to kill me," if they got a bad score on the test, but they meant it in a teen-exaggerated kind of way of saying, "What a bother. I'm going to get a lecture." Over the years, the anxious, tense message transmitted in my students' body language was more like, "My parents are seriously going to kill me--or my poor grade is going to kill them." I had kids who would hang around school late--making any excuse they could--rather than go home and face their parents' intensity. In that same way, twenty-five years ago, parents didn't call me about one poor grade. They waited until the end of the marking period to check in and make a new plan if needed. Today's parent is as anxious as his child in his belief that this one score is the harbinger of the path to ruin, of all hopes of a successful future dashed. If parents see their kids as being on the road to success but recognize that it will have many ups and downs along the way, they can keep individual data points in perspective. Teaching their children about having a growth mindset (hear Carol Dweck HERE) will support their kids in seeing themselves as works in progress rather than as performing machines.
Recognize How Kids' Biggest Weaknesses Can Be Their Biggest Strengths
Parents who operate from fear of how hard a world it is tend to dwell on what they perceive are their children's challenging qualities. They worry their child is too bossy, too withdrawn, too disorganized. Instead of tearing your kid down, build your kid up by reframing negative to positive. My child, for example, was as stubborn as the day is long. Instead of criticizing her for being obstinate, I sang her praises for her persistence and her strength. She would not take my word on anything. She had to test me on everything. And while I allowed that such persistence and strength could be hard on mothers, I told her I knew that she was going places and that it would serve her well. And as a student of neuro science it has served her well. She continues to have to see things for herself and to test everything So what if instead of being too bossy your child is a leader? Instead of being withdrawn she is a deep thinker. And instead of being disorganized he can think of many things at once? (For my workbook on Building Your Kid Up, go HERE.)
Recognize People for Their Personal Qualities Rather Than Their Professional Achievements
When parents only speak admiringly of people for their success, they send the message to their kids that that is the only way to be valued. What if, instead, they praise the housekeeper for the pride she takes in her work, the grocery checker's consistently cheerful demeanor, a colleague's ability to smooth over conflict among the team members, and the repair man who shows up on time, is polite and takes the time to explain things clearly. Then children see that "success" is broader than fame and money. By helping kids see that society needs a whole variety of people with a whole variety of strengths, it takes the pressure off of just being judged by their grades or the number of baskets they shot last season. When adults reduce kids to smart, athletic and talented, they overlook the whole child--the tree climber, the pancake flipper, the hug giver, the careful folder of laundry, the observer, the philosopher.
Broaden--and Honor--the List of Occupations and Jobs People Can Do
Asian and Indian parents are stereotyped as finding only medicine and engineering as acceptable professions for their children to strive for. They are not the only ones, however. In general, people tend to give credit to the star but not to the people behind the stars. When one counts contributions to the world, it is rarely one person whose is responsible (even if it often one person who gets the credit). As a teacher I was acutely aware of how much I depended on the support of the whole school staff for me to excel with my students. Without the office manager, the principal, the school nurse, the librarian, and perhaps most important of all the janitor, I would not have been able to be the outstanding teacher that I was. And when my students looked down on someone as, say, "just an aide," I knew that they had absorbed the message that the teacher has more value than the aide. And yet, the aide is often the person in the room who has the time to truly connect one on one with kids, who can observe from the sidelines and catch what the teacher is too distracted to see, who by virtue of always working with the most challenging students has learned to be especially creative. Start talking to people in different jobs in front of your kids. Ask them what they are good at, what they love about their jobs, what the see their contributions as. This will allow your children to see how many people are essential to backing the figurehead in order for him or her to be effective.
Involve Your Children in the Work of the Household
Another way to take pressure off of kids is to give them areas outside of school to perform. Having them do chores at home has multiple benefits. I refer you to my blog on "CHORES! The Way to Make Kids Successful and Happy!" In the same vein, kids given their independence (including the freedom to make mistakes and suffer the consequences of them) have still more areas to display their competence--as planners, as critical thinkers, as fact checkers, as experimenters, as decision makers, as negotiators, etc.
Again, I do not pretend to have the answers. I do know, however, that these practices will help both you and your children keep things in perspective. Note that not one of these ideas asks you to expect less of your kids when it comes to being their best. Rather it recognizes that one's "best" as a human being can be seen through many different lenses. Success can be counted in many different ways. At the end of the day, most parents just want their children to be happy--the danger comes defining happiness too narrowly.