As my son looks over yet another college application, I wonder. Does he know how to fail well? Is he a fragile “teacup” who’ll easily crack? A “snowflake” who melts at the first sign of heat? How about my daughter?
The New York Times has run two compelling articles on this topic in recent months. Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety is a sobering read. Their, On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus, which details how colleges have had to create support systems for their delicate and distressed students who have never gotten a B before, has me thinking… and worrying.
It also has me feeling defensive. The researchers laid the blame for this squarely at parents’ feet. They say children are crumbling at the first whiff of failure during their university years due to “a complicated interplay of child-rearing and culture: years of helicopter-parenting and micromanaging by anxious parents.”
Fear of failure gets a lot of attention in this blog so these articles hit home. Emergency calls to Counseling have more than doubled over the last five years. Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, says, “Many students, [faculty say], now view a C, or sometimes even a B, as failure, and they interpret such “failure” as the end of the world.” The article goes on to say that "Students are increasingly seeking help for, and apparently having emotional crises over, problems of everyday life. Recent examples mentioned included a student who felt traumatized because her roommate had called her a “bitch” and two students who had sought counseling because they had seen a mouse in their off-campus apartment. The latter two also called the police who kindly arrived and set a mousetrap for them."
Seriously? A mouse?
Am I really to blame?
It would be easy to blame it on those other parents, but if I take a good long look at myself and my friends, we are all wrestling with the following question:
Do we do everything in our power to encourage achievement OR do we do everything in our power to let our kids fall flat on their faces so they become resilient? It seems to have become an either-or statement.
The elephant in the room is that our children will have to impress college admissions officers one day. This trips up even the most hands-off parent.
Today’s college application process is nothing like I experienced when I was my son’s age. Back in the late ’80’s, I remember only one boy who was taking a SAT prep class. Did the ACT even have prep classes back then? Probably, but since I was ignorant of even the ones for the SAT, I am no authority. Rarely did my friends stress about their college applications. We got involved in extracurriculars because our friends were doing them, not because we needed a trophy case of achievements to impress admission officers. Summers were for summer, not academic camps or for essay writing. And, honestly, I remember no one with a GPA much over 4.0.
For most of us who were not applying to the storied Ivys, the college path had a quaint garden gate you had to pass through. Now it’s a high stakes game of Survivor where only a select few seem to get to stay on the island. Even the “safety” schools my son will apply to are accepting a smaller and smaller percentage of applicants. Back then, going to college was a right. Now it's a privilege.
Can you blame parents for getting caught up and turning into helicopters or tigers earlier and earlier?
So, instead, maybe we should blame these institutions of higher learning.
Can’t we infer that colleges and universities are requiring our children be perfect? I cannot fathom Harvard’s admissions saying, “Hey! Check out this kid who got a D in sophomore English because she was distracted by a new sport/social group/boyfriend/insert-your-distraction-here, but brought it back up to a B in her junior year. Let’s admit this kid because she’s proven she can handle failure and bounce back!”
Or perhaps we should blame technology.
To be fair, these institutions aren’t closing classrooms. It’s the denominator that is the problem. More people are applying to college which is driving down acceptance rates. Whether it’s the ease of the internet or the fact that in this new economy one can ill afford to skip a four-year degree, college applications have risen dramatically. To keep picking on Harvard - Harvard’s class of 2007 had approximately 21,000 people apply. The class of 2021? Nearly 40,000! How else can they pluck 2,000 of the best applicants out of a pool of 40,000 if not for a few perfect ones shining through?
With the ease of the internet, kids are applying to 10-15 colleges at a time, and sometimes it’s become a game. You’ve heard of the kids who get accepted by all the Ivys. Why would they apply to all of them if not for the game? My friends and I applied to about five schools maximum probably because we couldn’t be bothered with the hand cramp involved with writing more than a few essays.
So whether we blame the parents, the universities, or the internet, our children don’t learn to fail well, experience anxiety, and institutions of higher learning are creating support systems for our snowflakes and teacups.
More likely, it’s a combination of all of the above which is to blame. It snuck up on all of us, keeps feeding itself, and I cannot see it stopping anytime soon.
In 1985, U.C.L.A.’s Higher Education Research Institute began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. That first year, 18 percent said they did. In 2010, it went up to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.
I’m certainly not condoning or providing cover for those parents who are comfortable calling their child’s professor when they get a terrible project grade or email their grown-up child’s boss when they failed to get a promotion or raise they wanted.
This is inexcusable.
Our jobs as parents are to help develop happy, resourceful adults, not college admission machines. And yet, my friends who are fantastic parents, are in a hard struggle with these competing forces. We talk endlessly about how our kids need to experience failure. Yet, we feel compelled to help our children compete in this mad, college industrial complex.
Straddling both worlds has become a tricky balancing act… and exhausting.
More often than not, I see parents (myself included) giving kids the mixed message, “You can fail here, Julie, but DON'T fail here.”
So, what do we do?
Any place to test out risk and failure where it won’t end up on a transcript is fair game. This is where my husband and I find our inner strength to push our baby birds out of the nest to test their bravery wings.
We hope that even though our kids feel the short-term pressure to strive hard academically, they can let loose and experiment with other aspects of their lives. Besides, the reality is the rule-following and memorization skills you learn to garner good grades is rarely what you need to excel in life outside of school. Post-school life demands improvisation and grit.
If your GPA is your only lifejacket and it get’s punctured, you can drown in emotion. The kids I know who have experienced setbacks outside of school and rebounded from them seem better able to put GPA pressure in context. Perhaps because they realize they aren’t defined by grades.
It wasn’t easy to see my daughter not get the role she wanted in a play. It was even harder to see my son benched on the JV baseball team. Both were apocalyptic to each child at the time. And although (like any parent) I fantasized about it, I wasn't about to pick up a phone or send off an email.
I was there, however, in a more significant role - to help them make sense of the situation, accept their failure, and strategize next steps. Not to blame, not to fix the problem, but to help them own their problem along with providing a supportive place for wound licking.
After considerable moping, they recognized they could either blame others or accept the situation and try to make the best out of a bad hand or mistake. My daughter’s part was small, but it was a comedic role. She decided that she would practice her timing and try to get the biggest laugh of the night. My son's team was short on catchers. He thought if he could learn this new position, he might add value to the team and garner playing time. After a lot of work, he has become the backup, backup catcher. These aren’t victory laps, but they are decent rebounds which taught my children a valuable lesson: you can usually control more than you thought and bounce back.
As my son scans over past Common Application Essay prompts, I’m struck by how most look for this life pliancy. The essay topics include: learning from obstacles, challenging a belief, solving a problem, and personal growth.
I bet I know what my son will write about.
I contend there’s enough blame to go around for our children not failing well. However, as parents, we can help our children get more grit by encouraging risk-taking in areas of their lives where they should experience less pressure. These failures and setbacks in extracurriculars will make him/her more resilient and help them avoid the residential life office during their freshman year.
If nothing else, they’ll have material for a killer Common Application Essay.