Most of the controversy about the educational system has focused on the grade school years through high school. The concerns are in effect contradictory. On the one hand is the idea that the achievement levels as measured do not match either what is required for success in the modern world or those reached by other countries. On the other side is the concern that children are subjected to too much academic pressure and are suffering from the resultant stress.
Word from the college world seems to support the second thesis. A report from The Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State, based on findings from 140 colleges and universities, describes more than 100,000 college students seeking mental health treatment. The primary presenting concern of students is anxiety, with depression second. Additional findings note that among seven types of mental health distress in college students, academic distress is the peak associated form of distress for almost half of all college students’ primary presenting concerns.
Colleges are concerned about these findings because the demand for services is increasing while there is also an increase in the severity and complexity of presenting concerns by students. But there is room for concern on the part of educators and parents generally since apparently students arrive at college already stressed. Much has already been written about the stresses on students in high school in terms of college applications looming and the focus both on grades and extra-curricular activities.
In discussions about this problem somehow the cause gets attributed to parents. “Helicopter parenting” has become a catch all as the source of all contemporary problems with children. Much has been written about parental oversight, the degree to which parents stay in touch with children, particularly in this age of cell-phones which make for instant contact, with texting now often supplanting voice communication. The charge has been made that children remain dependent on their parents and do not develop self reliance and the capacity for decision making.
These criticisms are offered as though parent behavior is disconnected from the larger society. The fact is that parents are responding – as are children – to the pressure from every side for academic achievement as essential for success in the contemporary economy. At the same time, the educational opportunities have not expanded. On the contrary, competition exists for admission to good schools that will provide the necessary tools that are said to be needed for children’s future.
Another criticism that has been offered is children’s lack of resilience. The point has been made that children are unable to tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. They may give up too readily on things that are hard and are unable to bounce back when things don’t go well for them. Actually, these are complaints I hear often from parents who are upset by such behavior and angry when they see it as malingering.
In some ways, this seems to be the result of ideas about child-rearing fostered by a misunderstanding of child development research and theories about mental health. The thought that frustration and negative feelings are damaging to children took hold in various ways. Parents are invested in children feeling happy – the focus on happiness also a product of our culture. “The pursuit of” seems to have been lost in the expectation of happiness along with life and liberty as part of our heritage.
As parents have fewer children than in days of old, they are deeply invested in the ones they do have. They don’t want their children to have to feel “bad,” or to struggle. But the fact is that overcoming obstacles and achieving goals often involves struggle. Just the fact of living in the real world with other people requires compromise and giving up things you may want.
Resilience is the ability to deal with such realities and move forward despite disappointment and frustration. As parents, helping our children develop resilience means our own ability to tolerate their upsets and disappointments, knowing that we can’t always make it better and that it is better for our children that we can’t.
Living through things that are hard early on develops the necessary muscles for the future.