Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Making very sure the kids are all right

Pop quiz: what group of students in America is at higher risk for experiencing mental and behavioral problems than the national average?

If you answered students in high poverty or immigrant households, or in households in which one or both parents are incarcerated, you’d be right. But according to recent studies, you can now add students in high-achieving schools to that list.

Yes, the cocktail of demanding classes, demanding extracurricular activities, and pressure to perform on standardized exams is yielding some unexpected results in many children, causing them to become anxious and depressed.

According to a Washington Post article from September 2019:

“Facing record-low acceptance rates at top colleges, many students feel tremendous pressure to achieve and résumé-build in all aspects of their young lives. In the pressurized ecosystem of high-achieving schools, driven students must out-compete each other for few coveted spots, whether it’s a seat in AP calculus or a spot on the debate team. Even activities that once were stress-reducers, like playing a musical instrument or a sport, have become a means to an end, that end being a spot at one of the country’s most competitive colleges and then on to a prestigious, high-paying career.”

I’ve been collecting my own anecdata on this topic, having spent the last decade of my 25 years in Jewish education observing how the rat race to college has become more and more frenetic. I’ve spoken with psychologists and educational psychologists, other educators, and many parents and teens.

The decided uptick in the number of adolescents — and pre-adolescents — suffering from such mental health issues as depression and anxiety has registered with all of us, and the Center for Disease Control has backed up our informal analysis with some hard and sobering numbers. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among young people, after accidents, and the suicide rate for Americans ages 10 to 24 jumped 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. The rate of teen depression has increased by 63 percent.

As psychiatrist Dr. Richard Friedman pointed out in an op-ed last month in the New York Times, we’re in the middle of a public health crisis, so why aren’t we talking about it?

It’s true that some of our children are suffering from mental illnesses that have nothing to do with the school pressures mentioned above, and thank God for organizations such as Ohel or Project Ometz, which help Jewish families cope with that challenge. And we’ve all probably picked up some data points about how social media is making our kids miserable and lonely. The New York Times recently published a piece that mentioned our country’s horrific suicide and depression stats and primarily blamed social media for them, noting that not only may teens feel that they need to live up to unrealistic Instagram standards; experience loneliness if they see friends enjoying themselves on SnapChat at parties to which they weren’t invited; or get cyberbullied in harmful ways.

They also may not be getting enough sleep; the constant blue light emanating from their devices tricks them into thinking it’s constantly daytime, and the endless stimulation of a device means their brains may never get a chance to rest. Depression and suicide ideation may result from simple exhaustion.

This may be true, but I also can’t help thinking about the role we adults might be playing in pressuring our children to live up to higher and higher expectations. It was psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel, in a talk she gave at Elevate, a Jewish education conference last month in San Francisco, who first alerted me to the new at-risk status of students in high-achieving schools.

You may have read Dr. Mogel’s well-known and well-liked books, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “The Blessing of a B Minus,” and imbibed her basic message: We’ve got to let our kids be kids. In a talk she gave about five years ago, I remember laughing as she said, “Come on, admit it. When you were growing up, your dad didn’t know what grade you were in. Turns out, that’s a good thing.”

Dr. Mogel advocates for a parenting style that lets children have the time and freedom to play and be bored, to explore the world in a leisurely way, to interact with their peers in independent ways (she warns parents, “Are you in the room when your kids have playdates? Then that’s not independent play. Get out!”), and to make mistakes and learn from them. All of these important and healthy parts of childhood prepare children for adolescence and adulthood by giving them the skills they need to make decisions, manage their emotions, and experience and learn from failure.

But if we look at the success-driven world we’ve created for our kids, we may recognize that it’s not particularly kind to them, or replete with the experiences they need to build healthy inner lives. I’ve sat with early childhood educators who’ve bemoaned the pressure parents and schools have put on them to get kids reading at younger and younger ages, at the expense of playtime when students are learning so many of the emotional skills they need for the rest of their lives: how to manage emotions when a classmate knocks down a block tower; how to share a housekeeping station; how to take turns in dress-up; or how to make up when a friend says something unkind.

If we keep truncating and interfering in the natural processes of growing up, replacing them with whatever academic and extracurricular nirvana we think might be better than playing backyard ball with a friend or spending quiet time with a book or a family member, we may be pushing our children into a stressed-out zone that offers no relief or reprieve from constant tension, pressure, and expectations. Do we really have to wonder why the kids are not all right?

Now I know we didn’t get here because we were trying to make our children unhappy. Just the opposite. The Jewish community in America, including and especially the one here in Bergen County, is blessed with socio-economic and political advantages that may be unequaled in our history, and we’ve decided to wield our clout by providing our children with every advantage we can think of for them. As one parent commented, “Why are they complaining? They never had it so good.”

Maybe not, but all they know is the world they live in, and that world is an increasingly high-pressure one. As Stanford University’s Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, and Sarah Miles explain in their book “Overchallenged and Underprepared,” “National research … shows that academics are the leading cause of stress for nine- to thirteen-year-olds and a top concern for high school students as well. In response to this stress, students are engaging in harmful behaviors, including overuse of stimulants … binge-drinking, and ‘cutting’ or other self-harm practices…. 73 percent of high school students say that stress is the main reason they use drugs.”

So what to do?

For starters, let’s get back to some basics. Cut out an extracurricular. Stop stressing about the grade on the math test. Take a walk with your child, or — when they absolutely refuse to leave their room or be seen with you — just sit on their bed and listen to them complain about their day. Find out what makes them tick. Let go of your expectations; hear theirs.

And I don’t mean to oversimplify this process. There may be intense therapies and searing setbacks and frustrations in many of our futures, but that’s why I also think as a community we need to acknowledge the mental health crisis we’re in and actively address it. We’re all aware, for example, of what the high school admissions process is like in Bergen County. It’s time we solved that problem, so that we’re not adding another pressure to our children’s lives, but instead showing them that no matter where they are on the trajectory of growing up, we’re here for them, embracing them, giving them the freedom to roam, play, and explore, and the support they need when they flounder and flail and aren’t getting things quite right.

Our community’s children need us. Our nation’s children need us. We have to say, hineini: Here we are.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Jewish high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.
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