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Tuesday, November 20 , 2018, 6:41 pm | Fair 59º


Russell Collins: Choosing Harvard

Looking back on the parenting choices we make in the final years of high school

Our daughter called recently with some important news. In her very first college psychology class, she had learned about some significant ways in which we had failed as parents.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

For instance, we praised her for her intelligence, rather than for habits such as diligence and persistence, which was wrong. The research shows clearly that kids who have been acknowledged for things they can control do better than those who get kudos for innate qualities.

“You praise the process not the person,” she pointed out sternly.

Likewise, while we sometimes provided the right balance of discipline and support — called authoritative parenting — we all too frequently lapsed into arbitrary authoritarianism, or the opposite and equally ineffectual parenting style of lazy permissiveness. As I acknowledged to our daughter at the end of the call, “We blew it, honey.”

With the next child in line nearing the end of college applications, I can’t help but wonder about the mistakes we are making with him.

High Stakes, High Anxiety

I am not alone. For many people with high school seniors, the thought of their child going off to college evokes a nervous self-doubt. Did we instill the right values (since our influence here is ending)? Did we teach them the self-discipline they will need to succeed? Did we over-steer, or over-manage, or helicopter too much? More immediately, did we push them toward Harvard University when Cal State would have been just fine? Did we settle for Cal State, when Harvard was a possibility? Do high expectations for college produce high-performing children, or neurotic young adults who can never feel good enough?

If you have a teenager who is thinking about higher education, then you’re at least distantly engaged in this inquiry about parental expectations. If you put too much pressure on a child to perform academically (one version of which is setting too high a bar in your selection of colleges), can it hurt him in the long run? The answer depends, naturally, on how you define pressure, and how expectations are communicated from parents to children, but the short answer is yes. Studies show higher rates of depression, anxiety, even suicidality in student populations that demonstrate high parental expectations or self-imposed expectation.

One (admittedly imperfect) proxy for how expectations shape both academic achievement and life satisfaction is the statistical story of college-bound Asian Americans.

Andrew Lam, writing on the New America Media Web site, describes it this way: “Popular opinion may project Asians and Asian Americans as super achievers, scoring high on the SAT, dominating prestigious colleges and working as high-paid professionals, but the dark side of that narrative is that they are much more likely than the average American to commit suicide.”

Lam argues convincingly that, along with the academic and career success produced by the high expectations of Asian families comes a shadow effect of depression, anxiety and suicidality. Lam backs up his argument with statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and with anecdotal evidence from college campuses, such as this: At Cornell University, where about 14 percent of students are of Asian ethnicity, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims from 1996 to 2006 were Asians or Asian-Americans. Or this, which went unreported in the popular media at the time: During the three months of summer last year, three students at the California Institute of Technology separately killed themselves; all were Chinese-American.

Stanley Sue, a professor at UC Davis, agrees with Lam that family expectations may be at fault. “Although we don’t have good statistics (yet), we believe that many Asian American students are prone to feeling depressed over a lack of achievement,” he confirms in an interview with Time.

Another proxy for kids whose families have high expectations are students at law and medical schools, both of which have markedly higher rates of depression than the general population — at least 5 times higher, in the case of third-year law students. Writing in the Utah Bar Journal, psychologist Lynn Johnson points to “an intense need to avoid failure … an inability to derive satisfaction from what ordinarily might be considered even superior performance.” Johnson terms this drive “perfectionism” and says it is common among law students and lawyers.

But Won’t Harvard Give Her Options?

“I push my girl hard because I want her to have options. And a good college like Harvard makes for more and better options.”

At one level, it’s hard to argue with the point my client Andrew is making here. By “options” he means more career choices for his daughter, narrowly. But more broadly he means that higher education creates opportunities in many areas — creative, social and cultural, to name a few. If Andrew’s daughter goes to Harvard, as he hopes, she will without question be selecting from a wider, more exciting range of opportunities after graduation than a similar girl who went to a less prestigious school.

Who wouldn’t want their child to have more options coming out of college? But let’s ask a different question — maybe the more valuable one for a parent navigating these difficult waters. Will a degree from Harvard make Andrew’s daughter’s life happier or more fulfilled?

If your intuition says no, your instincts are sound. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, began in 1937 as a study of 268 healthy, “well-adjusted” Harvard sophomores, has followed its subjects for more than 70 years. The study included some the best and the brightest of that generation, including John Kennedy and Ben Bradley of the Washington Post. Its authors intended it to yield a comprehensive map of happiness, but a strange thing happened on the way to its completion. The students’ lives took unforeseeable twists and turns.

Privilege and wealth — options! — turned out to be not as powerful a predictor of life satisfaction as the quality of relationships, or physical health, or myriad other factors. The Harvard men’s stories are filled with the same pointless tragedies, self-destructive behavior, ruinous marriages, public humiliations and other personal disasters that any collection of 268 Americans might produce. Mental illness, alcoholism, multiple marriages and divorces, career failures, accidents and early deaths — the only difference with the Harvard group was that more of these dramas unfolded on a public stage. Early success was followed by failures later in life; early failures preceded meaningful life successes and happiness. In fact, there is little discernible pattern at all, except the expected, actuarial ones of sickness, accidents and death.

The Bottom Line

If your relationship with your child is a typical one, as he or she moves toward college you’ll experience the predictable roller-coaster of real-life parenting. Triumphs alternate with tragedies; conflicts with moments of connection; confidence that he’s doing his best mixed with suspicion and frustration as you see him fall down. And your decisions will probably be made mostly ad hoc, in the moment, not based on a theory, but guided by an internal personal compass that is magnetized toward your own complicated True North — some combination of high expectations, realism, conflict avoidance, deep commitment to your child’s future, feelings of helplessness and, ultimately, your love for this child.

There is no perfect answer and no absolutely steady, stable truth you can live by. You want the best for him, but what’s best seems different on some days than others. You’re a real parent of a real child. You’ll be proud if she gets into Harvard, but you won’t love her more, and you’ll most likely worry that she’ll suffer with all that pressure.

If you have an instinct that you should add pressure, or dial it down, and it sticks around even as you examine it for evidence of your own selfish agenda or personality flaws, it’s probably a good idea. Just do it with love. And recognize that, no matter what you do, you still may have to say to her in the end, “We blew it, honey.”

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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