As we forge forward through the 2020s, the pressure for youth to succeed is starting to impact kids as early as preschool and could be robbing of them of their childhood as societal demands create more pressure and anxiety than ever before.
Over the last 100 years, the pressure to succeed in America has mounted.
Whether it is the need to live the clichéd American Dream or the requirements set by parents that children will succeed and follow the path laid out for them, kids are taught early on that they have to not only get a high school diploma but, to be happy and successful, they must go to college as well.
A comic, created by Cartoonist Hilary Price, shows a mom lying on a table watching the sonogram of her baby. As the doctor checks things out, they start discussing the fact that it is never too early to start signing them up for sports and activities.
Child psychologists agree that at some point over the last few decades, parents started wanting their children to succeed so badly that it became a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality. The need to do the activities, have a flourishing child in academics and athletics and keep them busy is an obsession.
What is lost in this pressure being put on children today is childhood.
As Children’s Hospital Colorado Mental Health-in-Chief Dr. Ron-Li Liaw said, “Childhood is a gift, and we are spoiling it with expectations.”
Liaw, whose own family migrated to the U.S. and put similar pressures and her and her brother, said children of all ages and young adults entering college today are under more pressure to succeed than ever before.
Unfortunately, Liaw said, this results in higher anxiety, stress, fear of failure and poor mental health.
Changes by generation
During the Silent Generation, which includes those born between 1925 and 1945, students were barely pushed to get high school diplomas. Getting a job out of high school did not necessarily require a college degree, and families could still manage.
For women, getting an education was even less of a priority during the World War II era.
Golden resident Audrey Pappenbrook, 83, said her dad told her she was expected to have children and raise a family. She was not even expected to finish high school and going to college was almost unheard of for women.
Fast forward to the Baby Boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, Pappenbrook said her own daughter
Audrey Brooks, 62, was told grades are important and a high school diploma was a necessity. Pappenbrook said she gave her daughter the option to use savings for a wedding or go to college. Brooks chose college and was the only female student sitting in engineering classes at a college in Illinois.
Jumping ahead to when psychologists agree that a major shift in expectations started is with the Millennials, or those born between 1981 and 1996.
Aurora resident Leah Neu described a world filled with anxiety, where coming home with a math test score of 91% meant her father wanting to know why. In her sophomore year in college, when Neu failed a math class, her father wanted to go have a talk with the professor.
Now, high schoolers and young adults, known as Generation Z, are feeling the effects of an ever-evolving wheel of higher expectations to finish college, look good on paper and succeed. The problem is for a lot of them, they are not the ones in control.
The parental impact
Clinical psychologist Jenna Glover, of Children’s Hospital Colorado, said a parent’s impact on the direction in a child’s life has become more of a “culture thing.”
“We are in a competitive world where parents want to put kids in the best possible position to succeed,” Glover said. “(Parents) keep making them do more and more. Parents do not take a step back and kids don’t either.”
Liaw said instead of sending their children the message that it is “OK to just be yourself,” parents have placed a higher priority on stressing the need for the best grades, the best in athletics, the need to be involved in music, foreign languages and clubs.
Liaw said social media has only exacerbated the issues. At one time, she said, parents would compete in their circles. Once social media became common, parents started seeing what everyone everywhere is doing. That meant even stiffer competition to have perfect children, Liaw said.
“As parents, it is important to not get in the way of who (our children) were meant to be,” Liaw said. “It is not easy to navigate as a parent today.”
Glover said for kids, it means wanting to please parents by joining more, working harder and doing better.
“This has led to kids having stress, anxiety and suffering from exhaustion,” Glover said. “They are so busy in their daily lives that they are starting homework at 9 p.m. and only sleeping for a few hours. In reality, it is a really narrow route we put kids on from preschool and up. Really, we are lacking in flexibility. This leads to some kids getting in a situation where they fail. But they have not necessarily learned to pick yourself up and find the new avenue.”
Arapahoe Community College Dean of Students Javon Brame said policies have had to be put in place at the college level to prevent “helicopter parents” from managing their children’s lives even after they are considered adults.
A helicopter parent is a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their children. Some of the signs of a helicopter parent include excessive anxiety about their children failing, hovering rather than encouraging and being overly involved in academics, recreational activities and friendships.
Brame said the local community college has had instances where parents have tried to change their child’s class schedules without their knowledge. The college has also had meeting with parents where administrators have to stress the student is in charge and can make their own choices regarding their education.
“We want students to have a support system and find their own way,” Brame said. “We need them to do this without their helicopter parents.”
Neu said her father comes from a medical background and expected her to follow suit. The Colorado Community Media graphic designer said she eventually had to stand up to him and make her own career choice.
Neu said her relationship with her father now is good and she does not regret standing up to him, but noted it was really tense to go into the arts rather than medicine based on the expectations he placed on her starting at a young age.
Working at Arapahoe Community College for more than a decade, Brame said problems were starting to emerge several generations ago, but parents of Millennials have elevated the issues.
Glover said there are solutions to improving the current, fragile state of youth development today.
“I encourage parents to take a step back and reflect on what it really means to have a successful child,” she said.
Some principals to follow, Glover said, are for parents to be able to:
• Be flexible
• Be respectful
• Be adaptable
Failing to succeed
The danger in the paths parents and society have established for children and young adults is the threat of failure.
Brame said students are already coming into college with the pressures and anxiety developed in high school where they had to have the right friends, make the best grades, achieve the right status through clubs and extracurricular activities.
Once in college, students start getting a taste of the real world through carrying a full class load, and working and trying to keep up with the cost of inflation to eat and pay rent.
Brame said it is not unusual for colleges to transport students to local health institution to get mental health evaluations because they cannot handle meeting the expectations parents and society have put on them.
“For mental health and education, it’s like a third pandemic,” Brame said. “They are carrying a full workload and so much weight and anxiety on their shoulders that something as simple as a flat tire pushes them past the breaking point.”
Brame said having counseling and mental health services available to students on campus is more important now that ever before. While Arapahoe Community College is working to keep up with demand, Brame said on a national level, many institutions are behind in implementing the level of mental health care students need.
Dr. Sophia Meharena, a pediatrician serving patients in Aurora, said failure is hidden from children and youth today. Because failure is not an option, as adolescents grow, they do not know what it looks like, which means at the college level and beyond when young adults experience failure, they are not able to react.
Meharena, a Centennial resident, said parents have their own failures but tend to hide them from children, when they should be doing the opposite. Seeing a parent fail and move forward is important for children to see, she said.
Brame said without experiencing failure in their young lives, a young adult does not have the mental capability to pick themselves up and move on, learning from failure rather than just giving up.
What are the answers?
Psychologists, school counselors and administrators agree that the struggles high schoolers and college students are experiencing are concerning and does not seem to be getting better as expectations grow with each new generation.
The answers, Liaw said, start at home with what parents should want for their children.
Instead of sending the constant message to a child that “you are not enough,” Liaw said society has to find a way to be happy when a child does their best.
During the pandemic, Liaw said parents were forced to take a step back and stop attending the local soccer leagues, cancel tutoring and music lessons and enforce a certain amount of time be spent on homework and learning.
Liaw said children really just need the basics:
“For some families, the pandemic did force a reset,” Liaw said. “Some parents started asking what it means to be a good parent. For parents, it is hard to feel like you are not doing enough. It’s important for everybody to just start cutting themselves some slack.”