Monday, December 9, 2013

Illicit Attention
by Anna Peare

One SAT Saturday in mid-September, between frantically cramming vocabulary and mathematical formulas, my friends and I started the typical pre-SAT complaining: how we should have studied harder and how we should have taken more prep classes — how this girl got a perfect score and that guy cheated on the math portion. You know... the usual. After a few minutes of bantering, one of my friends announced that she wished she had bought Adderall. A drug commonly known as the “study drug”, Adderall is a psychostimulant used in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactive disorder, or ADHD. She felt too tired from studying for tests, writing essays and filling out college applications from the week before to fully concentrate on the college-prep test. To some, Adderall abuse may sound foreign, but Adderall and abuse of other attention-deficit drugs is growing among high school and college students across the nation.

When I was in high school, illicit consumption of Adderall was common. Students would buy the attention-deficit drugs from other students with an ADHD diagnosis before AP Exams, research papers or SAT/ACT tests, in hope of increased concentration and a greater ability to stay awake during studying. Adderall was seen as an easy alternative to attain higher scores. The students who used the “study drug” were academically diverse: from high-achieving, AP and Honors students looking for a fast alternative to balance their schedules while maintaining a high GPA, to students struggling to keep a minimum GPA to play on a sports team. In fact some were convinced, via extensive WebMD research, that their inability to concentrate hard enough to attain perfect grades was a right of passage to self-diagnose themselves with an attention-deficit disorder.

As a current college student, I’ve noted an increase in undiagnosed Adderall abuse among my peers. From the 24-hour study room in the library basement to frat row, Adderall use has become a college norm. More and more college students are using the drug for the same purposes as high school students: for perceived increased concentration. Especially at a large public research university, where the average lecture hall reaches maximum capacity at 500 students, the grueling pressure to excel, to set the curve, and to be the best, drives many students to purchase the "study drug." In addition, the attention-deficit drug's presence is increasing at parties. After a long, stressful week of lengthy research papers, midterms and group presentations, Adderall is used for longer and harder partying.

Contrary to popular belief, the long-term implications for ADHD self-diagnosis, or use of “the study drug”, are far from harmless. Common side effects include transient depression and anxiety. Side effects of severe Adderall abuse include heart palpitations, heightened blood pressure, seizures, strokes, paranoia, hallucinations, and overdose resulting in death. Students who take Adderall often become dependent on the drug. This means the same withdrawal symptoms that apply to drugs such as heroin, meth, and cocaine apply to the maltreatment of Adderall. So although Adderall may help you pump out a 15-page research paper that you waited until the absolute last minute to write, it can be an addictive, and potentially fatal, solution, to a bigger problem.

"Adderall Abuse Symptoms, Signs and Addiction Treatment." Coalition Against Drug Abuse<>.

Kapadia, Nahel. "Adderall Abuse and Its Implications for the College Academic Community." USCience Review. University of Southern California, 8 Feb. 2012. <>.

Ricker, Dr. Ronald, and Dr. Venus Nicolino. "Adderall: The Most Abused Prescription Drug in America." Huffington Post, 21 June 2010. Web. 

Anna Peare is a second year student at UC Davis where she is a participant in the University Honors Program. She is majoring in Community and Regional Development and minoring in Spanish and Education. Anna grew up in Lafayette, California and attended Acalanes High School.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

So You Wanna Be a D1 Athlete?
by Maureen Brown

Having read the thoughtful and accurate series on youth sports in the SF Chronicle, I thought I would chime in on what it means to get “the prize” — a highly coveted spot on a Division 1 team. One of my daughters plays lacrosse at a highly regarded academic institution, on a team ranked in the top ten in the country last year. During the last week of October, here’s what her schedule looked like:

Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 8-9:30am Lift; 10am-12pm Practice
Tuesday: 7:30-9am Team Skills Work and Individual Run
Thursday: 8:00-9:00am Seniors Meeting; 11am-12pm Individual Work with Assistant Coach
Saturday: Off Day; Individual Run
Sunday: 5am Wake Up to Bus to Philadelphia for a Play Date. Games at 10am, 1pm and 2pm Followed by a Team and Family Tailgate; Return to Campus at 8pm.

That adds up to 28.5 hours — and fall is her off-season! For this “job”, my daughter was granted a partial scholarship based on competing in all 16 games last season. Recall that the Chronicle article cited the actual number of scholarships per team. In my daughter’s league, lacrosse is mandated to have 13 full scholarships. There are 33 girls on the team, so you can do the math.

Oh, and then there is actual school. At my daughter’s university, students carry 5 courses a semester and they have a number of liberal arts requirements in addition to their major requirements. While athletes are given priority for class scheduling during the season, in the off-season they frequently have no priority. This fall, that meant finding classes with space available that don’t meet MWF before noon or early Tuesday and Thursday. In other words, class options just dropped by about 40%. It took very careful planning along with some pleading to professors and luck to end up with the classes she needed to meet her graduation requirements — and she needs to do the same in spring to complete her major.

Then, there are the injuries. Despite a rigorous injury prevention program, new turf and the best shoes Nike can make, over a 12 month period 5 of my daughter’s teammates tore their ACL’s (statistically impossible but a reality). And there was a broken wrist, shin splints, and my daughter’s broken nose along with the regular bodily wear and tear.

So this D1 prize that so many parents covet is maybe not what they have bargained for after all.

Here’s the point: if your child sleeps in her cleats, nags you to stay late after practice and shows up in the team meeting room with a face full of cotton two hours after breaking her nose saying she’s “good to go tomorrow” (true story) you know you have a kid who wants to play. He or she wants to keep playing because nothing can compare to the fun of the game. When my daughter plays great defense or has an interception, or when her teammates make a spectacular shot, she is just plain joyful. So for her, all of the work and sacrifice has been worth it.

As parents we need to listen to our kids and make sure they want to play as much as we want them to play. If they’re not that interested, maybe they shouldn’t be trekking across country for another club tournament. We need to make sure they don’t hurt themselves by over training even if that means saying “no” to coaches. We need to stay up-to-date on the latest findings on injury prevention. And we need to be sure our kids get the rest they need to stay healthy while competing. My 22 year old daughter cut class today so that she could sleep in for the first time in 2 weeks. And, that’s just fine with me.

Maureen Brown, MBA, is Executive Director for Challenge Success, where she oversees daily operations as well as marketing and strategic planning. Ms. Brown comes to Challenge Success with over 20 years of consulting experience in health care, financial services, and technology. Prior to joining Challenge Success, Ms. Brown worked as an independent consultant and as a Partner at APM, Incorporated, where she structured, sold and managed strategic and operations improvement engagements for health care institutions, primarily university medical centers. Ms. Brown has also worked in Cash Management for Philadelphia National Bank and Citibank. She has been on various boards at Georgetown, and most recently co-founded the Bay Area Georgetown Technology Alliance. Ms. Brown has also served as a Board member at Woodside School.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What I Learned About Why Kids Cheat:
A Parent's Perspective
by Siah Fried

“Well, I’m not saying I cheat all the time but I do feel the pressure to get straight A’s."

“I am willing to stand up at a school board meeting and explain to them why, we, as students would like to see individual rankings done away with. Because we are ranked, and well aware of our ranking amongst our peers, we are constantly competing.”

A teacher leaned over to the new freshman mother and said, “Don’t worry, freshman are not aware of the rankings."

“Yes they are, Mr. Kravitz,” he says earnestly. “Yes, they are. I always knew what my ranking was and so did every other kid I knew since freshman year.”

These are the comments I heard at the first Challenge Success meeting I attended last May. These were the responses to a teacher’s comment about wanting to address, “Very creative and out of control cheating issues that high schools are experiencing.”

What I found so refreshing at this meeting was the authentic manner that the students and teachers exchanged their thoughts. I admired the honesty, respect and thoughtfulness of this conversation between students and adults. I understood very well the power of discussing the actual problem that you want to address with the people who are most afflicted. I was in awe of the articulate and mature manner the students addressed these issues with their teachers and administrators. How wonderful that they felt comfortable to speak so honestly to them about such important issues! I respect the teachers and administrators for allowing such an interaction to take place.

You don’t have to agree with the opposing side, but if you truly want to see change happen, you need to not be afraid to speak your truth and you need to always remain respectful (disagree strongly or not) and listen to the opposing side. I was so impressed with the progress that this committee made after just one meeting.

I sat, wide eyed, holding my breath as the first girl had opened the discussion so candidly about cheating. I looked around the room, waiting for the vice principal or teachers to hand cuff her or at least write her name down. In my days in school, we would never be so bold to admit such a thing to administration. Of course, it wasn’t done at such creative measures either. We never discussed the drastic methods students must have been employing for the teacher to call them “creative and out of hand”. I am still curious.

The open and honest atmosphere amongst this group reminded me of discussions shared by my health classes and myself when we would discuss an article about The Price of Privilege. I used the article as an introduction for the lengthy discussion that always ensued after reading it. A lot of candid sharing would take place in the classroom and we would discuss the reality of the pressure students today feel to overachieve. The true experts in this area are the students themselves.

The main inspiration behind the controversial book I wrote, Tales from Swankville, was the students with whom I shared these frank discussions. I heard repeatedly from readers that the student quotes that open each chapter were very compelling. I have yet to find a kid who isn’t feeling the intense pressure weighing on them in one way or another. I also found that many of my students may not have felt overly stressed themselves but always could relate to it through a friend, sibling, neighbor or classmate. In other words, they are all very aware of the stress and pressure. Thus it doesn’t surprise me that at the first meeting I attend at this high school forum for students and administration, that cheating is the topic. I am surprised though how these students admitted to it and even boldly pointed out to the school administration that the number of tests and work they assign contribute to their desire to cheat because their workload is so great.

Cheating is happening at an alarming rate and in ways parents of my generation could not even imagine. Kids are under so much pressure to be an athlete and an academic; play an instrument, take a minimum of one AP class, and volunteer. In all honesty, could you fit in the hours you need to study for one AP class let alone any other class? Thus to get the grades they are expected to get and to stay on that sport team, they just may need to cheat. Is this how we want our next generation to feel? They won’t know any other way to handle all of their pressure but to take short cuts at any cost. According to some students, many parents know about this but turn their cheek. After all, an adult knows all too well that it’s not humanly possible to excel at such high levels in music, sports, academics, social causes and relationships without something having to give. Some parents and students will keep up the façade of excellence at great lengths. What is all of this doing to kids physically and emotionally now and down the road?

Siah S. Fried, MPH, CHES, is a parent leader for Challenge Success at a high school in California. She is the founder and owner of Healthy Starts Make Healthy Hearts, which is a program designed to target childhood obesity. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Science and a master’s degree in Public Health with an emphasis in School and Community Health. Ms. Fried writes a blog at

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Mental Block on Mental Health
by Moriah Kreeger

What comes to mind when we hear the term “mental health”? Many people might be unable to give a straight answer. Ambiguous terms like “happy” or “stable” might pop up, but it’s likely that the average person has never given it a whole lot of thought. What about the term “mental illness”? Today it often encompasses a spectrum of images: suicidal or self-harming teenagers, Prozac prescriptions, people who are a “danger to themselves and others,” or more. Regardless of your personal reaction, the fact that we have a more concrete perception of mental illness versus mental health is saying something about our cultural values.

Stigmas against mental illness exist all over the world, but let’s focus on the stats in the US: while mental illness affects about 25% of the population, nearly two-thirds of these will never actually seek treatment. This is observed even more so in minority groups. Most interestingly, 50% of all chronic mental illnesses manifest by age 14, and 75% by age 24; this means that the majority of people who experience mental illness will discover it in high school or college. In spite of this, nearly half of 8-15 year olds with mental illness receive treatment.

It’s not that mental illness goes unnoticed: rather, it is often ignored, usually because it is not always easy to understand. A popular anecdote I’ve encountered describes the stark contrast between having a cold and suffering from depression: our peers tend to sympathize much more towards physical illness than mental. It’s much more common to receive a “get well soon!” card when you have a cold or the flu than if you tell your friends that you are suffering from depression. Lack of support or understanding from friends and family often leads to feelings of isolation and a tendency to steer away from treatment.

As somebody who has struggled with general anxiety disorder from childhood, I can say that experiencing mental illness is, in short, terrifying at first. I couldn’t help but feel that something was fundamentally wrong with me, something that I could barely even understand. But I was lucky to be born into a family with a very progressive view toward mental illness; my parents weren’t afraid to seek help for me, and regular therapy in elementary school equipped me with the tools I needed to handle my anxiety and have a generally pleasant experience through junior high and high school. The positive support I received has also made me comfortable with seeking my own treatment when I need it. But to think that nearly half of kids like me have to struggle through their mental illness, and face that fear alone, makes me realize that not all is well in the realm of mental health.

I understand that for many people, the idea of therapy or medication can be daunting. The good news is, there are a number of coping strategies that one can pursue on their own. Here are a few that have worked for me:

1. Meditation. This is probably the simplest strategy I’ve learned, and can be as simple as closing your eyes and breathing deeply. Other modifications to meditation include diaphragmatic (deep) breathing, biofeedback and mindfulness.

2. Exercise. Studies have shown that exercising promotes mental health as well as physical, including improving focus and producing natural pain-relieving endorphins. In high school, becoming a member of the cross-country and track teams was a huge source of stress relief; today, I try to retain that level of activity. Even for the less athletic, something as simple as taking a walk everyday can help clear the mind. I’ve also found yoga to be particularly effective, incorporating meditation into its exercises. Maintaining a healthy diet is also important.

3. Community. This could be as simple as having a good friend or relative to talk to. For some, simply being around people, such as at a party, club or church group can improve self-worth and confidence. Your community isn’t limited to your area either: the rise of the internet has made it infinitely easier for those with mental illness to meet each other and form online support groups. Just reading this blog post shows that you’re utilizing this resource!

Luckily, mental health awareness campaigns have become much more frequent in the past few years, in an effort to eliminate stigma and improve support of those living with mental illness. In university I was incredibly pleased by the wide array of resources for students, ranging from health awareness fairs and events to free psychological services. With increased representation of mental illness and promotion of wellbeing, the fight against stigma has already begun. I encourage everybody, regardless of personal experience, to educate themselves on the nature of mental illness; the resources are there, we just need to use them.

Mental health statistics taken from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

Moriah Kreeger is a biochemistry/linguistics major beginning her final year at UC San Diego. She became involved with Challenge Success in high school and hopes to continue work promoting health and wellness.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

In My Travels
by Maureen Brown

This week I headed to Maine for a 60th birthday party. Long cross country flights almost always provide an interesting array of parenting choices and this trip was no different. On this entirely full flight I was surrounded by families with young children. Directly beside me was a young mom traveling alone with 2 girls, I would guess about 18 months and 3 years old. They were excited to be on the plane and chatty with their mom, who was well prepared with plenty of snacks and lots of activities. A good start, I thought. Then it got interesting. Mom told the girls that once they took off she was going to take a nap and, once in the air, she handed them their electronics, put her head on the tray table and proceeded to sleep. The girls pretty much played with their devices with a few skirmishes along the way for the entire flight, rousing their mom once when they needed a potty run.

As I watched I couldn’t help feeling conflicted. On one hand, I was thinking how great it would have been to have had an electronic babysitter when I traveled solo with my 3 children (an older daughter and boy/girl twins just 20 months apart) so many years ago. I could have used help on a couple of occasions. On the other hand, it just underscored for me how today’s families are using electronics and how early the extensive screen time starts. And, why was I so bothered by this mom, who was head down for a good 5 hours, anyway? After all, the girls were safe, fed and playing independently. Maybe she was just resting up for the remainder of what could have been a long trip. It could have been that she has a sleepless night and really needed the rest to care for the girls once they landed. I wanted to get back to my book but I just couldn’t stop glancing over to see what was going on next door. Knowing that the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages media use for kids this age made me wonder whether this was a regular pattern or just a “special” travel case. Do parents know they should limit use—or is it just too hard not to give in? In the end, I think I was bothered mostly because it just seemed like a lost opportunity to read or draw or play cards together with no interruptions, a real luxury. And that was just plain sad.

Maureen Brown, MBA, is Executive Director for Challenge Success, where she oversees daily operations as well as marketing and strategic planning. Ms. Brown comes to Challenge Success with over 20 years of consulting experience in health care, financial services, and technology. Prior to joining Challenge Success, Ms. Brown worked as an independent consultant and as a Partner at APM, Incorporated, where she structured, sold and managed strategic and operations improvement engagements for health care institutions, primarily university medical centers. Ms. Brown has also worked in Cash Management for Philadelphia National Bank and Citibank. She has been on various boards at Georgetown, and most recently co-founded the Bay Area Georgetown Technology Alliance. Ms. Brown has also served as a Board member at Woodside School.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

“We’re” Not Going To College
by Julie Lythcott-Haims

A human unfolding into adulthood is an ugly, beautiful thing. I should know. As Stanford’s freshman dean for ten years I had a front row seat as thousands of teenagers emerged into their adult selves through the alchemy of trial, error, and dreams. They made me laugh. They made me cry. I rooted for them either way.

I also have two kids of my own making their way through the rigors of public school in Palo Alto so, between my own parenting experience and my decade with undergraduates, I know a thing or two about parents. Nowadays, in well-to-do communities like mine and throughout our country, we parents over-direct, over-protect, and over-involve ourselves in childhood. Of course we don’t want to see our kids struggle, let alone suffer, and we act with the best of intentions. Yet bestselling author and psychologist Madeline Levine (Teach Your Children Well; The Price of Privilege) tells us that when we do what our kids can already do for themselves or can almost do for themselves, we’re robbing them of the very experiences that build their psychological sense of self. We all want what’s best for our kids, but given Levine’s concerns it’s worth asking whether we’ve lost sight of that goal, whether we parents do in fact know what’s best anymore, whether all of this hovering is “worth it,” and whether we know what “worth it” even means.

We seem so afraid on our kids’ behalf – of strangers, of missed opportunities, of failing to keep up with the Joneses – and our fears impel us to always be there, present, hovering, poised to prevent, protect, intervene, advocate, and defend. We speak up for our little Jane when little Johnny snatches her toy. Or rush to apologize for or defend little Johnny when he’s met with the scornful eyes of the parents of Jane. We get in fights with refs, coaches and other parents on the sidelines of our kids’ games when we’re advocating for our exceptional children. We supervise recess in elementary school to make sure everyone is getting along and no one is excluded. We attend back to school nights with a vengeance, paying attention to what “we” need to do in order to be successful in the sixth grade. We argue with the teacher about our kids’ less than perfect grades in middle and high school, as if the teacher has made a mistake instead of our perfect kid. It’s as if we are the ones heartbroken over the snatched the toy, as if we are donning the jersey for the big game, or waiting for a turn on the tire swing, or sitting in a desk in a classroom endlessly raising our hand. As if we are the ones trying to get into college.

But “we’re” not going to college. Really, folks, college is not for us. Remember back to your own college years and try to place your parents’ involvement in the picture – you’ll recall they were hardly there at all. That’s the way it should be.

Of the tens of thousands of college students I worked with, many were well-equipped to handle the challenges. They came to college fairly self-motivated, and could take the initiative, pick themselves up after disappointment, find supports, and move on. They could set out to try new things based on their authentic sense of their own interests, curiosities, and talents, and they could cope or advocate for themselves when things didn’t go their way. These students made good grades, but more importantly they felt good about themselves. Their sense of self was well-developed. They might have spoken with Mom and Dad regularly, even daily, as is the norm for teenagers and young adults today, but these students weren’t scanning the sidelines for Mom and Dad to come and rescue them. Or to be told what to do.

In contrast to these well-adjusted students were the growing number of students on my campus whose parents had done too much of the work of life for them, such that the student was rather bewildered when confronted with choices, problems, or questions they were accustomed to Mom or Dad handling. (Stanford was in no way unique in this regard – colleagues on campuses nationwide reported the exact same thing.) These parents would do some subset of the following: call to wake their kid up, remind them about assignments and deadlines, provide small and not so small edits on papers, tell them what they could and could not study, condition family acceptance on academic achievement, tell them which extra-curricular opportunities to pursue, argue with the university when outcomes weren’t as desired, meet with the academic advisor to discuss what they claim to be the student’s interests, contest a student’s grade, travel with them to an overseas campus, write a cover letter for a job application. These kids often also made good grades – which tells us that good grades can belie a whole host of problems – but the human being earning those grades was often fragile, weak, lost, and in my view is likely to one day be resentful of the very parents who were “helping” in the name of love.

It is easy to point to examples of over-involved behavior, but far less so to stop its progression. After all, if we hovered throughout our kids’ childhood it feels cruel to stop hovering as our kids head off to college because the stakes are so high. The thing is, our sense of the height of the stakes is misplaced – college is inherently more flexible than the real world and so is actually a very safe space in which to flounder, flail, and even fail. And even if the stakes are high and the consequences of struggle profound, we are shortsighted to think that doing everything for our kids actually prepares them to succeed in that cold, cruel world. After all, we’re supposed to raise our kids to be adults one day, to prepare them for what’s hard about life not to protect them from it.

What’s the harm of a little over-involvement in college, you may be thinking. Well, in my experience, it just means you don’t know where to stop, and in fact you may never. Parents who were over-involved in high school turn into parents who receive late night electronic transfers of essays between them and their college-aged children, which leads to parents writing job cover letters, which leads to parents doing assignments in the workplace. I’m not making this up. People tell me these stories. I’ve become a mecca for people with the latest examples of over-parenting. The ethical implications alone are staggering, but even more grotesque is the impact on the psychological health of the young adult we are so keen on “helping.” My hunch is that our omnipresence delivers the soul-crushing news: Kid, you can’t actually do any of this without me. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies tells me my hunches are right: “Undergraduates with excessively involved parents are more likely than others to be depressed or dissatisfied with life, and a high degree of parental involvement appeared to interfere with the ability of offspring to feel autonomous and competent.”[1] Hardly the advice found in any of the countless parenting books, magazines and blogs we’ve consulted over the years, is it? These same “kids” go out into the workplace lacking the very skills valued there – things like problem solving, creativity, resilience, and perseverance, not to mention good mental health. Managers in industries large and small nationwide are starting to report the presence of parents in the workplace wanting to sit alongside or in place of their “kid” at interviews and benefits sessions and it’s the parents who take on the role of asking the important questions because their “child” doesn’t want to, is too busy, can’t understand, or – let’s face it – simply never has.

Parents showing up everywhere in the life of a child is a classic example of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Of not being able to take the long view. Would any of us prefer to have our otherwise healthy adult children completely dependent upon us for decision-making, problem-solving, and negotiating the rough patches of life? Would any of us feel comfortable with the idea of such an adult child caring for us in our old age? The answer, of course, is no. Hell no. But we’re losing our sense of how to prevent these very things from happening. We’re discarding our instinctual sense of how to grow a human to adulthood.

With colleges now opening for the fall term there’s no better time for parents and college-bound children to talk about the role the parent currently plays in the life of the child, and how that role will evolve so the child can build the skills she’ll need to thrive out in the world of adult life, relationships and work. Millions of parents will march off to college this fall just as they marched off to soccer practice over the years, fearful that if they hang back but every other parent leans forward their kids will miss the important details or the chance at an important opportunity. We have a natural instinct to teach our children to succeed, but when we show up to do the intense listening, ask the hard questions, and make the choices, instead of expecting our kids to do these things for themselves, it teaches them precisely nothing – except that we’ll always be there to live their lives for them. Which of course we won’t.

Type A parents can get a jump-start on providing these benefits of independence to their child by having such conversations with their high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Yes there was more than a little cheek in that sentence, but the truth is, independence is most lovingly fostered when it’s done over time, not imposed cold turkey. We forget sometimes that we only got to this point of evolution as humans because generations of forefathers and foremothers let their kids go.

As parents we want to impart all we know and lead our kids by the hand, forever. But there is more to our precious children than we can possibly know. Things only they can discover. The world and our kids’ pursuits in it will give them cause for great laughter and great pain. It may even give them the chance to raise a child of their own to adulthood one day, and oh, when they become parents themselves, how much they will hope to know! Our role as parents changes as our kids become adults, but it will always be our job to love them. As our children - our pride and joy - go off to college this fall and their generation prepares to take the mantle of leadership from ours, we owe it to them to brace through our fierce tears of fear and longing and remind them to trust in themselves. The universe is vast and wild, ugly and beautiful; we may have to remind ourselves, too, to trust they can make their way in it as we commit the most loving act of letting go.

[1] “Helping or Hovering: The Effect of Helicopter Parenting on College Students’ Well Being,” Journal of Child and Family Studies, Springer Science + Business Media, New York (2013).

Julie Lythcott-Haims was Stanford’s first dean of freshmen, a position she created in order to help students feel a strong sense of belonging at the university. She held this position for ten years and in 2010 received Stanford’s Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for exceptional contributions to undergraduate education. A graduate of Stanford University herself as well as Harvard Law School Julie is herself a student once again, this time pursuing an MFA in Writing (Poetry) at California College of the Arts. She remains deeply interested in humans living lives of meaning and purpose, and encourages the young and young at heart alike to have the courage to find their voice and honor what they hear. She is the author of a forthcoming book on the impact of helicopter parenting. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, their two children, and her mother.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Living the Dream
by Nicoletta Heidegger

I would be lying to you, parents, if I told you I wasn’t having fun working at summer camp. Glassy, calm, blue lake, rowboats, sailboats, hiking, yoga, improv, and even disco bingo- these are a few activities that are a part of my job. When prefacing working at summer camp, many people put “job” in quotes, insinuating that camp is not a real position, since we do not work in a cubicle or the depths of a sunless research lab. But do I have to dislike my job to make it a serious, important stepping-stone for my future?

It is my third summer working at a beautiful camp nestled in Lake Tahoe, California. I had some friends who decided to stay on campus or work in a big city; they were so excited to work one-on-one with their idol professor, or so they thought. I even considered a summer staying on campus, as the majority opinion insisted that would be the best place to make connections hereafter.

Instead, many of my friends became lab rats and spent most of their days sitting inside at a desk working for a graduate student crunching numbers, and never even met the professor who led the lab. Though sometimes this necessary grunt work paves the way for a better future position, it is difficult to say whether this interaction-less lifestyle actually helped my friends develop as human beings.

Of course, not all internships or office positions are like this. It seems the successful tech companies of the Silicon Valley have begun to incorporate a camp-style experience with office life, maintaining that happy workers do a better job. For example, a conference room at Palo Alto’s Palantir is, essentially, a Chuck E. Cheese style ball pit. Google, for example, even offers subsidized massages, Pilates classes, and a vast array of free food. Google is a beyond successful multi billion dollar company; they must know a thing or two about creating a good work atmosphere and productive employees. One recent March 2013 New York Times article about “Google: a Place to Work and Play,” noted, “…people do their most creative work when they’re motivated by the work itself.”

Though there are some set standards of hospitality at camp, like at Google, there is also space to create new and original programming and to initiate and oversee a unique camp experience. One of my co-counselors, a junior at Stanford, notes that working at a camp has allowed her “to be her best self and to grow as a person.” At most general internships, the creativity is limited to which size of straw to get for your boss’ coffee or which kind of notepad to write your chores in. With this flexibility for ownership of the camp programs, it permits staff to wear many hats: both the professional customer service beret, and the self-expressive cowboy hat. From even the most monotonous jobs like scrubbing floors, camp staffers always bring their own creativity to the literal floor; they often create themes, wear costumes, choreograph a song and dance, or incorporate some way to entertain the guests. Not only does this dimension provide a spectacle for the amused campers, it also creates a happy and productive workplace.

In addition to being emotionally fulfilled and happy working at a summer camp, every job and effort I have sweat over at camp has been indispensible to some aspect of my life. Obviously every camp is different, yet most camps today expect and feature high quality care and service.

The following are just a few additional key tools that I personally have gained as a camp counselor:

Childcare and Conflict Resolution:  If you have ever tried to get two five year olds to share an amazing toy, you know how difficult it can be to appease both parties without some tears. Trying to work out a compromise requires extreme patience, good listening skills, and an ability to be an objective mediator. These qualities of conflict resolution apply whether two children are fighting over a dodge ball game or two CEO’s are discussing the next step in the million-dollar company merger.

Customer Service:  Living at a camp, one is technically always working. There is constantly a guest with certain dietary restrictions, a special request, or someone who has a comment or complaint. I once had a guest tell me that the “raw mushrooms were too rubbery.” I am no scientist, but I would argue that raw mushrooms, by nature, are in fact rubbery. As a customer service representative of the camp, one must have the patience to listen to these kinds of comments, the sensitivity to feel with the guest, and the responsibility to follow through and create positive changes.

Safety/Liability Knowledge:  All camp counselors are required to be CPR, first aid/lifeguard trained and are given briefs in liability and safety. In any work or personal environment, this knowledge is essential for ensuring the safety of yourself and those around you. It is also a great introduction to important legal ramifications.

Time Management:  Camp work requires being on almost 24/7. One must be both able to work hard, get enough rest, and try to find personal time. In addition, on a moment’s notice one must be able to split his or her time and interact appropriately with people of all different ages and from all different walks of life.

The Future
If you are worried about resume building, camp can actually be a huge asset; it is all about how you frame the experiences that you have had and how you communicate your time. It is comparable to a well-written college essay. A friend of mine who attended Stanford with me wrote her application essay as a comparison of herself to a Nerds rope. A Nerds rope is a simple, piece of candy, yet examined from a new angle and upon closer inspection, a Nerds rope can be a complex and intricate work of art.

It is the same with including “summer camp” on your resume. One could simply just say, “camp counselor,” but as a hard-working camp counselor myself, I know that that meager description is barely even a snowflake from the tip of the iceberg. I can only hope that any future job or internship provides me with at least a smattering of the experience, expertise, and relationships that I gained while joyously working at camp.

For me, the proverbial "road less traveled" has led not only to lush forests and crystal clear lakes, but also to clarity and definition in a sustaining passion and career choice in life.

Nicoletta Heidegger graduated in 2013 from Stanford University, where she majored in Psychology and served as the school mascot, the Stanford tree. She now lives in Los Angeles and attends Pepperdine University for a clinical masters program in marriage and family therapy. In her free time, Nicoletta competes hunter jumper horses and loves to surf and play the drums.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Six Things That Matter More Than Perfect Grades

Well, actually, this piece could be entitled seven hundred and six things that matter more than perfect grades. But hey, I needed to pick a number and there is a word limit for blogs. While there is no debating, that for most kids, grades do matter, and that they matter significantly, the fact is that we’re thinking about grades in entirely the wrong way. Good grades as an indicator of engagement with learning, curiosity and persistence mean something both in the present and as indicators of being successful out in the work place. But getting straight A’s so you’ll get into Harvard, in order to get an internship at Goldman Sachs, so you can go to Wharton for your MBA, and as a result, will be set for life is a very poor way to think about grades. Unfortunately, this has become the paradigm for many young people and it bodes poorly not only for their mental health, but for their success out in the work world as well. Here is an example of the kind of thinking that all of our parental and cultural anxiety about grades results in. This is an actual transcript of one of my fifteen-year-old patients; let’s call her Chloe. She and I are discussing possible college choices even though she’s only a sophomore in high school.

Chloe: My dad is a complete asshole. He’s mean to people and he cheats in business. I really think he’s a jerk.
Me: Guess you’d like to be a different kind of person than your father.
Chloe: No, not really. He went to Harvard and he’s made a fortune. My mom went to a state school. She may be nice but she’s a loser.
Me: Why is she a loser if she’s nice?
Chloe: Nice is being weak. If she had gotten better grades and didn’t waste time being nice she would get more respect and make more money.
Me: So whom would you prefer to be like?
Chloe: Duh (complete with mandatory eye roll). My dad. No one cares if you’re a jerk. They only care if you “make it.” And I want to make it. I know I’m not really learning anything at school now. But I don’t care. As long as I ace my tests and get into one of the schools that rich kids go to, I’ll be happy.

A seasoned adolescent psychologist is not easily taken aback, but it took me a minute after this conversation to recalibrate my reactions to Chloe. While I’d like to think she’s an outlier, a particularly vapid kid with no sense of who she is yet or the kinds of skills that will actually stand her in good stead, I know she’s not. Unfortunately, she is typical of a breed of teenagers who have become so focused - by their parents, their schools, the culture, their peers and themselves on gaming the system, cheating when necessary and believing that money and material goods are the foundation of a life well-lived - that they have little opportunity to develop the kinds of ideas that used to be typical of teenagers. Decades ago, when I first began practicing, teenagers typically were concerned with friends, appearances, and most touchingly, the world. They talked a lot about “meaning,” wrote treacly poetry and cared, often deeply, about big social issues like civil rights, famine or war. Unfortunately, I rarely hear about these concerns in my office anymore.

Anyone who’s been alive for a few decades longer than Chloe, who has actually participated in life, knows that there are dozens of mistakes in Chloe’s thinking. No school guarantees either success or failure. Being a good person matters. Materialistic people are less happy than less materialistic people. Real learning, engagement, enthusiasm and persistence are what lead to interests and passions in life. And perhaps most of all, that connection to others matters greatly to well-being and that narcissistic preoccupation with looking important is certain to impair connection. That being said, and while there are many components to a life well-lived, here is my list of things that matter, not simply more than grades, but that matter if we want our kids to have meaningful, productive and moral lives.

Having Friends – one of the best predictors of mental health. Kids who are too preoccupied with grades and put all their energy into studying don’t have the necessary time to cultivate strong relationships. Other people tend to be seen as ways to gain an advantage rather than as potential sources of mutual support. Sometimes parents say, “They can make friends later.” No they can’t. Being a good friend takes a great deal of practice beginning early in life.

Character – integrity, honesty, reliability. These are the kinds of traits that we look for in friends, spouses and workers. This country has seen enough despair brought on by people who lack a basic sense of decency and responsibility to others.

Resilience – Try to make it through life without a good set of coping skills. Impossible. Life throws lots of curve balls at us and will at our children. Learning how to manage: how to delay gratification, to exert self-control, to soothe one’s self, to fall down and get up again – are mandatory so that our children are not undone when faced with challenge. And they will be faced with challenge.

Interests/Passions – I’m tentative about using the word “passion,” hence the interests/passions qualifier. I’ve had moms call me worried that their four-year-old child doesn’t have a “passion.” Life is their passion. Depending on temperament, for many kids, interest is enough. But Chloe is right when she says she isn’t really “learning anything.” Real interests and passions grow out of talent, time and practice. They make life rich.

• Collaboration – Every C-level executive I’ve spoken with underscores the need for collaboration in the workplace. In our “flat” world, problems are so complex, that they will not be solved by individuals sitting in a room and being hit by a bolt of lightening. People working together, often across cultures and time zones will solve them. And of course, we all know the benefit of having a collaborative spouse or best friend.

Self-Reflection – Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Whether you’re a fan of psychology or not, having the time and inclination to understand one’s self is critical to making good decisions, to understanding motives and to appreciating the challenges that living presents. Kids who are busy “climbing the ladder” from early on will often say they don’t have time to “think about things.” Big mistake. Without thinking about things, one is likely to repeat mistakes and feel “lost.” A sense of self comes from many places, but can’t be constructed without time devoted to self-reflection.

Next time your child insists on staying up half the night to study, or turns down an invitation from a friend, remember this list. Put it up on your refrigerator. I’ve seen hundreds of unhappy kids over the years. While academic success is certainly to be applauded, it is only one piece of the puzzle that goes into being a good person with a sense of purpose and meaning in the world. The kind of person you’d probably choose to work with, be friends with or marry.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Should Teachers Return Graded Tests?
by Dr. Denise Pope, Challenge Success Co-Founder

Jay Mathews, education writer for The Washington Post, wrote a recent column about teachers who refused to give students back their graded tests. Some of these tests were the standardized tests that the states or districts re-use each year, and the teachers were worried about kids cheating -- sharing questions and answers with next year’s students. But some of the tests that remained under lock and key were end-of-unit tests and midterms. Jay reported that many parents and educators thought this policy was unfair. Most of the learning that takes place after a student takes a test happens precisely when that student has a chance to see what she got wrong and learn from her mistakes. This doesn't necessarily happen in the 45 minutes during class time when the tests are passed back briefly and then recollected. Sometimes a student needs to grapple with the problem, go home and think about it, and use the test to help study for future exams and assessments.

I understand how difficult it is to make a great test. It can take hours and hours of a teacher's time. But if the end goal is for all students to learn, then we must find a way to allow kids to see their mistakes and correct them. At Challenge Success we help teachers learn to use multiple forms of assessment. Sometimes we suggest that students play a role in constructing their own test questions or essay topics. Often we urge educators to consider project-based assessments which are much harder to cheat on and can be "re-used" with each new group of students. We also urge educators to allow ways for students to revise their work and to redeem themselves. We have found that when teachers allow students to take home graded tests and then turn in test corrections, the students can learn from their mistakes and eventually understand the material in depth.

We know that cheating is a problem -- especially in high school, and we sympathize with the time it takes to design effective assessments. Ultimately, however, our students will work in the "real world" where rarely (if ever?) will they be judged on the quality of their work on a timed paper and pencil exam, based on questions they don't know ahead of time, and without the ability to use any of the resources (people, internet, work notes, etc.) on which they are used to relying when doing daily tasks. If the exam is easy to copy and far removed from the kind of work folks do outside of school, then perhaps we need to design a more cheat-proof assessment that will challenge students before, during AND after they receive feedback.

Denise Pope, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University School of Education. For the past thirteen years, she has specialized in student engagement, curriculum studies, qualitative research methods, and service learning. Dr. Pope lectures nationally on parenting techniques and pedagogical strategies to increase student health, engagement with learning, and integrity. Her book, "Doing School": How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (Yale University Press, 2001) was awarded Notable Book in Education by the American School Board Journal, 2001. Dr. Pope is a 3 time recipient of the Stanford University School of Education Outstanding Teacher and Mentor Award.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

In Defense of Occasional Dullness
by Laura Pochop

We’ve hit the heart of summer, a season that conjures up sepia-toned memories for all of us grownups. Coppertone-watermelon-seed-catching-fireflies-ice-cream-truck-spotlight-tag-come-home-when-the-streetlights-come-on memories. Periodically, there’s talk of year-round school. It’s true, the current schedule was built around agrarian kids helping with the summer harvest. It’s been perpetuated by the myth of a stay-at-home mom in every house. It makes no sense educationally or economically. Still, I’m sad for the kids who’ll someday suffer through a theoretically ‘better’ schedule. Because they won’t get those magical, endless days of nothing-to-do, nowhere-to-be summer that we dreamed of all year.

Except they’re not actually getting that now. Rare is the kid these days who can look forward to even a week of ‘free’ time over the summer. Instead, they’re in sleep-away and day camps, sports and art camps, community service and Spanish camps, and even actual camping-camps. The older ones take summer school classes at Cal, study for the SAT’s, and travel to Cambodia to build village water systems. The littlest learn to swim, play drums and build complicated Lego structures.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in awe of the Bay Area’s Cheesecake-Factory menu of high-quality summer camps, and fiercely jealous of my own offspring. Some of their top life moments have sprung from creatively designed, brilliantly executed camps.

And yet, I fight to carve out time each summer when they’re not in camp. Taken to excess, the plethora of summer camp options goads us over-parenters to duplicate the rampant overscheduling of the school year, with its oppressive Team Snap reminders, carpools and nagging. It can also feed a sense of entitlement in our kids, who come to feel deserving of constant attention, programming and cool activities delivered by hyper-enthusiastic young adults 24/7.

Sometimes what kids need most of all is the absence of adult supervision and structure. To figure out how to be alone, how to invent their own games and create their own distractions. How to be bored.

This weekend, I passed a chalk-drawn hopscotch on the sidewalk, with the one-two-one-two pattern winding slowly, continuing for almost the whole block. It ended, finally, at ‘489.’ And I felt a rush of sepia-toned connection with the child who created it. There’s no Hopscotch Camp, is there?

Laura Pochop holds an MBA from Stanford University. She currently does sell-side investment banking and owns a specialty market with her husband in the Bay Area. Laura writes a column for the Piedmont Post where she offers commentary on living in our fast-paced, competitive society and the issues of raising three kids in this sometimes crazed environment. This piece was originally published in the July 10th issue of the Piedmont Post.

Monday, May 13, 2013

by Shoshana Wineburg

Five months ago, I started working nights at a restaurant. Though the restaurant is cozy and well-attended, I noticed something peculiar: many diners were not communicating with each other. They were distracted by their screens. Disturbed, I wrote an op-ed and published it in The Seattle Times. At the end of the article, I included this short bio:

 “Shoshana Wineburg graduated from Stanford University in 2009 with a degree in American Studies. She waits tables in Seattle.”

Comments ensued. Most people responded to the article’s content; others could care less. They wanted to talk about my degree. One user wrote that my bio was “the saddest part of the article.” Someone else said my degree was not “worthwhile,” and that waiting tables after graduating from Stanford was “kinda depressing.”

I haven’t just waited tables after Stanford. I’ve done other things. But that’s beside the point. The point is that the comments represent a value system that measures success by achievement and income, not character. This is a type of success our culture breeds, a type of success that pervades our high schools and college campuses. We strive for status. We are defined by our name-brands. We are measured by our income.

I know this value system because I encountered it at Stanford. I know it intimately because I subscribed to it.

Like many other students, once I got to campus, I started looking forward. I made a post-college five-year plan. I had it all figured out.

Until I didn’t.

The problem was that as I equated my self-worth with my achievement, I got sick. It started as stress. Then it mushroomed into crippling anxiety. I spent days with a tightened chest and knotted stomach. The anxiety festered. By winter quarter junior year, I was miserable. I walked around campus with a plastered smile and glassy eyes exhausted from holding back tears. I slid into depression. Negative voices suffocated me. Writing my essays took forever. I imagined getting D’s. You’re worthless, the voices whispered. You’re a fraud.

The following quarter was my quarter abroad. I was supposed to go to France. I convinced myself that the Eifel Tower would solve my problems. Who gets depressed in Paris? How could chocolate croissants not make me happy?

I got worse. I lost my concentration. I couldn’t read because I couldn’t register the words. I struggled to speak. Sentences came out disjointed, thoughts incoherent. I had sleepless nights and my eyes started twitching. I would walk around with my hand clasped to my chest, because the pain throbbed. Complex thoughts shriveled to simple ones. Could I get through the day? How much more could I tolerate? How much longer could I last?

I never got to enjoy the croissant because food lost its taste. I stopped eating. I stopped talking. I stopped living.

Had I not had a best friend with me, I don’t know what would have happened. Her presence was my blessing. It was she who convinced me to go home. She told me that I had been strong, but the real strength would be to admit that I needed help.

So I did the unthinkable for someone who had been hard-wired to succeed. I dropped out of Stanford-in Paris. I failed.

Here’s what failure teaches you. Failure teaches you humility. Failure teaches you are more than your shortcomings; your humanity extends beyond the W’s on your transcript. Failure teaches you gratitude. It forces you to reexamine what’s important and appreciate all you have. Failure is impermanent. You get through it. Along the way, you cultivate perspective. And empathy. And compassion. You learn that despite the fall, you’ll be okay.

When I got back to school, I promised myself that I would live with integrity. I dropped the honors and the double major. I spent my senior year taking classes that resonated with me. I took meaningful classes, classes that forced me to think critically, ethically, and philosophically.

Failure gave me the courage to pursue different paths and paradigms of success. After graduating, I spent time at a religious institute in Jerusalem. I worked with an NGO doing community empowerment with Israel’s Ethiopian Community. I lived on a mountain in Peru and taught English in the Andes.

Now, I’ve returned to the US. And, yes, at night, I work in a restaurant. It’s good money and it pays my bills. It’s not permanent. I don’t aspire to serve food my whole life. But for now, it’s what I’m doing.

We all want to find stable and satisfying employment. But ultimately who we are—how we think, how we communicate, how we empathize, how we love—is just as much a part of success as achievement. Too often we value the latter at the expense of the former. Too often, that recipe makes us sick.

I won’t be made sick. Not again.

Shoshana Wineburg grew up in Seattle, Washington. She graduated from Stanford in 2009 with a degree in American Studies. Following graduation, she lived in Israel and Peru and waited tables in between. She currently works at a restaurant in Seattle.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Giving Our Kids the Best Practice Years of Their Life
by Harriet Cabelly

The taxi number was up on the refrigerator. She knew the time had come. She had missed the bus one too many times. I was upstairs biting my tongue.

I had rescued my daughter enough times by driving her to school when she overslept. “The next time you miss your bus, you’ll have to figure out how to get to school on your own,” I had said. “But none of my friends drive yet, how will I get there? I can’t take a taxi, it’s too much money.”

And so that became the solution to the problem, which quickly became extinct when she didn’t have enough money for her small pleasure items. When Esti had to dip into her weekly spending money and then some, getting up on time seemed like a better alternative than giving up her cash to a cab driver. I was out of rescue and savior mode and she was learning some great skills: responsibility, accountability, self-reliance. She obviously didn’t like it, but is parenting always about Liking and Pleasing?

It’s about preparing, guiding, teaching our children for real life. It’s about raising them with a future in mind; a future of successful living where the internal make-up of our children will propel them towards living lives of passion, joy, meaning, purpose, satisfaction; where challenges will not knock them out and keep them down but will rather raise them up with renewed strength and motivation to go forward.

Are we helping our kids towards this end? Are we encouraging independence, self-reliance and competence when we over-parent by doing everything for them, when we rush in to prevent them from falling, from making mistakes, from reaping the natural consequences of their actions? It’s by no means easy to sit back and watch our children ‘suffer’ knowing we could do something: intervene to get that mark changed from a C to a B, or get their class changed to the ‘nicer’ teacher. Are we not stripping them of vital opportunities to learn and practice the coping skills needed to deal with things not perfect to our liking?

We basically have eighteen years to do this preparatory work with our children and give them the best shot at creating an internally rich and satisfying life. We need to help them grow these intrinsic qualities of resourcefulness, zest and enthusiasm, perseverance, creativity and a host of others, as these are the perennial underpinnings in our forever transient world.

Experiencing and feeling a sense of satisfaction and pride that comes from struggling through to accomplish a difficult task, figuring out what to do when a problem arises, is what begins to build that resiliency muscle. “I did it myself” is a powerful statement of pride and joy the first time a 4 year old opens his milk container. That internal bit of new confidence will push him through next time despite the difficulty of manipulating the carton. With practice it only gets easier and he feels his own success. This is how we learn specific tasks, but more importantly, it’s how we develop an ‘I can do it’ attitude , a huge building block of competence and confidence.

“And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” (Batman movie)

We must teach our children to keep getting up and growing forward. We want to avoid overwatering their seeds and stunting their growth from blossoming into potentially high-reaching sunflowers.

If these are the practice games of their young lives, we need to teach them to play well, fall and deal with their cuts and bruises. For there will always be hurts. “I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.” (Brene Brown)

Harriet Cabelly is a social worker and parent coach. She's passionate about empowering parents to raise resilient, competent and passionate children. You can learn more about Harriet and her work at

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Second-Hand Performance Anxiety:
5 Reasons Why Parents Fret Over Their Kids’ Performance

Welcome to the season of parental anxiety. As surely as winter melts into spring and Uncle Sam demands his yearly tribute, we start worrying about end of semester tests, registration deadlines for the “right” summer camps and the arrival of college acceptance (or, heaven forbid, rejection) letters.

That parents fret about their kids’ performance is no secret. Why and what to do about it is less clear. In this blog I’m going to explore some of the reasons behind the handwringing. Yes, we all love our kids and we all want them to be successful. But that has always been true of parents, and yesterday’s parents didn’t obsess over every test grade and spend every spare minute shuttling them to rehearsals, matches and tournaments…did they?

No. They did not. (Ask yourself: did your parents parent the way you do? Did your friends’ parents?)

You probably know my position on overparenting. However well-intentioned, it doesn’t do kids (or parents) any favors. Research has proven this again and again, and has shed light on the damage it causes in the form of stress, sleep-deprivation and a variety of shortfalls in personal development, notably resilience and coping skills. Yet before parents can stop pressuring, driving and controlling their children they must first understand what’s driving their anxiety.

• The risk of going against perceived community values. Peer pressure is a powerful force. That’s true for adults, too. When everyone else is hiring tutors at the first sign of an A-minus and pushing their kids to pursue two or three extracurricular activities chosen with an eye toward bolstering their college application, to do otherwise is to go against the cultural norm. Even if we know in our heart that deviating from said norms is best for our child, no one wants to be perceived as a “not good enough” parent.

So many parents describe feeling like “a salmon swimming upstream.” To watch your neighbors spend thousands to send their child to the top academic enrichment camp while yours hangs out at the local YMCA day camp all summer is tough. Even knowing he needs that break from the rigors of school, it’s hard not to second-guess yourself. It takes conviction and self-assurance and, yes, great love for your child. It is also part of your responsibility to be more tuned to the needs of your child and her healthy development than to community norms.

• The belief that not providing all possible opportunities and enrichment experiences will put your child at a disadvantage. Here’s the remedy for this one: realize that many of the strategies we use to optimize our children’s potentials are based on faulty thinking. Ironically, pressuring them to achieve, scheduling them to the max, and dismissing unstructured play as a waste of time is not only not helping our kids, it’s actually harming them.

For the most part, our children don’t need a puppet-master directing them to the “right” activities. They do need the space and freedom to find their internal motivation and develop self-efficacy.

Kids with no down time miss out on the vital developmental tasks of childhood. It’s through unstructured play and “hanging out” that children hone social skills, imagination, persistence, and a sense of self. The foundation gained in childhood is critical for eventually building a healthy adult.

• A dearth of career opportunities. It’s true that the economy is grim, that jobs are in short supply, and that our kids will graduate childhood and enter a super competitive “flat world.” I won’t deny this reality and I do understand why parents feel they must give their kids every advantage. But—again—the things we’re doing to provide that advantage are the exact opposite of what most kids need.

A singular focus on academics keeps kids from developing other life skills critical for success in a global economy: the ability to self-motivate, collaborate, problem-solve, and persevere when the going gets tough. These are the very skills business leaders say so many young employees lack; instead, they display a sense of entitlement and a distressing lack of work ethic and “grit.” When we turn our children into good-grade machines and neglect the rest of their development, we set them up to fail in the business world.

• “How else can I measure myself if not by my kid's performance?” This question has two potential meanings. One is, if my child doesn’t excel academically, then how do I measure my success as a parent? The other variation is, if I’m not the parent of an academic superstar…then how do I measure my success as a human being? Let’s discuss them one at a time.

First, academic success is not the be-all end-all. Every kid is not a whiz kid. Every child is not above average. (Talk about a statistical impossibility!) Yet, whether the school system labels them as “gifted” or not, every child does have his or her own unique and marvelous gifts. Learning to fully appreciate and nurture those gifts—and not just the skill-du-jour—is, in my opinion, the key to successful parenting.

Here’s the thing: not every child wants to be a neurosurgeon. All can be fulfilled in their chosen professions. (Research is clear that income and prestige are no guarantees of happiness.) If you can let your child follow his passions and make his own way—and enthusiastically support his choices while offering love and guidance—you’ll likely create a happy, healthy, confident adult. Parent this way, with an eye toward authentic success 20 years down the road, and you can count yourself as a success.

The second iteration of this question (which might be phrased “If not a parent, who am I?”) raises deeper, more complex psychological issues. For a variety of reasons—our own insecurities, loss of connection to our roots, lack of community support—we put all of our eggs in one basket. We confuse our own identities and needs with those of our kids. We look to our children’s achievements as tangible evidence that our own lives have value—and when they fall short of our expectations, no wonder we feel anxious.

• An over-involvement with child-centered activities and a neglect of adult activities. For the reasons I just mentioned, too many parents put children at the center of the family. We spend our time in the bleachers watching them play sports. We allot our disposable income to their activities. We structure our lives around them. In the process we eschew date nights, friendships and activities we enjoy. Then, we wonder why we get so upset and frustrated when our “investment” doesn’t appear to be paying off.

It’s time to rediscover our own needs, our own identities, our own relationships with friends and partners, our own sense of fun — Our own life. Not only will this alleviate the anxiety we feel over how our kids are doing, it will go along way toward preventing the entitlement and self-centeredness so many kids exhibit.

Finally think about this: We simply cannot control our children’s future no matter how many enrichment experiences we buy and how many tutors we hire. Actually, this realization may be the most powerful catalyst for behavior change there is. It lets us off the hook and allows us to let go a little. It gives us permission to stop worrying about our kids’ performance and grades—their heads—and start paying attention to their hearts. It allows us to model an exciting and vital view of adulthood. When we can make this leap it will feel much better to our kids…and to us.

Friday, January 18, 2013

by Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

Put On Your Own Mask First: A New Year’s Message To Parents

Put your own mask on first, then assist children with theirs. Anyone who has ever flown has heard this bit of wisdom. It’s also a familiar analogy for how we should approach parenting. We can’t help our kids if we’re not okay ourselves. Most of us know this in theory. But how many of us live like we know it?

We parents worry about our kids’ grades, their social lives, their emotional health, how much sleep they get. We worry about whether they’ll get accepted to a good school and what their employability will look like. And (might as well admit it), we worry about how they stack up against our friends’ children.

What we don’t worry about is whether our own (metaphorical) mask is securely fastened. I’m sure there are a few parents who wear their self-denial like a badge of honor, who think living for their kids is the ultimate virtue. In most cases, though, the “kids first” life sneaks up on us. We wake up one day to find that they’re getting the lion’s share of the family’s time, resources and attention.

What lucky kids, right? Not really. From my 25 years of clinical experience, children who constantly occupy the center of their parents’ universe tend not to fare so well in life.

Kids model what they see. When Mom’s life is a lonely endurance race defined by a stressful job, nightly cooking and cleaning marathons, and weekends devoted to cheering on her offspring as they kick a soccer ball around, that becomes “normal” to kids. They may well grow up to build their own existence around joyless hard work, self-deprivation and little down time.

Or—and this is hardly an improvement—kids can become insufferably self-centered and entitled. Hey, if Mom lives to serve and adore me I must be something special! they quite logically conclude. The world exists to serve me. Me, me, me!

Perhaps I’m exaggerating a trifle. But you get my point: a healthy family life is one in which all members share the load and where everyone gets to play. That definitely includes moms and dads.

So here’s my New Year’s challenge to you: take an honest look at your life and be real with yourself about what you see. Are your needs being met? Are you taking care of yourself? Have you lost that “zest” that makes life fun and interesting? And what can you do in 2013 to change that?

A few suggestions:

To thine own self be true. Ask yourself: Am I living in congruence with my values? If you want one thing yet do the opposite—valuing fitness yet not making time to exercise, wanting to save for retirement but not doing so because your mortgage takes up all your income—the answer is no. And that’s a recipe for certain unhappiness.

We don’t live in a perfect world, but most of us can bring our reality closer to our ideal. Make 2013 the year you aim for that. Living in alignment with your values may be a matter of “just doing it” (getting up 30 minutes earlier and taking a brisk walk) or it may require more daunting changes (downsizing to a smaller home).

Incremental changes can result in a leap in happiness. A single step can shift your perspective.

Get healthy. (Or at least healthier.) Again, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. No one is asking you to go vegan and train for the New York marathon. But you can slowly make the switch to organic food and take a Zumba class a few days a week. Taking care of your health, and maybe shedding the 20 pounds that’s crept up on you over the years, is the greatest gift you can give yourself.

Find a form of exercise that you enjoy and will actually look forward to. It will become your “me time” and you will figure out how to work it in. We find a way to do what matters to us. (If the kid has to catch a ride to soccer practice so you can get to your workout, fine. It will teach him self-sufficiency!)

Nurture your relationships. When people write these kinds of blogs they usually say to plan regular date nights with your spouse or partner. Good advice, as far as it goes; making time for romance does keep you from languishing in the decidedly unsexy “Mom” rut. But I think it’s just as critical—if not more so—to make time for our friendships. (And I don’t mean a once-a-year phone call on your old college roommate’s birthday. Friendship takes commitment and face time.)

Happy women are not socially isolated. They’re not “just” wives and mothers. They’re also friends. They have relationships with other women who know them deeply. Friends give us someone to kvetch to, to work out with, to try out new restaurants and see movies with. If there’s no one you can call right now and ask to meet you for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, you’re missing an essential element in your life. It’s time to change that.

Learn something new. A big part of being a vital, healthy adult is refusing to stagnate. Take a creative writing course at your local community college, master a new language, or learn how to knit. Keeping your brain engaged sharpens innate natural abilities, staves off depression and makes life more rich and meaningful.

A big part of your job as a parent is showing kids what being a happy, fulfilled adult looks like. Sure you’re paying bills and providing for your kids and working hard...but are you having fun? If not, why would kids ever want to grow up?

Finally, when you “get a life” you won’t be so enmeshed in theirs, so invested in every test grade and the outcome of every game. Your kids will have breathing room to make mistakes, to figure out who they are, to find their own way. That’s what kids need—and that giving it to them also means giving yourself what you need is the real beauty of this thing we call parenting.