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 swankvilleparenting.com.

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) http://www.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf

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.