It’s a simple white oval with three big, black letters: JMU. But to Wilma Bowers, who sports it proudly on her black Audi sedan, it’s an act of subversion.
In just about any other community, driving around with a bumper sticker for James Madison University, rated one of the best schools in the South, would be a point of pride. But this is McLean, one of the most affluent communities in the United States. Flaunting a JMU bumper sticker in a field of Harvards, Yales and Stanfords, Bowers says, is a rallying cry.
“It’s one of the ways I advertise,” says Bowers, the Parent-Teacher-Student Association president at McLean High School, one of the top-ranked public schools in Virginia. Not pride in her alma mater, but a movement she’s leading that seeks to upend the achievement-at-all costs intensive parent and school culture in McLean.
“There’s such a status thing here: ‘I went Georgetown. I want my kid to go to Georgetown or better.’ It’s such a rat race,” says Bowers, who has lived in McLean for 24 years. “Nobody is taking a step back and asking, ‘Is going to Princeton going to make me happier in the long run? Is this even right for my child?’ Because there are real consequences to living this way.”
Bowers knows it’s a high-stakes parenting arms race in McLean and communities like it. The obsession with grades and college résumés can overwhelm everything. She wants people to back off — and is trying to get them to, with film screenings, workshops, lectures and meetings with clergy and mental health professionals.
Many fellow parents think that disarming sounds good, in theory. The problem is, they’re reluctant to try it with their own kid.
So, the pressure mounts.
It’s at a high point right now, as college acceptance letters — the aim of all the years of intensity — begin trickling in this spring. To Bowers, the annual Fairfax County Youth Survey captures just what all of that pressure is doing to kids.
Nearly one-third of high school seniors at McLean report that they have felt so depressed for more than two weeks that their work was affected, the most recent risk survey found. Only 10 percent sleep for the recommended eight hours a night. One in 10 admit to taking prescription drugs that aren’t theirs.
“We know of students who beg their parents to go on Ritalin because everybody else does it to get better grades,” Bowers says.
Although the push for achievement at all costs may be its most intense in affluent communities, the pressure also exists in middle- and working-class communities. Lower-income parents are beginning to tell researchers that although they have neither the time nor the resources to take part in the hyper-competitive parenting culture, they worry their kids will fall even further behind as a result.
In her family, Bowers had always privately rejected the intensive culture — telling her daughters that she valued their effort, attitude and what they learned rather than their grades. But reading the youth risk survey a few years ago spurred her to take action.
Bowers, trim, fashionable and fiercely determined, stands in her kitchen early one morning making breakfast and explains that she isn’t fighting to let kids off the hook. “This movement is not about mediocrity,” she says. It’s about what she calls “authentic success.”
“Yes, M.I.T. is looking for a kid who’s taken 10 AP classes. If you’re a kid who has a passion for those subjects and is doing well, then that’s great,” Bowers says. “But if the kid is sleeping three hours a night in order to do that? Or gets to an Ivy League school and then commits suicide because they get their first B? Then that’s not okay. Our whole premise is: Are we really helping our kids be successful by pushing them so hard?”
It’s slow going.
In a darkened McLean auditorium in November, California psychologist Madeline Levine, the author of “The Price of Privilege” — who was invited to speak to parents by the Safe Community Coalition, which also works in the growing authentic-success movement — had harsh words for a packed house. “A majority of your children are average,” she said, pausing as a chorus of sharp inhalations drain the air out of the room. “And guess what? So are you.”
Accepting that, she said, is the first step to ending what she calls a “mass delusion” in many privileged communities that every child must be destined for Harvard to ensure success.
What matters, she told parents, is spending time connecting with children, not yipping about homework or doing it for them. “Lawn-mower parents” mowing down all obstacles to smooth their child’s way only make it harder for those children to fail and learn to recover on their own. “It’s not about lowering the bar. It’s lowering the expectation that they be terrific at everything,” Levine said. “We’re not straight-A parents. Why should we demand that they be perfect all the time?”
Levine assured parents that there is life outside of the pressure zone. Though having a college degree can lead to a lifetime earning boost of $1 million and lower rates of unemployment than for those with only high school degrees, which college that degree is from doesn’t matter quite as much. One study found that the top third of students in non-elite schools outperform the bottom third of students in the Ivies in what was dubbed the “Big Fish-Little Pond” theory.
It’s not the school that matters, Levine said repeatedly. It’s the kid. And for the kid to succeed, the parents need to get out of the way.
As the lights turned on for questions, a hand shot up from the balcony.
A parent complained that she was having trouble getting her child into Stanford. “My daughter is above average. . . .”
This is what Bowers is crusading against.
An obsession to excel academically that starts early. Local school board representative Jane Strauss says she is routinely contacted by parents asking how to prepare their 2-year-olds for a test to get into the Advanced Academic Program for gifted students in third grade.
One McLean elementary school recently asked for a presentation on whether its students should take the SAT or ACT, college admissions tests at least seven years away. Bowers’s husband, Bruce, almost stopped coaching girls’ soccer because of the win-at-all-costs attitude. Some other parent-coaches, he says, would spend weekends going to games to identify the top players so they could try to recruit them. “It really meant something to them to have the cream of the crop and win,” he says. “And this wasn’t travel soccer. This was when the girls were 7 or 8.”
By the time students reach high school, the compulsion is almost irresistible, Bowers says, to cram in a raft of college-level Advanced Placement and honors classes, and a strict schedule of tutors, SAT prep courses and résumé-burnishing extracurriculars.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church says she and others in the McLean clergy association became involved in the authentic-success movement when they saw so many kids absent from worship services, the observance of holy days, youth group and volunteer work because they were so over-scheduled.
When Bowers’s elder daughter, Sadie, told friends at McLean that she was applying to JMU last year, some sneered. Like her friends applying to more selective schools, Sadie had taken AP courses and had good grades and an impressive résumé. Sadie, who wants to be an optometrist, visited several schools and felt most at home at JMU. But her friends chided her, Bowers recalled, telling her, ‘I can’t believe you’re settling.’ ”
Comments like that don’t get under Bowers’s skin. She worked in high-powered corporate roles for 20 years at Verizon before joining her husband in their successful design-build firm. “I have a roof over my head, food on the table and I’m reasonably happy every day,” she shrugs. What does bother her is, in an intensive culture, how everyone unthinkingly assumes such comments about “settling” are true.
“There’s good research that shows it’s not where you go to college, it’s what you make of it while you’re there that matters,” Bowers says. “But I still catch myself getting caught up in the trap sometimes, thinking, ‘Gee, I should have pushed her to attend one of these more prestigious schools.’ Then I have to stop myself and say, ‘Wilma, don’t drink the Kool-Aid.’ ”
Last fall, as seniors and their parents scrambled to complete college applications, Bowers decided to strike at the heart of the parenting pressure cooker and arranged for Dawn Allison, the school’s college and career counselor, to give a presentation on applying to college. By 8 a.m., close to 80 parents, an unusually large crowd for a weekday morning, had packed into the dance room and were nervously sipping coffee.
There are 3,000 colleges out there, Allison said as she ran through a presentation of nearly 100 slides. The guiding principles for parents, she told them, should be: Students should be doing something they love; they should be able to support themselves; and they should give something back. That’s authentic success.
But when it came time for questions, it was as if parents hadn’t heard a word. They asked how many AP classes their kids should take, or how many times they should take the SAT for the highest score. One parent shared a strategy that helped a nephew secure a spot in a selective university: Go to alumni events. You meet powerful alumni who can put in a good word, or even a college president who will be impressed by your child’s ambition, drive and chutzpah.
The parents nodded and eagerly scribbled notes. Bowers closed her eyes and sighed.
A few weeks earlier, Bowers had helped host a screening of the documentary “Race to Nowhere” by filmmaker Vicki Abeles, about the perils of hyper-parenting. Bowers had hung around listening to parents talk about how hard it is to put their “weapons down” and change.
Robert Spessert, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, said he worried about his son staying up late every night doing homework. His daughters were shocked by the level of competitiveness in the area after spending eight years in international schools while Spessert was stationed overseas. And though he supports Bowers’s mission to change the culture, he is reluctant for his children to be the test cases.
“For some kids, you set the bar high and they’re jumping over it. Some are really good athletes, excellent at music or drama or they’re doing amazing in AP courses. If you set it too low, is that doing them a disservice? It’s a cruel world out there. You want to set them up to be able to get out there and compete.”
It’s a fear that Abeles understands well. She has shown the film in nearly 7,000 communities in every state and several countries in the past few years.
“There’s so much fear out there — that we’re falling behind internationally, that our kids will never make it to college without us. But the irony is, we’ve created an unhealthy culture that isn’t making our kids smarter or better, but instead a whole lot more burned out,” she says.
But, Abeles says, she is seeing glimmers of change.
In McLean, parents are pushing for less homework and later school start times. And some, like Julie Murphy, a PTSA officer, are trying to make small progress. “I make a point of no longer asking where students are applying to college,” she says. “I decided I’m not going to be another judgmental adult saying, ‘Podunk University? Oh, hmm, where is that?’ ”
On a cold winter day, Bowers checks in by phone with Sadie, who is at her dorm at JMU. Bowers is arranging for the PTSA presentation of the latest results of the youth risk survey, and the two talk about what the expectations in McLean are like for students.
“Just being in that pressure-cooker environment every single day is so taxing,” Sadie says. “Seeing your best friends work so hard. Seeing all of your peers just so miserable. They’ve almost become robots just to get good grades. You really just want to bring the life back to everyone.”
“Did you feel that way?” her mother asks.
Sadie says that she would cry almost every night, burdened by worries about homework — that it was taking too long, or that she couldn’t do it perfectly.
Bowers and Sadie have always been close. Since leaving her job at Verizon, Bowers has worked out of a home office, so she has been nearby. She has made a point of telling her two daughters that she doesn’t care about grades, she cares about what they’re learning. And yet she didn’t know at the time that her daughter was shut off in her room, crying from the pressure to be perfect.
But now, Sadie is doing well.
Her classes are harder than she expected, but she likes them. She’s having fun. She’s happy. And she proudly tools around sporting a JMU bumper sticker of her own on her Volkswagen Jetta.
Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer and the author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time.”