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Burnt out on the high school treadmill

She has six exams in five days plus an analytical paper due. Her stomach hurts, she can barely eat. Others in her class are having panic attacks and are up until 2 a.m. each night studying. No, she’s not in law school: She’s 16, in 11th grade.

What are we doing to our kids?

The pressure on teenage children is astonishing — and harmful to their physical and psychological health. Rather than being inspired, they are given an inordinate amount of work, much of which is developmentally inappropriate. I once joked with an attorney that neither he, who writes persuasive depositions, nor I, a writing professor, could get higher than a B on our daughters’ English papers. How did our educational system turn into such a pressure cooker?

It is bad enough that today’s teens didn’t have real childhoods. They had structured playdates and weren’t allowed to go off on their own until at least sixth grade. Unlike members of my generation, they couldn’t jump on a bike, call on a friend, find a pick-up game of basketball or just daydream. Instead, they had lessons, coaching, practice times and organized sports. While other parents became anxious if their children weren’t “doing” something, I encouraged my daughter to do “nothing” once in a while, even if I had to “fit” it into her schedule.

What began as Baby Einstein tapes for the crib has escalated into parents rejecting picture books because they want their preschoolers to read more challenging material. There is a cottage industry of tutors to improve standardized test scores to help children get into the preschool that will feed into the prep school that will feed into Harvard that will feed into . . . a breakdown.

I don’t remember studying much in high school. Then, only the kids who truly struggled hired tutors. I remember playing cards, baking cookies, writing short stories, listening to music, staring into space, talking endlessly on the phone with my friends.

On a typical weekend my daughter doesn’t have time to take a walk to get the fresh air my mother said all kids needed. She doesn’t get out of her pajamas from Friday to Sunday. When I say good night, long before she feels able to go to bed, I ask how the studying is going. “I’m brain-dead,” she responds, but there is still more to do.

I have tried not to unduly pressure my daughter. I don’t want to be the mom who brags at parent get-togethers, “I want Chloe to go to Yale, my alma mater, but Princeton is her ‘safety’ school.”

But my daughter lives in a world where everyone has a tutor — to score higher on SATs or to bring up an A-minus for Ivy League aspirations. A world where B students hire tutors to inch up to B-plus and students who cannot afford tutors lag behind. What do kids learn from this? Certainly not confidence. They’re supposed to be moving toward independence, yet they know they can’t do their schoolwork on their own.

I have told my daughter that it’s just school, that later in life no one will ask about her SAT scores. But it’s junior year. She knows that everyone feels pressure to get through six tests in one week plus a complex paper and hours of homework each night. Others are also touring colleges on weekends even though they can’t really spare time away from studying, participating in sports, practicing an instrument, fulfilling community service requirements or rising to leadership positions to put on college resumes. And oh, yes, how about showing colleges you have a job, too?

I have heard high school administrators say that this is a time children should explore their interests and discover their passions. My daughter doesn’t have time for an arts elective.

High school administrators also say to reduce your child’s activities if she’s feeling overwhelmed. But how can anyone “explore interests” while streamlining? My daughter self-edited her extracurriculars: Knowing how challenging high school would be, she gave up piano (after eight years), dance (after 10 years) and travel soccer in order to play varsity sports for her school. A friend advised me to have her give that up, too, if she needed more time to study. I objected, because soccer is her one remaining passion and I know how important it is for children to be physically fit.

Whose idea was it to make high school so demanding that your child might not have time to run around and work up a sweat for a few hours? This goes against all medical, psychological and educational sense.

Although my daughter attends a private school, public and private high schools nationwide have been increasing their demands and expectations, as illuminated in the documentary film “The Race to Nowhere.”

As long as high schools strive to list the number of Ivy League schools their graduates attend and teachers pile on work without being trained to identify stress-related symptoms, I fear for our children’s health. I am not mollified by the alums of my daughter’s school who return to tell everyone that the rigor of high school prepared them for college, making their first year easier than they’d anticipated.

If they make it that far.

Candy Schulman is an associate professor of writing at the New School in New York.

 
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