Book World Live
Tuesday, September 12, 2006; 3:00 PM
Forget the impoverished teenagers stuck in anarchic schools that would shame the worst Third World potentate; it's the kids with a shot at Harvard who've really got problems. They have too much homework in too many classes, extracurriculars that require their leadership and parents who feel entitled to a sticker from a name-brand college on their car. And then there are SAT prep classes to attend, recruitment calls from Ivy League coaches to field and prom to dread. (
Alexandra Robbins , author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids" will be online to field questions and comments about her book and the three semesters she spent with eight students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md.
Journalist Alexandra Robbins is also the author of "Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, The Ivy League and Hidden Paths of Power" and "Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis."
Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.
Alexandra Robbins: Hi and thanks for joining us! I'm going to try to answer as many questions as I can, but in case I don't get to yours, I should mention that I'll be answering questions and discussing The Overachievers this Friday, Sept. 15th, 7:30 pm, at the Bethesda Barnes & Noble. Okay, on to the questions...
New York, NY: How are the issues in The Overachievers similar to the issues in other books you've written?
Alexandra Robbins: I tend to focus on young people, and on giving a voice to groups of people who don't normally get their voices heard. In the case of "The Overachievers," many people simply assume that if you're a top-tier student, then you must be just fine. But a significant percentage of these students who look perfect on paper are dealing with identity issues that can emotionally cripple them.
Charlottesville, Va: I was top in my class at a private school, taking 4 AP courses my senior year (which was actually less than the administration wanted me to take). I was also pretty miserable: every night, I would wake up, seemingly paralysed and in terror until sleep returned. During the day I had palpitations. I didn't tell anyone; I was too embarrassed by my own weakness. It was only when I went to college (a top state school--thankfully I had enough sense not to try the Ivies) and these fits stopped that I realized they were panic attacks, not something wrong with my heart. I had been willing to put my health on jeopardy to maintain everyone's expectations. No one ever talked to me about stress management. They just assumed a teenager could handle it.
Alexandra Robbins: Exactly. People just assume if you're a "smart kid," then you must be fine. Too many kids told me about having panic attacks for the same reasons as you describe.
Incidentally, the year I began the reporting for The Overachievers, Whitman parents and administrators founded a group called StressBusters in order to teach kids - and parents! - about stress management and to increase awareness of the problem. I'm starting to hear that other schools around the country are beginning to incorporate similar measures, which I think is incredibly important in this era.
Washington DC: As someone who also read Newsweek's article last week about first grade, I find it appalling that so many parents are placing so much pressure on their children at such an early age and continue this until they graduate, Overachievers. What happened to actually having fun when you are young? I went to a great college, and I actually had fun while in high school.
Alexandra Robbins: That's a good point: overachiever culture is affecting students at increasingly younger ages. Somewhere along the line, society forgot to let kids be kids. Kids now are more like adults-in-training, overtested and overloaded. I heard 4-year-olds talk about the multiple private kindergarten interviews they had in one day. Six-year-olds complain of stress, eight-year-olds have day-planners, and at some elementary schools, students are so worried about standardized tests that on testing days up to two dozen students vomit on their test booklets.
Alexandra Robbins: I remember an afternoon when Frank was telling me about an old children's book he read in which a mother told her child to go outside and play. Frank was incredulous when he read that. He asked me, "Do parents actually tell their kids to go outside and play?"
Haddon Heights, NJ: In general, do you think the kids are self-motivated, or do you think there's alot of pressure from their parents? How much of the pressure parents place on a kid is driven by an unfulfilled desire of their own and how much is just a genuine effort to try and get their kid to understand that the world is a performance-oriented place? Shouldn't a parent pressure their kid a little bit, if they're not reaching?
Alexandra Robbins: Great question. It really depends on the family. I'd say most of the students whom I followed were self-motivated, though of the students around the country whom I interviewed, plenty told me stories about parental pressure. In many cases, parents don't realize they are pressuring their kids.
Regarding your last question, here's my analogy. If a parent has a child on a sports team, it's important to cheer for the child (and the rest of the team), and it's great to be in the stands and show support, simply by going to watch the game. If the child truly enjoys the sport, it's wonderful to give positive feedback and encourage him/her to develop skills. But there's a line that can be crossed. If a parent is barking instructions or criticism from the sidelines, that crosses a line. If a parent tries to persuade the kid to move up a level or to get extra training or to go to camps *when the child doesn't necessarily want to*, that crosses a line.
There's "Hey, I heard about this math competition that I thought you might be interested in," and then there's "I signed you up for a math competition and expect you to study every afternoon this week so that you win a medal." (And then, as readers of The Overachievers know, there's also, sadly, You didn't place in the top 15; therefore you deserve a beating. But that was an extreme case.)
San Francisco, Calif: Hi Alex,
Like the students in your book and yourself, I, too graduated from Walt Whitman High School. I know first-hand how much pressure Whitman parents place on their children. However, in my experience and based on my conversations with non-Whitman grads, I've concluded that Whitman is unlike any other high school in the country. Whitman is an abberation - a perfect storm of pressure-inducing factors - that is the exception, not the rule. Most American high school students are in fact underachieving, if you look at national testing trends. Do you think your research was broad enough to justify your conclusions?
Tim McIntyre, Whitman '92
Alexandra Robbins: Tim . . I think I was in your art class! Anyway, hi, and good question. I spent a lot of time talking with students and teachers outside of what some of the Whitman kids called "the Bethesda bubble" for precisely the reason you mention: I wanted to know if students in other areas of the country were experiencing the same issues. In addition to hundreds of individual interviews, I met with groups of students in states as varied as Vermont, Kentucky, and Texas. It turns out that these issues are indeed universal. In chapter 2, for instance, I have a scene from a group interview I did with students in a rural, impoverished town in New Mexico. Those kids were just as overwhelmed (stressed, panicked. . .) by overachiever culture as the students in Bethesda. Whitman, it turns out, isn't an exception at all. (The only reason I chose to follow students from Whitman was because, as my alma mater, it was the only school in the country where I would personally be able to observe what had changed in ten years.)
Also, I should make a point clear. The book isn't about overachieving students, exclusively. It's about how what I call "overachiever culture" is affecting various levels of students. For example, I believe overachiever culture has changed the school environment so that it is a two-tiered system: you're either a high-achieving student, or you're not. There's no middle ground anymore, and "average" students tend to get overlooked and slip through the cracks.
Washington, DC: Hi, I haven't read your book so I'm not sure if you address this, but I think it's important to talk about overachievers who push themselves harder than anyone else. When I was in high school, my parents used to tell me to relax and stop pulling all nighters, but I wouldn't accept anything less for myself than taking all AP classes and being (and generally having a leadership position) in 5 or 6 extracurriculars. It's only now, after 4 decent years of college (at a state school, luckily, not at an Ivy) and 3 miserable years of law school that I'm starting to realize that I don't have to push myself to the limit all the time. Even in college, having friends in all honors classes, we all used to "compete" for who was getting the least sleep. Parents aside, I think a lot of kids need lessons in balance.
Alexandra Robbins: I agree with you wholeheartedly.
Columbia, Md: The StressBusters groups sound good, but do they actually encourage kids to stop doing things and cut down on activities? At a certain point there's no way to manage over-scheduling. As an adult, I find that it's just an important to create a "to-not-do" list as it is to have a "to-do" list. The first step to realistic goals is realizing that you can't do it all.
Alexandra Robbins: To-not-do list! I love that! I need to start one of those for myself.
I believe StressBusters is indeed trying to get the message across that students don't have to do as much as they think they do; for example, you don't need a full load of AP courses. One interesting strategy they've worked on is providing less competitive and no-cut alternatives to things like the annual musical, varsity sports, etc. By offering outlets where students can get involved without the kind of commitment that's comparable to a part-time job, students can enjoy activities without feeling overwhelmed by them.
Washington, DC: Alex -- I read the book last Sunday -- it was very eye-opening and brought back some memories of my high school experience, both the academic and social dynamics. I grew up in an affluent area in northern New Jersey and went to a public high school in Northern New Jersey not dissimilar to Whitman (though, much smaller). I was valedictorian and remember a lot of the pressures I felt during my senior year as I juggled activities and had to make what at the time seemed like the most agonizing decision as far as college, which of course, with perspective, seems silly because it ended up being the only choice and worked out wonderfully. I hoped, from your opening chapter, that you would spend more time comparing and contrasting your own experience in the early 90s (and that of your peers) to the experiences of those you profiled. I could sense some differences on the margins through the book's details (such as, IM and cell phones allow the various characters of your book to communicate more rapidly and frequently than I ever did with friends and acquaintances). But, from my view, notwithstanding the higher selectivity rates of colleges and changing demographics, the question seems to be one of degree and not kind insofar as what has changed in the past 10 years. Would a similar book have not been written 10 years ago?
Alexandra Robbins: I found that the experience is much more intense and much more competitive than it was when I went to high school (which I guess is twelve years ago now). When I was in high school, I didn't feel like I had to pile on the APs in order to look good to colleges. High-achieving classmates didn't use private tutors. I had no qualms taking a few courses (like home ec, gym, art) that weren't offered as honors, and so didn't give the GPA an extra boost. Was it overwhleming at times to be a high school student? Sure. But was it at the frenzied level it is now? Definitely not. That's partly because of the increase in numbers: in only five years the number of students applying to college rose by 1.2 million.
Washington, DC: I was a high acheiver in a very competitive high school, a National Merit Scholar and entered college with sophomore standing from the 8 AP classes I'd taken- 6 in my senior year. I was also anorexic, and later had problems with depression, anxiety, and drug use. There were certain "perks" (like a full ride to college) but when I look back I am not convinced it was worth it.
Alexandra Robbins: You're not alone. The book has a section for which I interviewed many twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who had similar experiences and feel the same way as you do. The perfectionist workaholism that seems to characterize many students' lives is also a detriment once they exit the academic realm.
By the way, I learned something interesting while researching this book. A model student I interviewed in Kentucky told me about how she used anorexia and bulimia to cope with her school-induced stress. When I spoke to doctors about this, they told me that a high percentage of students with eating disorders are straight-A students.
Orono, Maine: How does the No Child Left Behind law fit in with your analysis of "overachiever culture"? Does it contribute to the culture? If so, is there anything positive about it?
Alexandra Robbins: Oh it certainly contributes to the culture. I'm glad you asked this. The emphasis on high-stakes testing is turning the classroom experience into one that is about teaching to the test. It's partly why so many schools have had to eliminate recess (which, by the way, has been shown to *increase* children's ability to focus and to learn in the classroom), not to mention other subjects that aren't tested, such as art, music, P.E. and even languages and social studies. It sends creativity and innovation out the window, as teachers often don't have time to address current events, or interesting tangents that students bring up in class. It has led to a rash of teacher and administrator cheating, because they are held directly accountable for student scores. I'll save the full rant for now (it's in the book), but I am not in favor of No Child Left Behind or the high-stakes testing culture that is, in my opinion, hurting our education system rather then helping it.
Memphis, Tenn: What are you working on now? And/or what Alexandra Robbins book will come out next?
Alexandra Robbins: I've decided to put book-writing on hold because I think it's so important to calm students and parents down about high school and the private school and college admissions processes. So I'm spending the school year lecturing at schools, conferences, etc. to get the word out. (You can email me through alexandrarobbins.com if you'd like me to let you know when I'm appearing in your area. I'll be in Memphis next month, actually.)
Baltimore, Md.: I, too, write about kids for a living and can't tell you how many times parents say "S/he has straight A's" when they are explaining why they don't have to worry about drugs, car accidents, etc. My friends in high school were the best in school, sure -- but they were also the best at drug-dealing, the best at bulimia, etc.
Alexandra Robbins: An important point.
Rockville, Md.: What do you think colleges and universities can do to remain competitive while reducing some of the stress that the process causes overachieving students?
Alexandra Robbins: Good question. The Overachievers has a long list of suggestions for parents, students, colleges, other schools, counselors, etc., but two of the biggest things I think colleges can do are to stop requiring SAT/ACT scores with applications and to put more resources into the nemtal health services departments.
Also, Harvard made an announcement just today that I think will begin to help: it is eliminating its early admissions program. Many students, Julie in particular, lamented the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma to applying early, which I believe also is unfair to students who need to be able to compare financial aid packages. I hope more schools will follow Harvard's lead.
College Park, Md: Hi Alex,
Do you talk at all about the schools and classmates
putting pressure on kids? I attended a private high school
in Montgomery County that focuses on college prep, and
every year they had us attend the senior awards ceremony
where they announced how much money the class had
been offered in scholarships, among other things. It
seemed like the whole focus of high school was "get into
college." There wasn't any learning for its own sake.
Alexandra Robbins: Yes, I do discuss that, and great point! You're so right, school isn't so much about learning for learning's sake. For many people, it's about getting into college, it's a race to get ahead. I compare it to the television show Survivor, where many students often feel like they have to outwit, outlast, and outplay their peers. A student in Virginia pointed out to me that the moment she stepped onto her high school grounds as a freshman, her entire experience was about the college admissions results four years down the road.
Washington, DC: Are you still in touch with the students you profiled? How do they feel about the book?
Alexandra Robbins: I'm still close with all of the students I followed, yes, and I'm incredibly proud of them. (Now that they're all away at college, I really miss them!) They all liked the book, and I got some eye-misting notes from a few of them who told me how much it meant to them.
After the book was published, I interviewed each of them again to ask them things such as what it was like to read about themselves, how they felt about the book, whether they would have done anything differently, the advice they have for other students, what they wish they had known in high school, etc. After reading The Overachievers (please not before! I don't want to spoil anything), you can go to alexandrarobbins.com to see these updates.
Washington, DC: I just wanted to say that this is an excellent topic. I have an older sister with a 9 year old son. The other day she told me that she makes him read the dictionary and will not allow him to get anything less then an A. I was upset by this because I felt this was too much pressure to be placing on a 9 year old. I want him to excel in school also but to me I thought this was over the limit. Our parents rarely encouraged good grades. By the time high school rolled around we stopped showing them our report cards. I understand she wants him to do better then her but I still think reading the dictionary daily is out of control.
Alexandra Robbins: To the person who wrote the question (which I haven't gotten to yet) about how else to know when the parental pressure line is crossed: This would be crossing that line.
Unfortunately, I've heard many stories like this. A Detroit tutor told me about parents who asked him to begin tutoring their son for the MCATs (the test that college students take for their med school applications). The boy was 10.
Washington, DC: In your research, did you find that guidance counselors are being taught to help kids with trying to do too much? Coaching them ti better balance and maybe even deal with pressuring parents (I know that last one seems like a sensitive issue, for teachers to tell students how to deal with their parents).
Alexandra Robbins: Frank and his brother were certainly grateful for their counselor's intervention, as was Ryland. I know that many counselors are trying their best to help students with these issues, but the ratio of counselors to students is woefully inadequate in many states. I think the US average is something like 1:250, and at least 1:1000 in California. As an aside, there has been research done that has shown that when counselors have to spend so much time administering and proctoring standardized tests (such as the No Child Left Behind exams), fewer students at their school go on to college.
Alexandra Robbins: Unfortunately, the hour's up and I've hit the end of the grace period. Thanks to everyone who took the time to write in. I hope you enjoy the book, and I hope to meet you on Friday. take care!
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