‘Cutting, suicidal thoughts’: How the quest for success is harming our kids.

You don’t often get a parent so self-aware that they admit to being the problem when it comes to pressuring their child to perform academically.

Usually parents talking generally about pressure on kids today say, “But we don’t put pressure on him,” and go on to wonder where the pressure is coming from. Is it the school? Is it their peers? Is it the system? Is it from within the kids themselves?

“It’s not us. We just want him to do his best.”

Other parents blatantly pressure their kids. One principal told me of a teenage student who, teachers noticed, was looking a bit unkempt and dirty. Further investigation found that he had been sleeping rough in a train station because his parents had thrown him out of home for under-performing.

There are stories of parents trying to get teachers to give their kids better grades insistently enough to border on harassment. Kids have told me about parents grounding them from a longed-for party because they failed an exam, and I’ve heard of private school kids being constantly reminded of how much money their parents are paying for their education, so they’d better get straight As.

Advertisement "Other parents blatantly pressure their kids." Image via iStock.

One psychologist I talk to deals with the fallout of pressure within wealthy families, in particular, when expectations of children are heightened by their financial investment in private school education.

"I’ve seen some parents with this basic expectation that these kids will get into Oxford or Harvard and places like that because they’ve put money into it.

"One family I worked with, the parents ended up splitting up over the issue because the father was so determined, after all the money he’d spent, to get his daughter to go to Oxford, which was where he went. She was very bright but she just wasn’t up to it – she probably was academically, but not in terms of the stress of getting there.’

When I ask how the pressure manifested in this child, this psychologist says, ‘Cutting, suicidal thoughts, and school refusal.’

Another principal told me that one parent rang him and asked for permission to beat his son – beat his son – in front of his class because he didn’t do as well on a test as he was expected to do. High expectations, high stakes.

This is an extreme case, obviously. Most parents understand that some sort of balance in life must be achieved, but still don’t understand how they and their children are getting swept up in a tunnel-visioned culture to achieve success as we have narrowly defined it.

"We tell him to relax and to stop studying so hard. We have to tell him to knock off at midnight!" some of them say, throwing up their hands in disbelief that they have been landed with a studying machine crunching through calculus revision night after night.

"Some kids take academic pressure on board to the detriment of life balance." Image via iStock.

And it’s true, these children reportedly exist: self-motivated, keen to succeed, completely engaged, not requiring any outside encouragement to study their little butts off.

These kids are excellent examples of well-adjusted individuals who have found access to their intrinsic motivation and know what they have to do to do well. Most of them stay well-adjusted and coast through the system just fine. We hope.

But some kids take academic pressure on board to the detriment of life balance. A story written by a ‘secret teacher’ lamented the case of one of her twelve-year-old clients, a little girl whose life was so scheduled and study-heavy that the teacher compared it to that of a ‘mini-executive’.

She didn’t watch TV, believed that six hours’ sleep a night was enough, and rang the teacher – who in this case was working as a tutor – at 10pm, crying and panicked, to talk through a topic when she was worried about an exam she had the next day. She was at one of the top-performing schools in the UK where the homework burden, says her tutor, was ‘staggering’, with whole essays to be redrafted in one night and mountainous reading lists of classics she didn’t even fully comprehend.

"No mystery here, people. Stop overscheduling your kids." Image supplied.

But the tutor said she was happy, although how this tallies with a child ringing in tears late at night to discuss an exam beggars belief. The child, said the tutor, wanted to maintain her academic standing in the top classes (which is quite different to being happy).

"Her overload is not simply a matter of pushy parenting. They are eager for her to do well at school and happy to ferry her to extracurricular activities, but they are concerned now, too.

"Last half-term, Elizabeth spent every day at her ballet school, from 9 am to 5 pm, rehearsing for a performance. Her family wanted her to stay at home, but she insisted. 'Is this normal?' her mum has asked me more than once. 'Is it good for her to be this busy?'"

Is this normal? No, it’s not! Who signed up the twelve-year-old for the schedule?

Who accepts the school is right to give out so much homework? Who is paying for the tutoring and the ballet lessons? Who is driving the child to the lessons? Who is allowing this to continue?

A twelve-year-old is not responsible for this, nor quite capable of knowing that it is not good for her. No mystery here, people. Stop overscheduling your kids.

Last year, Four Corners investigated 'What is stressing our kids?'. What they discovered was alarming. (Post continues...)

Video via Four Corners

Having high expectations for your children is important. After all, there’s a lot of truth in the saying that if you set low expectations for someone, they’ll generally meet them. But there are questions you must ask yourself. How high are your expectations? Do they dovetail with your words? And, most importantly, do they suit the small human you are pinning them to?

When we have narrow ideas of what success is, our expectations are consequently tailored. We narrow our view of what we think our children should be achieving.

So the problem is not necessarily having high expectations – it’s good to encourage and demonstrate to children the value of hard work. But having a narrow vision of success and a low tolerance for ‘failure’ in what we measure is quite different. This takes the expectation over the line into pressure – and it’s a devilishly tricky line for parents to tread.

This is an edited extract from Beautiful Failures by Lucy Clark. The book can be purchased here from Random House Australia for $34.99.

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