Schizo

28 Oct

Dave Marcus’ essay in the New York Times last week (“A Father’s Acceptance: His Son Won’t Be Following His Ivy Footsteps”) moved me deeply because he aptly articulated some of my struggles as a parent of a college-bound teen.

In looking at colleges, I talk to my daughter about the importance of finding the “right fit.”  I talk about how we should focus on schools that offer the academic programs that she wants, in the type of environment that she will be happy, instead of choosing a school for its prestigious name.  I tell her that she doesn’t need to attend an Ivy League school to get a superb education.  All this advice is consistent with what guidance counselors and admissions officers tell students.  So why is it that I feel like I’m trying to convince myself?

In my head I know that she need not go to a brand name school to be successful – however success is defined, a subject for another post – but in my heart, like Mr. Marcus, I fantasize about how great it would be if she were to attend ____ University.  My head and my heart are antipodes apart, seemingly irreconcilable.  So it is from this place of schizophrenia that I parent.

In our well-manicured suburban community in northern New Jersey, so many residents are accomplished, successful professionals and captains of industry.  They push their children as hard as they push themselves to achieve and achievement is often equated with getting into a brand name college, defined as an Ivy League or comparable school (Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams, etc.).  Based on where our local high school’s graduates have gotten into college in previous years, the results of such pressure have been impressive.  Many children have been able to fulfill their parents’ expectations, and maybe their own too.

All of this is not without consequences, of course, chief of which is an inordinate amount of stress and pressure on the children.  In addition to parental pressure, there is strong peer pressure to do well, to get into AP classes, to compete for leadership roles in extracurricular activities, to get top grades.

My heart aches for my daughter as she encounters such pressure.  She gets little sleep, is tired most of the time, toils endlessly over homework, stresses over exams, and is pressed for time.  There’s little time to relax; she is even reluctant to miss school when she’s not feeling well.  Seeing all this, I try to keep my own desires and expectations in check, to not put additional pressure on her.  But in moments of truthful clarity, I know that like the other parents in my town, I am just as enamored of the brand name colleges and by the package that comes with them – the prestige, the bragging rights, the status, the validation of one’s parenting abilities.

Judging from the response Mr. Marcus received to his piece, there are a lot of people who wrestle with similar issues.  In writing about this, I am trying to be honest about my own struggles between my conflicting head and heart in the hopes that I can do right by my daughter.  Already I feel that a burden has been lifted, a loosening up of strong emotions, and that in itself is a good sign.

 

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3 Responses to “Schizo”

  1. Susannah October 29, 2010 at 9:21 AM #

    I relate to this on so many different levels, but from a completely different angle. I have been struggling with guilt over pushing my son to do well in school. I tell myself its because I see how quickly he learns and know how able he is. But secretly I am wondering if he knows how much I love him? I am terribly afraid that one day there will be a rift between us – that he will surmise somewhere in his self-conscious that my love was conditional on his achievement. I lost a step-parent to cancer at an early age so I don’t ever take for granted that I will be here in ten years – or even one for that matter, so what am I doing to my child? My son is only 9, but what if I don’t see my 50th birthday? Did I really make the most of my time with him. In what ways have I damaged his spirit, got forbid he hurdles every unreasonable benchmarks I set…what kind of monster will I create? Last night I sat at the edge of his bed while he slept silently begging him to forgive me for berating him over a B-. To be honest, the best people I have known in my life have not gone to the best schools, or maybe they did – to be quite honest it almost never comes up.

  2. Janet Holmes October 29, 2010 at 11:32 AM #

    You have written with such honesty and openness – glad it has helped to free your emotions.

  3. Sue October 30, 2010 at 4:44 PM #

    I appreciate Susannah’s comment. I am constantly checking the balance of my challenging comments against my encouraging ones.

    I personally do not plan to encourage my children to seek out their education from a prestigious university, mostly because in general they teach from a much more liberal world view than my own. Some kids can go to a school like that, be challenged and still maintain conservative views, but I’d rather not put my child in a position where he begins to question everything I’ve taught him. There are many other excellent schools out there that are not as well known, yet offer just as good an education. And once you’ve landed your first job, any jobs from there really are more interested in experience, don’t you think?

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