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Born into Boot Camp

Is too much pressure ruining our kids' lives?


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born into boot camp

Allegra Cabellon, a senior at Miramonte High School, stands out from her peers when we chat on a bright January day near the rolling hills of the Moraga Country Club. While her friends rattle off their visions of the future, Allegra speaks soberly, encumbered with the present. Combing her black bangs out of her eyes, she recites her many accomplishments with the enthusiasm of a shopper reading a grocery list: president of the senior class, president of the lacrosse league and captain of the school team, director of the Goats of Denmark, the school’s theater company. Oh, and homecoming queen.

Allegra appears to derive little joy from all she has achieved. “I feel like I’m doing this for my parents,” she says. “I’m a series of titles.”

As Allegra continues, her friends’ chatter stops, and they nod in agreement at what she is trying to express. Many of their activities are chosen with an eye toward their college applications. They feel pressured to perform practically every waking moment. Even if some of their discomfort can be attributed to typical adolescent struggle, their situation seems genuinely difficult. Allegra’s friend and senior class vice president, Ariel Chin, says she, too, concentrates on trying to please her parents. “I feel like they’d be disappointed in me if I didn’t do well,” she says. “I know they wouldn’t, but I’d feel bad.”

Allegra’s mother, Barbara, says she never pressed Allegra to be the best in any of the myriad activities her daughter has chosen to pursue. She says she praises Allegra for her efforts and, if anything, often tells her daughter to give herself a break. The stress Allegra feels, her mother says, suffuses the environment at Miramonte, where the college destinations of all the seniors are published in the school newspaper and the yearbook.

At the same time, Allegra’s mother admits she falls victim to the fear-inspiring message pounded home by the counselors at college night, who warn the students that their “greatest competition isn’t coming from a kid at some other school but the one sitting in the next desk.” Barbara has attended the gathering every year, even after Allegra’s applications were submitted, “just so I could flagellate myself a little more.”

As she talks about it, her voice rises with anxiety. “I left the meeting one year asking Allegra if she was doing enough community service,” she says. “I suggested she could work a few hours at the local hospital, before Allegra pointed out that she was already doing so much. And then I could see it. I was caught up in the same angst.”

Regardless of where the girls’ stress originates, it takes its toll. Last year, Allegra found herself grinding her teeth so loudly that her brother could hear it in the next room. She now has painful jaw problems. She and her classmates talk about a crushing sense of pressure. Each one has experienced tearful meltdowns. “Suddenly, everything will happen at once, and I’ll panic,” Ariel says. “I start asking myself, ‘What if I don’t have good enough grades? What if I don’t get into college?"

Allegra says she has actually considered hurting herself, although she insists she would never follow through on her dark thoughts. “It’s not like I’m about to go slit my wrists in the bathroom,” she says. “I don’t mean to be all ‘emo,’ but I have felt like checking out.”

Expectations are higher, and the resulting pressures on kids far more intense, than they were a generation ago. Back then, we needed straight As to get into Berkeley. Today, however, perfect isn’t good enough for the elite schools. The schools demand better-than-perfect grade point averages, superhuman extracurricular schedules, and test scores to make an admissions officer weep. Even beyond the stress attributable to the college admissions process, kids in affluent areas such as ours grow up with the bar of achievement and attainment raised sky-high. When kids don’t do even better than their high-achieving parents, there’s a tendency to ask, why not?

As a result, perfectionism pervades the culture of parenting, says Madeline Levine, a psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, a book released last year that got a lot of parents in the 24-680 corridor talking about how best to raise their kids. In a recent interview, Levine described the time her eldest son, a model student, came home after receiving a B on a paper. He was devastated, she says. Levine was surprised, reminding her son that she had never expressed any concern about his grades. Her son laughed, flitting his hand about their spacious kitchen, and without his saying a word, she got it. “Nobody had to say anything,” she says. “The air he breathed was about achievement.”

Levine says affluent parents, often operating in settings where there is little genuine community, may confuse their child’s academic success with their own self-worth. So they push harder, spending money on experts to help their kids with schoolwork, with testing, with college applications, with throwing a perfect curve ball. The Acalanes Union High School District recently introduced Blackboard, an online portal where students—or their parents—can track their grades quiz by quiz. Consumed by such striving, a parent can lose sight of a son or daughter, a unique individual with strengths and weaknesses.

This laserlike focus on accomplishment, Levine says, can be psychologically debilitating for a young person still forming an identity. Eager to please, a kid tries to become perfect; anything less is seen as failure. Levine refers to “the child who can’t sleep, who throws up, or who feigns illness because he is anxious about a test.” Such cases, she writes in her book, are often linked to depression and suicide. According to a 2005 study by S. S. Luthar published in Advances in Child Development, 22 percent of young women from affluent families suffer from depression. Luthar also shows that 30 to 40 percent of wealthy adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 suffer troubling psychological symptoms.

At the local level, the Discovery Counseling Center in Danville has seen its adolescent clientele increase by 35 percent in the past three years, while the number of adult clients has expanded by only 10 percent. The overwhelming majority of the adolescent clients are being seen for depression and anxiety, counselors say.

The kids Diablo spoke to say they get sick from stress. They lose sleep. They cut corners and cheat on tests. They play it safe writing their essays, rather than taking chances. Several spoke of breaking down in tears the first time they spoiled their perfect grade point averages.

Crystal Tarazi, another student at Miramonte, says she knows kids who miss five days of school a month simply because they can’t take the pressure. Others, she says, cut class, not to goof off or simply to rest but to catch up on their schoolwork. She can relate. A strain in her leg has recently kept her out of dance and soccer. “I’m glad I’m injured,” she says.

Again and again, these young people say they aren’t living in the present, much less enjoying it. Every move is made with an eye to university admissions, this imposing, gilded gate to adulthood. Levine doesn’t buy into that approach. “It’s a myth that a prestigious college will have an enormous impact on your life,” she says. “There is no correlation to how much money you’ll make, and certainly no correlation to happiness.”

In 1999, Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale, of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, released a study that challenged the idea that attending an elite college is crucial to being successful in life. They looked back at students who were accepted at Ivy League or similar schools but who chose instead to attend “moderately selective” schools. As it turned out, these students had the same average income as those who had chosen the absolute top-tier schools.

Carol Kitchens, the principal at Campolindo High School in Moraga, closes the door behind me as she welcomes me into her office. “I pride myself on an open-door policy,” she says, smiling, “but for this we’ll keep it closed.” A busy woman, Kitchens returned my call almost immediately when she learned I was writing an article about the struggles of affluent young people. The pressures felt by her students, she says, have made the issue a crucial one for her. “I see it more and more,” she says. “The parents are living through their children. I see them marching their kindergartners through here to check out the school.”

Levine’s book, she says, named something that has been on Kitchens’s mind for a long time. And it appears she isn’t the only one. After Levine read at Moraga Library last September, her book sold roughly a hundred copies at Orinda Books, placing it in the category of a “best-seller” for the shop. The Orinda Library had a waiting list of more than 100 people who wanted to check out one of 15 copies.

For all of the affluence concentrated in the East Bay, Orinda might come closest to Levine’s target audience. The median family income hovers around $132,000 a year, and almost 35 percent of the overall population holds postgraduate degrees, according to the Orinda Chamber of Commerce. The Acalanes Union High School District, which encompasses Orinda, Moraga, Lafayette, and part of Walnut Creek, ranks second statewide in the Academic Performance Index. The majority of parents in the district attained advanced degrees and launched their successful careers by knowing how to play the game. Many would be insulted to be called anything less than overachievers. It would seem only natural that they should expect the same striving from their children.

The problem, Kitchens says, is that many of her students are driving themselves to exhaustion to please their parents, rather than to please themselves. And that’s a recipe for trouble. The principal has spent 33 years in education and concedes that things are different today. “A good student used to be able to get into UC Santa Barbara,” she says. “Now you have to be a great student.”

Bill Miller, the headmaster at Seven Hills School in Walnut Creek, says the mentality has shifted as well. He compares parents today to curlers in the winter sport, sweeping the ice path before their wobbly, college-bound kids. Parents have surplus income; why not hire some outside tutoring help? Parents today frequently fill out their child’s college applications; some heavily edit the entrance essays.

As more parents parrot Vince Lombardi—if winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?—others must raise their game just to remain competitive. Victory becomes the only option. “These days, it’s not about ‘I feel really great about what I wrote in my essay,’ ” Miller says. “It’s about the grade, and that bankrupts the whole thing.”

Levine stresses in her book that although parents ought to be available to help their kids if they want help, the most important thing is teaching children to set their own goals. “Sometimes parents understand how this process works, and sometimes, in spite of the best intentions, we don’t. We worry that without our constant intervention and vigilance, our kids will not achieve, and unwittingly we set the stage for their failure.”

Rita Trumbo, a mother of three kids, one graduated and two still at Miramonte High School, has rushed from her daughter’s basketball practice to meet me for coffee. She wears a sweater draped over her shoulders against the cold and an ornate jeweled necklace outside her white turtleneck. We’re talking about Brad, her eldest son, a “kinesthetic learner” who struggled in an environment geared toward academics. Trumbo says she tried everything to help him catch up, until she finally simply let go. “I had to step back,” she says. “It wasn’t about me here. It wasn’t me living his life. I had to back off being the driver and become the support.”

A career coach by day, Trumbo volunteers as the parent representative in Miramonte’s Stressed Out Students, a program started at Stanford University that is devoted to changing the competitive culture. The program begins, she says, with parents learning to see their children as unique individuals rather than superkids.

When looking toward college, Brad told his parents he wanted to go to Santa Barbara City College; Trumbo resisted because she thought of it as a party school. But after hearing her son’s case, she came around and says Brad is happy there. “By giving him voice, letting him speak about what’s important to him, he’s making good decisions. He has increased his self-confidence, increased his passion for learning. He’s excited about school. Committed to doing his best. And it’s all being motivated from within him.”

In her book, Levine says parents can be “over-involved in the wrong things and under-involved in the right things, both at the same time.” Parents become over-involved when they grow emotionally attached to the achievements of their progeny. Neither elation nor devastation is an appropriate emotion to exhibit when reviewing a report card. At the same time, parents often fail to make meaningful connections with their children. They forget to listen. Too often, they respond with an agenda rather than with empathy. “Can you see him with clear glasses?” Levine asked rhetorically when we spoke, “rather than what you want him to be?”

Margie Ryerson, a local therapist and author of Appetite for Life (2005, Universe), a book about eating disorders, describes a former teenage client who starred on a girls soccer team. The young woman enjoyed the sport but had other interests as well, which conflicted with her father’s dreams of seeing her play on a traveling team—maybe even receiving a college scholarship. He demanded she practice every day, long after the game became a chore for her, her talent a curse. The girl wanted to please her father yet found herself suffocated by his ambitions. Like so many kids, Ryerson says, the young woman turned it on herself and felt guilty, as though she had done something wrong. “Often, when a child is good at something, a parent wants to parlay it into something for college admission,” Ryerson says. “Of course you want the best for them. We want every door open for them … which comes out in pressuring the children.”

Levine cites a lack of community as one source for the rising state of panic among parents. Many families belong to spiritual communities, she says, but overall, there is more isolation than in the past. “The priest or rabbi doesn’t stop by to see how we’re doing,” she says. In wealthy families, one parent, often the father, might work excessively long hours, adding to the sense of remoteness. Mothers can become human people-carriers, carting their kids here and there, dipping into one superficial conversation then another, never truly connecting with anyone. In such cases, a kid can become the receptacle for a lifetime of hopes and dreams.

An important question in all of this is, are kids who are being subjected to intense pressure to perform ending up doing things that are related to their real passions? Meeting with local teenagers, it’s clear that the lifetime aspirations they allow themselves are different from the aims of previous generations—a tempering, perhaps, to square with a society increasingly focused on quantifiable measures of success.

Growing up, I wanted to be a writer. My friends wanted to be artists or entrepreneurs. But in the many hours I spend with this new crop of dreamers, I seldom hear of similar dreams.

I meet with a group of young people in the journalism room at Las Lomas, where I went to high school 20 years ago. I, too, wrote for The Page and find it somewhat unnerving to be here, speaking with these younger variations of myself. They are juniors and seniors, mostly editors, articulate but guarded. Typical journalists.

We talk about the future, a topic that never strays far from their minds. Jeremy Erickson, a pale math whiz, is aiming for MIT to study engineering, not because he particularly cares for the subject, but because he thinks he might be good at it. “I want to maintain the standard of living of my parents,” he says. “The right school will help with that.”

Similarly, such concerns were high in the minds of Miramonte students,who said they ruled out jobs that weren’t high paying.

“I don’t think you’ll hear very many kids around here say they want any kind of low-paying job,” 16-year-old Christina Vidal had said, her voice turning sarcastically earnest as she added, “I want to be a teacher!”

Back in the journalism room at Las Lomas, student Sydney Koliha, a young woman who seems precociously self-aware, declares her own conflicted desires to get a good job, “to live the American dream.” For a long time she wanted to be a movie director. “But then I thought about it,” she says, “and realized, I can’t do that. How am I going to live?”

“Who’s to say you can’t make it as a director?” I ask Sydney.

“Yeah,” she says, brightening at the encouragement. But a moment later, she retreats to a more practical reality, where becoming the next Sofia Coppola isn’t the goal, where filmmaking is more appropriately viewed as a side project. “Maybe just not a big one.”

Matt Isaacs is a freelance writer based in the East Bay.

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