The Overachievers

140130201701_aa240_sclzzzzzzz_v60620872__1 Years ago, when our kids were just starting school, I recall the conversations about holding the boys back.  If they were born sometime around the cut off date that it might be better to hold them back because they were too small or not ready or whatever the reasoning was.  I was amazed.  But if everyone was doing it, how could you be the only parent that didn’t.  Lucky for us, our kids were all born a few months after the cut off date so we never had to make that decision.  How do we get parents to stop the nonsense?

I just finished reading The Overachievers, The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins.  Bravo to Alexandra from writing this book.  She explores how the high stake race into getting into a top college has become out of control.  The pressure on each individual kid to succeed, be the best, rank number one, get into the Ivy Leagues, get the best SAT score, be the captain of a variety of sports teams has put childhood on hold.  The back lash from this is cheating, over testing, sports injuries, drug use, depression, suicide and worse of all the ability to be yourself.  Each kid is doing what college advisors tell them to do.  You wonder who are they?  How are they ever going to be able to enjoy downtime?  How are they going to be able to function without their parents doing everything for them?  Are they actually going to be happy with the college that their parents want them to go to?  Will they be so burnt out by the time they get to college that they won’t be able to perform?

This book is coming out at a very poignant time.  Recently the SAT test has changed to incorporate an essay so the test lasts somewhere around 5 hours with breaks.  5 hours for a 16 year old to take a test that might make or break getting into the college of their choice.  Crazy…right?  I believe the test just signifies if you are a good test taker.  Years ago the SAT actually helped colleges find a kid who might have done poorly in school but tested well on the test.  Maybe there is something there that they would not have seen before.  Now, it is driven by tutors and preparing for years to excel on this test.  In essence the kid who come from upper-middle class families can afford to have their kid tutored, those that don’t can’t.  The test isn’t a fair assessment.  William Hiss (quoted in the NYTimes today) who is the VP for external affairs at Bates College said something that I think is right on the money.  Hiss said "human intelligence and ambition is more complex, more multifaceted, than any standardized testing system can capture."

Recently some top Liberal Arts schools have made the decision to not use the SAT as a guide.  Thank god.  They are looking at the individual kid.  Who they are and are they the right candidate to provide a balanced class.  Robbins explores the admissions process too.  They aren’t looking for the kid that has taken 6 AP classes necessarily.  I remember growing up and there weren’t any AP classes.  What has happened?

Do I want my kids to get into a good college, of course.  But, I want them to get into a college that is the right fit for them.  I also want them to have a balanced life.  As I write this I hear our kids outside without a group of friends enjoying the last gasps of summer, playing in the pool, talking about silly things that teenagers talk about not talking about grades or SAT’s or how they will achieve next year.  They all know that they are expected to do the best they can do because that will make them feel good about themselves.  But it is for them not for us. 

Robbins makes some great points at the end of her book.  Here is a few things that she recommends what high schools can do.  Drop class rank, deemphasize testing, provide less-competitive alternatives, limit AP’s, Re-institute recess.  What colleges can do is boycott rankings, scrap the SAT, Eliminate early decision, prioritize mental health and send a message that allows students to what they enjoy vs. what they are supposed to do. Most important, here is what she recommends that parents can do, limit young children’s activities, get a life (one kid said in the book that he wished his parents had some other hobby besides himself), schedule family time and place character above performance.  What students can do is stop the guilt, adjust the superstar mentality, carve an individual path, pick a college that reflects you and pare down the activities, reclaim summer. 

My hope is that a backlash is coming.  Backlash to No Child Left Behind.  What I mean by that is bring back the arts, gym and music.  It has been proven that those activities actually enhance children’s learning habits in math and science. Stop living vicariously through our children, stop thinking that an Ivy League School means success for later in life, etc.  Carpe diem.  Work hard but enjoy the moment of being 10, 13, 15, 18, 25 etc. 

Comments (Archived):

  1. Peter Wunsch

    I am entering #2 in school and when you get there you may have a diff. feel for this. The tests are a pain and seem needless BUT they even the field for kids who are involved in 25 things, or travel sports, and have grades which are lower than their peers who are glued to desks.
    We have one who got in all those top liberal arts schools after 50 weeks of travel soccer each year and the SATs helped. #2 did better than his brother on the SAT and only had to take them once. It was not so painful and improved his study habits.
    It’s too easy to sign on with all the tutorial nay-sayers.

  2. Jim Fobes

    Kids should be allowed to ber kids, period.
    The rat race some parents put their kids in is sickening. I’m a big believer in two-years of national, community or social service for 18 year olds. It gives them time to decompress and to ready themselves for adult life. For me the USMC was a good thing. Stanford right after high school was a bad thing. When I got out of the USMC, I was in uniform at morning mess at Pendleton but in class at U.C. by noon. Three years later, I had my degree.
    Be well,JoAnn. I love your blog.
    Jim Forbes

  3. Jonathan

    I agree with Jim about the 2 years of national, community, or social service for 18 year olds. Some countries force a gap between high school and college (military service in Israel, Switzerland, or Turkey for example) or just encourage it (a “gap year” in the UK). Of course military service would be the last choice for my children, but I have friends with a child in the Israeli army and they think differently. Nonetheless, a break between high school and whatever is next is a great way to mature and help you figure out what direction you want to take (without parents breathing down your neck).

    As a parent of children in “high academic achievement” schools, we worry about the pressure cooker element. Friends of our (about to be) 10th grader have been pushed toward specific college paths (read: Ivy) for years, often by parents who went to these schools themselves. I believe in the “best fit” idea of college placement…at least I do right now. Next year I could see us “drinking the Kool-aid”…

    There is another side to the testing debate. Most of us are high achievers and got there through intellect and drive (and some luck). I know that to achieve some level of success, you will need all three (intellect, drive, and luck). When your kids live a life of privilege (did they baby sit to earn money for that iPod? No…..) how do you instill that hunger in them? It isn’t about money. Kids (and, on occasion, parents) know there will always be people with more money than you and people with less. It is about knowing it takes really hard work to achieve your goals, whatever they are. The tests are a marker of intelligence and drive…at least one sort of intelligence (that of test taking). It is one way of differentiating between people and it will be repeated throughout life. I don’t think you can hide from them any more than you can hide from the rest of life.

  4. Ted

    Great post as usual.

    This is very timely as my 6 year old son has been going to the university children’s center since he was 2. Unfortunately, they stop at K. Choosing a school for first grade was difficult for me. We found a progressive charter school that has no grades, recess, gardening and multi-aged classrooms. As this is completely contrary to my Catholic education as a child, it makes me a bit nervous. However, as you mentioned, it is about the kids and how they learn. One size does not fit all. While my oldest will probably do just fine with an environment with less structure, my youngest would be a hellion.

    I find it amusing when I see parents say that my 4th grader is on the honor roll? Its 4th grade for Christ’s sake. I would rather they preserve their innate curiosity in lieu of being driven to hit the books so zealously.

    I hope that people realize that standardized testing is just one facet. An interesting story from a few years ago. As part of my business, we had to have Chinese nurses pass an English language test (TOEFL to be exact), so we enrolled them in a prep-school in Beijing. Everyone passed with flying colors. However, when I went to interview them, they could not speak nor could they even write. Rather, they figured out the test as if it were a math problem. This underscores the idea that ‘teaching to the test’ is a bad idea.

    I will have to pick that book up for my wife. My wife’s mother was a school teacher so it has been hard for her to let go of the ‘traditional’ US model.

  5. Jodie Gordon

    I am glad to see that this topic of conversation is sparking so much dialogue.

    I wanted to let you all know that Alexandra Robbins will be speaking on “The Overachievers” on February 7th at The JCC in Manhattan.

    If you’re interested in hearing her speak, visit for more info!

  6. Jodie Gordon

    I am glad to see that this topic of conversation is sparking so much dialogue.

    I wanted to let you all know that Alexandra Robbins will be speaking on “The Overachievers” on February 7th at The JCC in Manhattan.

    If you’re interested in hearing her speak, visit for more info!