The Middle: Teens, Are You In?

image: from the internet

image: from the internet

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pressures on modern teens: to be “All in” for everything, and make it look easy.  Back in the day, we did our school work and we maybe did a sport, or some other extra-curricular. We did it because we liked it, not because we felt like we had to. Unless you were one of the stars in a particular sport or activity, there was no pressure to do it. We participated to be a part of something.We didn’t start worrying about college applications in eighth ninth grade! We didn’t feel that if we weren’t 100% committed to each thing we did, that we would fail in the big picture. Weekends were time for friends and family, winter and spring break was a time to go away, if you were really lucky, or to hang out with your friends more.

The pressure for kids to achieve and climb begins really early these days. They compete younger, and harder. They begin believing that their worth is tied up in all those bars they must get over, long before we ever considered that possibility.  Today, teens begin thinking about AP courses from the minute they arrive at high school. Their parents start signing them up for more, more, more long before then.  As parents, we drive; we push; we cheer; we cajole. We try not to feel guilty when our kids don’t seem to love all the things they’re doing, because it’s “so important” that they do all of it, and do it well. The competition to be a good parent is only outdone by the pressure to be a super star kid. You can’t just be “in” anymore, you need to be all in.

Last night I went to “Sports night” for the umpteenth time in eight years— since my oldest started high school. I’ve heard it all. I know the rules about attending practice, the strict zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol (never gonna be an issue with Little Man), the desire for parents to step up and volunteer, and the never ending chase for the elusive varsity letter. I’m approaching the final go, with my youngest, who’s a junior this year.  This kid, my Little Guy, is one of the kindest, sweetest kids I know. He truly doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He wants to fit in; he cares what other people think; he works so hard at school, as well as Cross Country and Track, but he’s not one of the alphas. He’s not that kid who’s gonna be a the super star at either.

So he does all the other stuff. He shows up; he works hard; he does his best. He wants to make varsity, but assures me it’s “never going to happen.”  He does his best, and that is enough for me. The coaches tell us that this is enough to make varsity, and I perk up. “Your child doesn’t have to be the fastest, but they have to do their best.” Words to cheer and encourage my boy, I think as I listen. He can do that. He can work hard and do his best, and still letter. I felt relieved and happy, thinking about how to go home and help him feel good about his goals and efforts.

Then I heard something that I’ve heard before, but heard more clearly last night, and my heart sank… again. “If your kid is really serious, they’ll be here for spring break.” Ouch. The coach went on to explain that spring break is a very important time for the athletes, and not being there, says that they “aren’t really interested in being a serious athlete.” Big serious ouch. My heart dropped to my toes. I didn’t hear much else, and I left feeling discouraged for my boy, who works as hard as he can. But the message was clear: We’re not all in.

We’re not going to be here for spring break. We’re going where the sun is. We’re spending time as a family: to laugh, and play, and rest. We’re not talking about school, or sports, or any of the other things that make our days stressful. So my kid’s chances of getting a letter just went down, down— spring break may be the deal breaker. I felt sad for him, and I felt sad for us. I heard what the coaches said, and I could see their point. I get it. They’re not repeat State Champs for no reason. But, we’re not jumping through that hoop. So my boy swallows one more bitter pill, and we try to enjoy our vacation, and not think about the consequences.

It’s no wonder that our kids are all pushed so far, and feel so much pressure. They jump through academic hoops; they jump through the “what else do you do” hoops. And it never really seems to be enough. They worry about APs, GPAs, SATs, ACTs, PRs, and how to shine in a sea of shiny, while the bar just gets higher and higher.  Some kids take it in stride, while others struggle to compete. It’s no wonder that as parents we feel guilty and stressed and pushed to help them get there. The world demands it. College admissions are tougher than ever, the competition tighter than ever.  My boy will keep working hard; he’ll do his best. I’ll do my best to not help him not buy into stuff that makes him feel like he’s not good enough. I’ll remind him that his best is enough. I’ll continue volunteering, because I believe in it. But seriously, the bar is just too fucking high. TOO. HIGH. What more people? Seriously. Where does it end?

Do you have kids on the wheel? What are your thoughts? Is it easy for your kid? Or do they struggle to keep up? How do you keep up? Or are you staying out of the fray all together? Share your thoughts. Hit like. Jump in.

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About Dawn Quyle Landau

Mother, Writer, treasure hunter, aging red head, and sushi lover. This is my view on life, "Straight up, with a twist––" because life is too short to be subtle! Featured blogger for Huffington Post, and followed on Twitter by LeBron James– for reasons beyond my comprehension.
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21 Responses to The Middle: Teens, Are You In?

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I’ve never pushed my kids like this. They pick their interests and then pursue them as they see fit. That’s not to say I don’t encourage them (my youngest’s devotion to magic, my oldest close to getting his Eagle Scout), but they do these things because they choose to. I don’t believe in over-scheduling kids. They should have free time to organize as they like. One or two activities provides great experience. Much more than that and a child or teen can get overtaxed. Of course, I expect strong school work to match their cognitive ability, but that’s more a matter of teaching kids to do their best. I’m not a Tiger Mom, though. 🙂


    • Oh how my friends would laugh Carrie!! I am FAR from being a Tiger Mom, and could not agree with you more! My kids always picked their own extra curricular activities, and I stressed (INSISTED ON) balance, and limits to how many of those anyone did. Family time, has always been key. Up until high school… then, all bets are off, and no matter how laid back you are, they get hammered at school!! It’s everywhere.

      College competition and prep is SO much more rigorous than when I was in h.s. and the pressure huge! My kids were/are getting it from every angle. It’s a very complicated topic for sure. I wish more of my friends would comment on here, because there’s some really good feedback on my FB page, to this post. BIG topic for parents of h.s. kids.

      I salute (sincerely) you for your efforts to keep it real, and not add fire to your kids’ schedules, but I’ll be curious to see how it is when they’re in h.s… Unless they are, and I have their ages wrong? Thanks, as always, for some very thoughtful and intelligent contribution to the dialogue! Much appreciated. 🙂


      • Carrie Rubin says:

        My oldest is in high school, my youngest middle school. And yes, they certainly get more discussions about college and college prep than I ever did when I was their age.


        • Then keep up what you’re doing Carrie, because it is really tough to maintain!! This is my 3rd and last high school student, and no doubt it’s much harder for him than for my other two… but the system sure makes it hard!!


  2. Ah.. we went through this when the boys were wrestling. We had booked a ski vacation for February break (back when schools still had that time off), and the couch had a fit. They weren’t star wrestlers; but it was all about the “team.” Forget that it’s an individual sport anyway.
    The following year we didn’t go away and we were all annoyed. It’s a very tough call.
    I hear you about the pressure on teens. My two nieces and my nephew, all high school juniors, seem to be so overworked. There’s so much pressure on them; I think it’s much worse than when my 3 were going through it.


    • I just don’t know if we could cancel our spring break for school sports… that said, I guess when Little Man is a senior next year, we need to think about it. It’s a hard call! As for changes, I think it was really hard when my 23 year old was doing it, and it’s just getting harder… however, it is nothing like when I was there, 30+ years ago!! The pressures have multiplied and mounted in leaps and bounds!! Thanks for sharing Lisa! Always appreciate your feedback!


  3. Hey, Dawn. I feel your pain, but when all is said and done, you’ve prepared your son, all your kids, for the the world, for a life of balance, of goodness and of quality. I wouldn’t trade any of those things for a stinkin’ letter! No siree Bob. I wouldn’t. You’re kids have their eyes on a higher prize – happiness that comes from inside and is not based on external awards, trophies, accolades and such. So what, you can’t put his goodness on a resume. So what, you can’t list that he’s a sweet, well balanced kid who has a wonderful relationship with his parents. Who cares?! What you and he get is the deep satisfaction of knowing that your eyes have been on a bigger, more meaningful prize. Real, authentic happiness that can’t be manufactured or bought. A family foundation of love and time spent together. He’ll have earned a different kind of letter — one that I think has much more value than some varsity letter that one day will end up in a box in the attic. His letter is “L” for Love and Life. 🙂


    • Lisa, I LOVE the way you think… but let me be very clear, THE BOY WANTS HIS LETTER! 😉 It’s fine that we adults see the bigger picture, but loads of other adults are letting him know (all the time) that he needs to “pick up the slack,” “work harder,” and be “accountable!” Oh my G, if I had a dollar for every time he’s heard those things. With ADD, it is all as struggle for him… a HUGE struggle. And my heart truly breaks when I think of how he internalizes it all. But I can only apply so many salves… he is still feeling the pressure for 9 hrs each day, away from me. Arrgh. Thanks for your kind, true and thoughtful words.


  4. PS – we have an epidemic of teen suicides in our community. I blame all of this crappy pressure on the schools and stupid parents who put this kind of impossible life ahead of their own children’s well being. I know, I’m mouthy today.


  5. Kerri says:

    One of my kids asked me, during a particularly down moment, “What if I’m never the best at anything? What if I’m just really good at lots of things?” It’s a screwed up measurement system that doesn’t see really good at lots of things as good enough. And we won’t be here for spring break either! (and I skipped sports night this year. I’ll write my check, bake my cookies and volunteer wherever I can, but I don’t need to be made to feel guilty for FINALLY taking a family trip to Hawaii.)


    • I’m working on letting the guilt go, but the boy was bummed to hear that it might impact his ability to finally make Varsity. If it’s true that hard work, and not just State level stats count, he’s worked very hard for it. I try not to put it in my posts, but the fact that his ADD truly makes EVERY thing he does, sooo much harder, is really hard to watch. I tear up, each time I think about what all of this has done to his self-esteem— something we can see clearly. It doesn’t matter that I tell him that it’s good enough. And YES Margaret being good at lots of things, or even a few things, IS good enough!! He is subtly and not so subtly told otherwise all day. He isn’t in the same math as kids he likes; he doesn’t get grades that reflect the effort he’s made; he is always struggling to keep up… sports or academics. And when he watches his sibs, it’s hard not to feel worse… despite whatever I/we tell him.

      So, we will be in Hawaii too… but now my boy is a little less excited. We’ll wipe that away with one good day a the beach, and some poke! 🙂

      Another aside, I had a friend (mother of one of Principessa’s friends) who wanted to have “Good Enough” hats made for us all… should have done it.


    • And thank you so much for leaving this thoughtful comment here! I think it really stirs some good dialogue, and I really appreciate the feedback. 😉


  6. The topic of peer and institutional pressure is something all parents must contend with as our children live through it. I don’t think the pressure was as great on my girls as it was on boys, but you are correct – there is always some pressure. Daughter #1 was a joiner, and she paid more dearly to belong and excel. Daughter #2 went gothic and counter-culture, and pretty much thumbed her nose at convention and status. They both went on to college, and they both turned out great! I think no matter how much we anguish for our children as they grow through their teen years, they come out okay.
    The perspective of time is a blessing that our kids do not have. Although they will eventually look back on their school years with some humor, they still have to live through it. And I do think it sucks now more than it used to. So ask yourself what your child will remember and appreciate most when they reflect back, a week at the beach with family or another week of athletic practice. And even though there is no manual that provides parents with every answer, your instincts are correct 90% of the time. Perhaps 95% in your case because you are such a fine mother! That is what your children will remember best.


    • Mike, you are always so reassuring and kind; thanks for that! I guess that I don’t doubt my own abilities in all of this as much as I question how any of us come through it intact! It’s just so complex and tense. It’s really great to hear from others and get insights into how it went for them, or how it’s going. Much appreciated!


  7. Thank you ! I am so grateful for the things in this post . Being in a highly academically competiive school I’ve seen all the varieties in which kids take on double courses during the summer startig from gr 9 and then skip ahead to gr 12 before they’ve even hit gr 11 yet. I’ve always wondered what they ever thought of the shool system , theres a reason for seperate grades each year.

    From what I can tell your boy is going to be mighty fine with his effort . Screw the coach who doesnt know a life with family members during break . Sometimes I do wish to return to my parents generation when people were just happy.


    • Well Duck, I’m glad you are laughing still! I know how hard it is, and you are clearly in the throws of it still. It’s really wonderful to hear from someone your age, and see what they think! I think that when I was your age, which probably seems like a really long time ago to you (!!), it was simpler, but we were NOT all “just happy.” We felt pressure too, and I suppose there is always people who have it harder, and those who have it easier. That said, we had less pressure and more opportunities when we were done. The world has gotten much more complicated for your generation, and the competition with other nations, etc is tight! I feel a lot of empathy for you all, as you work so hard to be in it… and can’t be sure what that will look like. Thanks so much for joining the dialogue! Keep laughing. 😉


      • Sorry if I implied there were no troubles back in the days. Worry not about my mockeries of age, I make fun of my mother all the time when she can’t see the next road sign. Given I need glasses also, I’m definitely the one to talk.

        Thanks for the encouragement! I definitely feel the pressure coming on when the school boards kept warning us “Universities nowadays don’t guaranteeing jobs as they had easily before, most graduates return to rack up more debt!” It was the inspirational speech for the year.


  8. etomczyk says:

    This is one of my pet peeves. I know exactly what you’re talking about. This was awful stress on my kids from the schools and they hated it. Sports used to be a time when character was built and team work was established but now it is all about the endgame (no pun intended). Keep doing what you’re doing because family means more than that other mess.


    • Thanks E! SO true: all about the endgame. The process has been lost, and I fear: the potential for true growth and character building, for many kids. Thanks for contributing. Your words are always wise and thoughtful. 🙂



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