Do You Want Your Kid To Go To Harvard Or Be Happy?

“Prestige-chaser” is a phrase I recently read for the first time, thanks to an article on Goop, the lifestyle site launched by Gwyneth Paltrow known mostly for promoting “alternative wellness.”

Remember the Great Jade Egg Debacle, when the site began selling a $66 jade egg and suggesting you insert it into your vagina to improve orgasms, hormonal imbalances to feminine energy, and get a guaranteed raise at work? (I’m kidding about the “getting a raise” part. But you get my point.)

Yet sometimes Goop offers up something that catches my attention for all the right reasons.

In an article titled, “Protecting Kids’ Mental Health during College Admissions,” William Deresiewicz, who taught at Yale for 25 years was “struck by how many of his students seemed to be just going through the motions in class.” Importantly, he notes, “These were supposedly some of the brightest, most ambitious, highest-potential students in the country and they were sleepwalking.”

It goes on to say it’s not atypical for high school students with privilege (which the article delves into as well) to schedule themselves to the extreme, with AP classes, test prep courses, extracurriculars, philanthropy work, and internships.

That’s exactly what my 17-year-old daughter has been doing. Sometimes I worry she’s going to burn out before she gets to 18.

“In the past few decades, the process has only gotten more intense,” the article says. Wonderful. I even told my daughter, pre-covid, that she could always just take a year off and travel the world. I’ve explained that choosing a college is sort of like being in a relationship or friendship. You do want to go to the one that wants you, but not at the expense of your own happiness.

The article landed in my inbox at the perfect time. In recent months, my daughter Rowan has been interviewed by a number of colleges in the U.S., where she wants to study. As she was dressed in her spiffy school uniform, being interviewed virtually, I sat in a ball on the floor in a corner of the room, listening in.

I promise you, I won’t be disappointed in her choice, no matter what school she decides on. Sure, I have an opinion (please make it a city where I can fly to, without me having to drive four hours to see you!) But one of the schools I would love my daughter to attend would not necessarily be viewed as a “prestige” college. Instead, it has its own ski hill, and my daughter loves skiing. I thought it would be perfect for her because it would make her happy. Except she’s a so-called prestige-chaser, which pretty much means she wants to get into the most competitive schools.

It’s not a bad thing. But it’s not the ONLY thing.

I’ve tried to make it clear that she shouldn’t base her decision solely on how competitive the school is, or how others view her choice. I worry that because she’s one of these high-achievers that she’ll be in for a surprise when I shoot her off into the real world.

“In America, a brand-name college degree is generally considered proof that you’ve got something going on for you,” the article states. “It’s supposed to open doors. It often does. But to attend one, you have to get in and that process has trade-offs. In order to be offered admission to an elite university in the United States, most students will have to spend years of their childhood and adolescence collecting gold stars and jumping through hoops in order to be the kind of student that kind of university might want to admit.”

I get it. When I was studying journalism, in our final year, we had to choose to major in either broadcast, magazine, or print journalism. I chose broadcast journalism, for one and only reason. Out of the three, it was the most competitive program to get into. So, in one sense, it’s a blessing and a curse, to have a child who aims to be the best and get into the best. Did she get this from me?

I do worry that she’s going to choose what’s optically perceived as an “elite school” over everything else, including the most important thing to me, her mother, which is that she’s happy and that her mental well-being comes first and foremost.

I also worry her view of being “successful” may be skewed because it seems that getting an overall grade of at least 90 percent isn’t good enough anymore. Of course, I celebrate her successes, and her grades, as any proud mother would, but I also had to remind her that success doesn’t always mean getting into your dream school.

I’m not sure she’s going to be prepared for all the thousands of other Rowans out there – high-achieving, motivated, top-of-the-class students – who will be future classmates. They will be just as obsessed with good grades, or even more so. Is it wrong that I just want her to enjoy the college experience and remind her that she needs to have fun, too?

“First parents have to understand that an elite college education is not a golden ticket to success and happiness…” Deresiewicz says. He argues that “Families want it both ways…They want their kid to be happy, but they also want them to get into Harvard, and they think they can do both. Very few kids can do both.” Amen!

My heart sank when I read that, “Many parents have come to believe that if your kid doesn’t go to one of like twelve colleges, then life is over. Many kids come to believe this themselves.” Again, my daughter is 17! Of course, life is not over if your child doesn’t get into a so-called top-notch program or college. For a child to think otherwise, is all sorts of fucked up. I’ve seen parents more upset than their kids when they don’t get into a certain school or program. And that, too, is all sorts of fucked up.

I think the same can be applied to any kid applying to universities or colleges these days, even in Canada. Or students even trying to get interning gigs, or co-op placements, for that matter.

I inwardly go crazy when I hear parents ask my daughter what she wants to specialize in, or what she wants to be when she grows up. I want to respond, “The girl is only 17. She has years to figure out what she wants to do.” How many of us in our 40s are still trying to figure out what to do?

If you aim for one of these prestigious schools, I think, logically, a student would then want to go on to a prestigious job or are expected to succeed in prestigious occupations. This kind of pressure is frightening. Yet, what do you do when it’s your child has worked so hard to get the grades so they can choose where they want to go?

And as much as I want Rowan to enjoy her college experience by choosing a school that fits her own unique personality, if she does end up choosing a so-called prestigious school, purely because she worked so hard to get into these schools, well, that will be her choice and only her choice. And it’s not a wrong choice. Or the right choice.

I’d be happy if Rowan chose to be a ski bum and taught ski lessons…as long as she’s happy. Deresiewicz asks in the article, what I think every parent should really be asking; “Do you want your child to maximize income at the cost of minimizing happiness, or are you going to encourage them to take a chance to live their life — even if it comes at the cost of money or status?”

Personally, I say, take the chance! Always take the chance! But, then again, it’s Rowan’s decision, not mine.



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