Saturday, November 25, 2017


I was talking to my sister over the Thanksgiving holiday and we ended up on the topic of teenagers. I am dealing with the challenges of raising a teenager indirectly by living with Mark Johnson and his daughter. And I am generally more of a bystander than a participant. But my sister is living it full time. My sweet little nephew is now 14 years old and he's a freshman in high school.

Raising teenagers is challenging for many reasons, but based on my observations, much of it revolves around a central theme. Asserting independence. Teenagers want to have more authority to make decisions for themselves so they begin to test boundaries. In my nephew's case, it was testing a boundary by telling his parents that his homework was done and then proceeding to work on his music instead of his science homework.

The next day, my sister found out his homework wasn't done and she had to decide if she should let him stay home and finish it, or send him to school to deal with the consequences. Ultimately, she ended up letting him stay home to protect his grade in the class. Her story is not uncommon. Many parents have to deal with similar issues as their teens start to assert their own set of priorities.

My nephew is very smart. He has been in the gifted program since grade school and he takes mostly honors classes with all of the other honors kids. My sister says that he could go to any college he wants if he keeps his grades up. And maybe that is true. But he is only 14 years old. He may not know whether he wants to go to an Ivy League school or a Big Ten school or a local college.

By the time he figures it out, he might have already closed some doors by not getting the grades he needs. So my sister is trying to protect his future and keep his options open. As a parent, all of that makes sense. But looking from the outside in, it all seems backwards to me. After years of trying to manage and control the outcomes in my life, I have finally learned to go with the flow and let things unfold however they are meant to be. 

I think there is way too much pressure on kids today. Especially when it comes to honors or gifted classes. Mark Johnson's daughter qualified for Spanish 2 in her freshman year because she took Spanish in the 8th grade. She really struggled with that class. And now she has to take Spanish 3 in her sophomore year because she already took Spanish 2. And that class is even harder. She is so frustrated that she's thinking of dropping it.

The schools always seem to push kids to move on to the next level. They want you to be challenged. And they operate on the assumption that a 14-year-old kid will remember whatever they learned in Spanish class the year before. Learning is not always a linear process. Some people benefit from repetition. It might have been just as well for her to build up her confidence by starting with Spanish 1 in her freshman year.  

Sometimes it is better to be the smartest kid in the regular class than being challenged in an honors class. Being a teenager is challenging enough, with all of the social pressures and raging hormones. If you breeze through your homework, that leaves more time for music lessons or playing video games or just hanging out. And maybe interacting with other kids who are not on the fast track to college helps to develop empathy and other social skills.

When I was in high school, I took a lot of honors classes too. And I earned a full ride scholarship to a local university. The college admissions people told me that I qualified for honors English and honors Calculus, so I took both of them in my first semester of college, along with macro economics and a speech class. I ended up with a "C" in both of the honors classes and my grade point went below a 3.0 so I lost my scholarship until I could get my grades back up.

I had no business being in honors Calculus. I didn't remember any of the math I had taken in high school. I had just memorized what I needed to in order to pass the test, but I never internalized it. I wish someone had told me that being a freshman in college is a hard transition and that I should take it easy on myself the first semester. And I wish they had told me that all math credits are created equal. You don't get extra points in life for doing things the hard way.

Gifted classes are like a mortgage loan. You might be approved for $225,000 but that doesn't mean that you're going to spend all of it. And just because you qualify for an honors class, doesn't mean you have to take it. To me, honors classes should be reserved for subjects that you excel in and enjoy. Who decided that a smart kid like my nephew has to be good at everything?

Of course, I am not a parent and I know these are not easy decisions. But I also wonder if colleges and universities have set up this scarcity mentality on purpose. The price of an education has skyrocketed in the past decade and they keep raising the standards to get in. Colleges and career paths can impact your future. But so can crippling student loan debt.

I have two college degrees. A bachelor's and a master's. I don't really use either of them. And even if I did use them, I certainly have never been asked about my grade point average in a job interview. Or the number of honors classes that I took in high school. Of course, each of those steps along the way was a building block to the next step. It's easy to look back 25 years later and say that I did not need to take those honors classes, but how do you help teenagers to make the right decisions in the present?

I guess it all boils down to one simple question. Is this really what we want for our kids? Pushing them along on a path and crushing them under the weight of all this pressure. Robbing them of their enjoyment of today by forcing them to plan out their entire future. And potentially guiding them into a career path that may not be what they really want, or what will truly make them happy.

What if we turned the entire conversation around and stopped planning for the future? What if we acknowledge that the universe has a plan for each of us and that somehow we are going to end up exactly where we are meant to be? I know that might be a huge leap of faith. And it doesn't mean we should let our kids blow off their homework every night. It just means that we should give them a chance to explore who they really are and experience the natural consequences of their actions.

I am not the person I was in high school. Or in college. Or even five years ago. I am constantly evolving and changing. It took me years to understand that, and to free myself from all of the definitions and expectations that were placed upon me from such a young age. What if my nieces and nephews could grow up in a world without all of those false beliefs and expectations about themselves? That would be the greatest gift of all.

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