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Posted: Dec 26, 2006 23:44


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By: Judy Zodda, Educational Consultant
Framingham, MA

Alexandra Robbins book, "The Overachievers, The Secret Lives of Driven Kids", both captures and epitomizes what is fundamentally wrong with the values of many parents of today's high school adolescents. This book is sure to escalate this year's frenzy in college admissions. Robbins follows three overachieving students over the course of one school year and the first third of another. While some of her statistics are incorrect, at least according to the latest NACAC numbers presented in its' State of College Admissions report in May 2006, as is her statement about Division III athletes receiving paid scholarships and visits to colleges, (which they don't receive either), the description of these students is frighteningly accurate in describing the lives of many of today's high achieving students.

Parents and educators have failed to recognize that we have robbed our children of the joy of learning and the fun that should accompany these years. High school is also supposed to be a journey of exploration for adolescents to learn about themselves, experience failure, learn from it and move on. If we as parents always step in to fix everything and make it right, our children are not equipped to handle failure in the future.

Today's adolescents also find themselves giving up the activities and interests they may genuinely develop on their own, in pursuit of the activities that look best on their Resume and the brass ring their parents are looking for to validate themselves as parents. (In this case, the brand name college.) Suffice it to say, many of us would have collapsed under the pressure in which our children find themselves today.

While most readers focus on the high achieving students, I have chosen to view this book from a different vantage point. The current trend of parents to demand more than a student can produce has left kids at all levels of achievement wondering when and how they can get off the treadmill. When the expectations of parents exceed what their child can realistically achieve it is easy to fall off the edge. The parents have set up a situation where the sense of failure is so extreme; the child may end up in a therapeutic setting.

I have a student currently in my practice, where the parent initially described her son as "a little ADD". After meeting with this student only twice and finding holes while reading through the school records, (he had attended four schools, "none were quite right"), I asked if any educational or neuropsychological testing had been done? "Well, yes, in 10th grade." This student was a rising senior at the time. A 37 page report arrived on my desk documenting significant learning disabilities, as well as ADHD. The student is in a small private school receiving one hour/week of tutoring from the LD tutor.

A tidal wave of information is flowing over this student everyday, and he is unequipped to handle it. He has been taught few strategies for learning and integrating information, unable to tap into the wonderful capabilities he has. Despite his high average FSIQ, he will in all likelihood fail in college, because the parent refuses to acknowledge any learning differences and insists on sending him to a "regular" college, rather than following the recommendations of four qualified professionals. This is a student who is ripe for a future therapeutic setting, after an overwhelming sense of failure causes him to tip over, unable to recover on his own. The road back is far longer and more difficult, than if the parent had acknowledged his real needs.

Ms. Robbins also talks about the ever-growing issue of what is now termed "helicopter parents", those parents who are involved in the minutiae of every minute of every day in the lives of their children; hovering over homework, and extracurricular activities. They don't just edit papers, but sometimes write them as well, and it doesn't stop in high school. I personally know parents who have kids attending the most elite colleges, who routinely fax or email papers to their parents to edit before submitting them.

Last year I attended a presentation at one of our country's most elite institutions where one of the presenters afterwards, told me their students are afraid to take risks in their course selections. Some audit a course before they take it, to determine if they can get an A, a trend Ms. Robbins notes in her book. The college admits it's a problem, but doesn't know what to do about it.

I have often wondered if all of this would stop once the "millenials" (children of the baby boomers) entered the work force. Apparently not. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, an editorial appeared in my local newspaper, The Metrowest Daily News. It quoted an article by Tara Weiss titled "Are Parents Killing Their Kids Careers?" The article is featured on It discusses how parents are now calling recruiters to schedule job interviews, accompany their 24 year old to the job interview, and if the job isn't landed, actually call to find out why their son or daughter didn't receive a job offer. The particular Human Resources VP, quoted in the article, Pam Engle, says she "has yet to hire a graduate whose parent accompanied them to an interview." This past Sunday, December 17, 2006, an article on the same theme appeared in The Boston Globe. Are these parents actually going to go to work with their son or daughter? What happens when these now "professionals" need to make decisions on the job?

If you currently have a student in high school, it is long past time to step back and let your son or daughter know their life is not defined by an SAT score, a GPA, and their extracurricular activities. For those of you who are reading this and still have young children; Give them free, unstructured time that David Elkind, author of "The Hurried Child" stated more than two decades ago, they need and should have, in place of the harried lives they lead. They have only one shot at a childhood. Make it one that accepts who they are and encourages their ultimate independence

About the Author:
Judy Zodda is an Educational Consultant specializing in working with high school students and their families to simplify their college search and maximize their educational opportunities.


January 04, 2007

Dear Sirs,

The article reminds me a lot of Alfie Kohn's crusade against testing and grading , in an attempt to build a cooperative community of students who enjoy learning , for the sake of learning. I think that Kohn is very relevant to the RTC, TBS etc industry in that he highlights the value of the community in helping kids not only do kind acts but become kind and caring people in a community which is kind and caring.

From his article - see other articles on testing and grades Caring Kids, the role of schools . Here is a piece which speaks to me

Cooperation, by virtue of being an interaction in which two or more people work together for mutual benefit, is not itself an example of pro social behavior as the term is usually used. Neither does its successful use presuppose the existence of pro social motives in all children. Rather, by creating interdependence and a built-in incentive to help, cooperative learning promotes pro social behavior

Alfie Kohn talks about raising caring kids reviews 4 parenting strategies

  1. Punishments

  2. Bribes

  3. Encouraging commitment to values. To describe the limitations of the use of punishments and rewards is already to suggest a better way: the teacher's goal should not be simply to produce a given behavior - for example, to get a child to share a cookie or stop yelling - but to help that child see himself or herself as the kind of person who is responsible and caring. From this shift in self-concept will come lasting behaviors and values that are not contingent on the presence of someone to dispense threats or bribes. The child has made these behaviors and values his or her own.

  4. Encouraging the group's commitment to values. What the first two approaches have in common is that they provide nothing more than extrinsic motivation. What the first two share with the third is that they address only the individual child. I propose that helpfulness and responsibility ought not to be taught in a vacuum but in the context of a community of people who learn and play and make decisions together. More precisely, the idea is not just to internalize good values in a community but to internalize, among other things, the value of community.

  5. Perhaps the best way to crystallize what distinguishes each of these four approaches is to imagine the question that a child is encouraged to ask by each. An education based on punishment prompts the query, "What am I supposed to do, and what will happen to me if I don't do it?" An education based on rewards leads the child to ask, "What am I supposed to do, and what will I get for doing it?" When values have been internalized by the child, the question becomes "What kind of person do I want to be?" And, in the last instance, the child wonders: "How do we want our classroom (or school) to be?"

I have not read the book but the title From Compliance to Community For me implies that we don't need to focus on compliance and can achieve so much more if a kid is interested and sees value in ' How do we want our classroom (or school), family, youth club, community etc to be?"

Allan Katz - Israel

December 29, 2006

What a wonderful essay and important message to parents. I hope to share it with my neighbors whose son is headed for Harvard in August. I have been an avid reader of the Woodbury Report since I had to place my 22 year old daughter in a residential treatment facility in St. George, Utah her senior year in high school. It was difficult to accept that she had so many problems that would require a structured program and that she would be separated from her twin sister but it was the best thing that could have happened. I can look back now and see that it probably saved her life and played a key role with her actually graduating from high school. She was a quiet, shy straight A student until middle school. She wanted to rebel and be different and she lacked the confidence to choose friends with confidence.

Even though she attended a Presidential Blue Ribbon High School their program did not really meet the needs of the struggling middle school age teen at risk. We quickly realized we had to move her to a private school for teens at risk or she would fail miserably under the pressure and unrealistic academic expectations. She spent a year at a local special ed school before we sent her to a residential program. She is now finishing her second year at the University of Pittsburgh and is doing well. She also works one day a week in the Emergency Room of a large Psychiatric Hospital where she is using her talents to help others. She plans to attend graduate school for a higher level degree upon completion of her bachelors degree. Its been a long road to recovery and we are now 30 months drug free and totally focused on positive goals. I have listened to many school counselors, rehab counselors and teachers and private counselors. The most important thing I have learned is how to be her parent and partner of accountability….one baby step at a time without giving up. She makes her own decisions and is willing to discuss other options with me and I am willing to see her fail and start over again. She has become my biggest teacher in life.

Saundra Smith
Pittsburgh, PA.

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