Success Anxiety

Social Emotional

Context is everything. We are living in a time where our students are experiencing record amounts of stress and anxiety. And the context of this stress is the key to unlocking its cause. There are causes of stress with systemic roots: poverty, violence, abuse, addiction. But the stress among the students who lack these “clear” causes: where is that stress coming from? 

The stakes for answering this question are likely high, as the stress to which I refer may be one of the factors behind the rise of anxiety and suicides among young people in our country. As an educator at a Jewish day school, I can’t help but throw my own concern into the mix, and my own thoughts into the solution. 

The parents raising kids now with the aid of the Internet feel their own pressures—to parent in a particular way, to demonstrate their children’s successes publicly, to show that their own success is trickling down to the next generation. And say you have achieved in your own right: you hold a highly regarded place in your profession, you own a comfortable home in a lovely neighborhood and you are able to take your family on educational and world-expanding vacations. Then what does success look like for your kids? Can they achieve at the levels that you’ve achieved?

Well, there’s some anxiety there. What is success then? Is it financial? Is it achievement of academic pursuits? When you have reached these heights of success yourself, then it can be hard to imagine how your children are going to top that. In fact, that might be what keeps you up at night. It might be something that makes you wonder if you are parenting “correctly.” It might make you worry that you aren’t doing enough to help your kids get ahead.

When I was in middle school, students who were in accelerated math were in algebra in eighth grade. Now, that’s our regular eighth grade math class. No wonder then, that parents want their students in accelerated math classes, even though it’s unclear where the acceleration is heading. It’s not necessarily the end results, it’s the idea of getting to be at the top that’s the goal itself. When we as a society elevate particular types of success over others, it’s a breeding ground for rebellion, mental health issues, and this generalized anxiety that we, as educators, are seeing much more often in students.

Challenge Success has worked to combat this. Based in a research center at Stanford, they know intimately the issues presented. This is an organization working to balance the lives of children. The image of success for success’s sake can be an all-encompassing and never-ending search for a fulfillment that won’t come, a misplaced drive for “results.” The result is the part that we have the least amount of control over, both as parents and as human beings. The result is the part that can only come from the living of life, the struggle.

As a parent, I can understand the impulse to want our children to succeed; who doesn’t? We want them to have what we have, what we didn’t have, what we should have had. I’ve had to re-think all this, though. My youngest son has cystic fibrosis; I very quickly needed to shift my understanding of the value of his life and what success might look like for him. Having a child with a terminal illness has helped me to move more easily from the idea of success that looks like money, achievement, and outward signs of inward growth. It’s not that I don’t want to see the fruits of whatever labor my kids engage with as they grow, but I hope that my children are able to bring some light into the world, be good people, and to work through their difficulties with as much grace as possible. The anxiety that children experience often stems from a concern they won’t be able to handle things. They will, but we have to give them loads that they can handle, without heaping on our own unforced errors. 

When we push our students to achieve beyond what is developmentally appropriate, we aren’t helping them to learn that they can manage what they will need to tackle. Will my son be able to manage the difficulties that will inevitably be thrown his way? I hope he will. He will certainly have practice dealing with physical and emotional challenges. Will he be able to do algebra in seventh grade? Eh. 

So what does success look like for this generation of students whose parents have achieved the pinnacle of success? Let’s remove, for a moment, the outward trappings of success: how were those things achieved? Were there tears and long nights? Were there conversations? Mentors? Trial and error? Books? Exploration? Resilience? Hardship?

We don’t want our students to experience difficulty, but when we peel back our own experience, we can see that any success we’ve achieved is made manifest by those difficult circumstances we experienced to get there. We achieved because we worked through the difficulty that is natural and inevitable in our lives. Taking away our students opportunity to experience difficulty does not make them more likely to be successful; it makes them more likely to feel anxious that they won’t be.

We can give students the space to experience those feelings of life: feelings that bring them their own individual versions of success, and even more importantly an ownership of their achievements, instead of deciding they must do things in one particular way. The paths to success are numerous, riddled with difficulties, potholes, and we can all end up in different places. The important part is that students are able to look around and appreciate the walk on the way to their success—whatever it ends up looking like—because being able to manage oneself on that walk is the only thing that students actually have control over.