Balancing Expectations to Cut Stess and Anxiety
> 9/5/2006 9:15:44 AM

Florida State sociology Professor John Reynolds published a study this summer that shows high school seniors' expectations of success are wildly outpacing their actual production. On the surface, telling a student "reach for the stars" or "the world is your oyster" may seem like great advice, but the statistics bear out a more sobering picture of reality. The divergent paths of expectations and results can lead to high levels of stress, both for children and their parents; anxiety over performance and rewards; and, in some cases, depression.

The Washington Post picked up the story today with their article, Dream On, Kid. They spoke with Reynolds, and described the study as follows:

"We show that the link between good grades and high expectations is getting weaker over time," Reynolds said. More students than ever are expecting to get an advanced degree or work in a professional job, but "grades aren't acting as the signal of academic potential."

The percentage of high school graduates between age 25 and 30 who eventually earn advanced degrees has remained fairly steady since the 1970s. But the gap between those who expected and earned such degrees nearly doubled over the years. In 1976 there was a gap of 22 percentage points between expectations and reality. By 2000 the difference was 41 percentage points.

The WaPo talks to others who work with or study teens and education. Some point at the rising number of community colleges with low admission standards as a cause of inflated expectations. Kids can go from C's and D's in high school to a community college program and still hold out hope for that dream job. In this way, scholastic performance has lost its heft as a predictor of higher education success. We know much more now about the variety of learning disabilities and problems that a child can face, so this is probably a good thing. High achievement is only one indicator of future success. Still some worry that we're putting too much pressure on kids to aim for the moon, leaving them depressed or anxious when their goals don't fully materialize.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg from the American Academy of Pediatrics says that instead of enabling children's inflated goals, we need to find ways to better help them identify their strengths and achieve to their potential. Likewise, MIT dean of admissions, Marilee Jones, sees parents and other adults as the real problem:

"When you say they have unrealistic expectations, that's because those are expectations that have been set for them by the adults in their world," Jones said. "We expect these kids to be perfect, so they don't have a chance to experiment. What's hurtful is that they are trying to mold themselves into a model that doesn't fit them."

The debate is a difficult one for a number of reasons, but first and foremost, because it hits at the very base of the American Dream. The ideal of pulling oneself up from your bootstraps has been so thoroughly ingrained into our cultural identity that telling someone to ease up on their dreams seems almost insane in and of itself. The very idea that anyone can achieve whatever they desire through hard work, although built primarily on fantasy and weak anecdotal evidence, continues to drive innovation and foster development in untold areas. As some of these researchers have mentioned though, there is a danger in building unrealistic hopes. These are usually not met, and the coming back down to Earth can be painful for children and adults alike.

It would be wonderful to find that middle ground; teaching kids to strive always higher, but at the same time helping them to find the realistic role they can play in society. It's a tightrope, but one that we should probably be trying to walk, for the overall mental health of America's youths. The future will show how the trends that Reynold's found will play out.

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