Balancing Expectations to Cut Stress and Anxiety
> 9/6/2006 2:12:06 PM

Florida State sociology Professor John Reynolds published a study this summerthat shows high school seniors' expectations of success are wildlyoutpacing their actual production. On the surface, telling a student"reach for the stars" or "the world is your oyster" may seem like greatadvice, but the statistics bear out a more sobering picture of reality.The divergent paths of expectations and results can lead to high levelsof stress, both for children and their parents; anxiety overperformance 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:

"Weshow that the link between good grades and high expectations is gettingweaker over time," Reynolds said. More students than ever are expectingto get an advanced degree or work in a professional job, but "gradesaren't acting as the signal of academic potential."

Thepercentage of high school graduates between age 25 and 30 whoeventually earn advanced degrees has remained fairly steady since the1970s. But the gap between those who expected and earned such degreesnearly doubled over the years. In 1976 there was a gap of 22 percentagepoints between expectations and reality. By 2000 the difference was 41percentage points.

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

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

"When you saythey have unrealistic expectations, that's because those areexpectations 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 achance to experiment. What's hurtful is that they are trying to moldthemselves into a model that doesn't fit them."

The debateis 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 ofpulling oneself up from your bootstraps has been so thoroughlyingrained into our cultural identity that telling someone to ease up ontheir dreams seems almost insane in and of itself. The very idea thatanyone can achieve whatever they desire through hard work, althoughbuilt primarily on fantasy and weak anecdotal evidence, continues todrive innovation and foster development in untold areas. As some ofthese researchers have mentioned though, there is a danger in buildingunrealistic hopes. These are usually not met, and the coming back downto Earth can be painful for children and adults alike.

It wouldbe wonderful to find that middle ground; teaching kids to strive alwayshigher, but at the same time helping them to find the realistic rolethey can play in society. It's a tightrope, but one that we shouldprobably be trying to walk, for the overall mental health of America'syouths. The future will show how the trends that Reynold's found willplay out.

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