I got this strange email recently.
“Date for Freshman Orientation” was in the subject line.
It had to be a mistake because I’m pretty sure my twin daughters just started preschool yesterday. But alas, here we are on the cusp of the big leagues.
The moment I put the date in my calendar, I felt the pressure building.
First, the PSAT scores came home.
Then, teachers started recommending which classes the kids should take.
Next, a flurry of text messages and phone calls and neighborhood chats about what other students did in the past, who was signing up for what, and the average SATs scores at the big name universities everyone wants their kids to go to.
Each day my kids would come home and say:
“So-and-so is taking all AP classes because her parents are making her.”
Or “My friend said if I don’t take this AP class I won’t even be considered at certain colleges,”
Or “Jenny’s sister said her AP classes are so much work she barely sleeps!”
I read through teacher recommendations and course descriptions. I talked to some friends. We sat down as a family. And I still had no idea what sort of course load was right for them.
It’s hard not to get sucked into the frenetic energy of what high school is like in today’s world. The news is filled with stories about the declining mental health of our teens, the increased competition of the college admissions process, and high school burnout.
And it’s no surprise.
Between the homework required for advanced classes, sports practices, extracurricular activities, SAT prep, service hours to boost their college application, and family obligations, kids have no downtime.
Basically, our teens are chronically stressed out
Even scarier is that some are carrying the psychological effects well into their adult lives.
When the shock that I truly would be the mom of two high school freshmen finally wore off, I was able to think a bit more rationally about it.
Could there be a balance between preparing my daughters for college and ensuring they didn’t have a break down in the process?
What did I want my kids’ high school experience to look like? What did they want it to look like?
One of my daughters wanted to play soccer and run cross country, and possibly get involved in a club. The other wanted to join the orchestra and try out for a local symphony. She also wanted to volunteer.
They were looking forward to social activities and new electives and Friday night football games. They heard about class trips and student government. One wanted to take a baking class at the local community college, and the other wanted to perhaps get a job to save for a car.
The more I listened, the more excited I was for them.
High school can be a great experience if you have the time to enjoy it.
Overloading their schedule with advanced classes for the sake of taking an advanced class didn’t make much sense. More time studying means less time to make friends, join new things, acquire job experience or volunteer—all equally important in my eyes. I also thought of my daughters’ propensity to put pressure on themselves, and how they didn’t always deal with stress effectively.
We ended up encouraging our girls to challenge themselves in the academic areas they enjoyed, but reassured them it would be okay to just take standard level classes for the other subjects. We hoped it would be a good balance—challenging enough academically but not so labor-intensive they couldn’t do other activities.
We know it’s a risk to take an easier course load, and our girls will be competing against other students who took a different, perhaps more college-friendly path; however, it’s a risk we’re willing to take.
My kids will go to college. But I don’t want them to miss out on their high school experience—or be too mentally and physically exhausted—to get into one.
Although I think my daughters are stellar students, I’d rather they be stellar human beings. Part of that is having enough time to follow their passions–and having a little time to actually enjoy themselves, too.
It’s my hope that underachieving a bit in school will result in my kids overachieving in happiness.
It’s a risk I think will pay off.