Is An Academic Push Okay When It Comes To Our Kids?

As someone who has recently felt the consequences of not finishing her 4-year degree, I can honestly say that my daughter’s academic situation has become somewhat of an obsession for me.  Determined to make sure that my mistakes are not her own, I’ve recently taken to nagging her about high school options and pushing her to succeed in her academic career, which of course makes her miserable.  Not to sound dramatic, but as a freshman in high school, she’s in the process of selecting courses and clubs that will eventually affect her entire high school and college path.  So, as she begs me to stop bugging her with information and tips and asks me to let her make her own choices, I’m now wondering if I should just let her be.  Should we push our kids to succeed in academics so that they can meet the ever-growing list of demands from 4-year universities, or should we encourage them to follow their own hearts and paths, like butterflies in the wind?

This conundrum has a good deal of relevance in today’s society, because we are in the midst of a parenting pendulum that has been swinging from one extreme direction to another.  As the child of two Baby Boomers, I find that I am constantly torn between the subconscious ideals of my upbringing and the new ideals that I have cultivated as a parent, and there is a very good reason for this paradox.  Allow me to explain…

Baby Boomers (my parents) and those before them were raised (in general) by two parents, one of whom stayed home to raise the children.  There was an established societal progression that good citizens were expected to attain and follow.  This order even had a name: middle class values.  Parents taught their children to believe in God, have good manners, get a college education (especially boys), commit to hard work, seek an early marriage, birth lots of healthy children, and do their duty for their country.  When children failed at these goals, for whatever reason, there was an inner-family display of disappointment or embarrassment and an attempt to hide that fact.  In the 60s, many of the Baby Boomers rebelled against that type of rigid societal plan (can we blame them?), had a revolution, and made a conscious decision to raise their own children with much less structure and expectation.

Which leads us to Generation X.  I’m guessing that most of the people reading this blog fall into this category, like me, and they can probably tell you that their upbringing by Baby Boomers was filled with much more independence than the previous generation (in some cases, maybe a little too much… hello, “latchkey” generation).  Television played a larger role in shaping our lives, and most of us came home to empty houses after school because both of our parents were working.  As children of participants in the Social Revolution of the 60s, most of us were taught to take care of ourselves above all else, and put career before marriage or children.   We were taught to be competitive and tenacious, to take our chances and grab opportunities before someone else did, and to never settle for anything (hence, a great deal of career-hopping and divorce).  While we were told that we could do, or be, anything that we wanted, it was generally expected that we would get jobs at the age of 16, find a way to go to college while still working, and develop competitive careers before settling down with a family.

Many of the Gen Xers did, in fact, work their way through college, find careers and wait to start their families.  The pendulum didn’t swing again until they began to have their children.  And then boy, did it swing.  As the children of less engaged parents who had put an emphasis on career, money and success, most of the latchkey generation made the decision to do a 180 and raise their kids in an entirely different way: to obsessively embrace every little detail of parenting and devote themselves to the task, or not have kids at all.  Mothers or fathers stopped working to be at home with the kids again, they gobbled up parenting books galore and personal parental values became the norm of the family dynamic, rather than societal values.  In the parenting society of Gen X, everything was examined and weighted for consequence to the child: how long to breastfeed, whether to have pets, the dangers of antibacterial soaps, what age to introduce siblings, whether or not to discipline, what age to begin preschool, and on and on. A movement began, wherein children were given the freedom to act intuitively and creatively in the name of self-expression, rather than forced to follow pre-conceived rules or laws of the land.  They weren’t encouraged to engage in competition anymore, but rather, given constant positive reinforcement and told that they were winners just for trying.  Pressuring or disciplining children became taboo, for fear that it might affect their self-esteem.

I believe that my dilemma about getting heavily involved (um, maybe a little pushy) with my daughter’s academic choices is a dilemma that many of the Gen Xers share.  Our upbringing nags us to push them, to make them take the most difficult courses, so that they have more opportunities down the road.  But at the same time, our exposure to the modern way of parenting instills a certain amount of guilt for doing that.

I’ve always fundamentally believed that parents should create a balance between structure and freedom.  I was never one of those parents that let her kid run amok at a restaurant, talk during a movie, or tell a neighbor to piss off.  My husband and I have always been big believers in showing respect for others and following the basic rules of society.  But as our daughter grew and became more independent, there was no denying that she seemed to know her purpose better than we did.  She was very opinionated and stubborn about what she wanted to do, where she wanted to go, and who she wanted to be.  She didn’t really care whether we understood her decisions, and she always made a very compelling case for her side.  Now that she is 14 going on 30, she seems to know better than ever who and what she wants to be.

But what about the insane demands of our education system?  According to, college acceptance counselors are searching entrance applications for:

  • A challenging high school curriculum that includes AP/IB and honors courses
  • A high GPA
  • Solid SAT and ACT scores
  • Passionate involvement in areas of reading, school and extra-curricular pursuits
  • Meaningful use of free-time (outside of school) in areas of interest
  • Special talents
  • A well-written essay
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Enthusiasm for attending the University during college visits and contact with the administration

Yikes!  That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone a teenager who still has their entire life ahead of them.  And while our kids seem to know what they want to do, and who they want to be, statistically, they will only be able to get into the university of their choice if they meet those conditions which they are naturally inclined to rebel against (or at the very least, avoid).

My husband’s view about this issue is less, shall we say, urgent than mine and definitely more balanced.  He feels that we should guide our daughter in the right direction about college, show her the requirements, give her the tools that she will need, and then let her be.  He feels that she needs to do the work on her own… If she wants to go to a specific college, then she needs to take the initiative and make sure that she’s doing everything that needs to be done.  In theory, I believe he’s right.  But as a mother that is self-conditioned to worry about the impact of every little decision regarding her kid, I’m finding it very difficult to let go of those reins and trust that all of the pieces will fall where they are supposed to!

But if I’m honest with myself, I know that he’s right.  Our kids need to learn some lessons the hard way, because that’s how we learn to survive on our own and make our own way in the world.  And the truth is, even if she doesn’t get in to the college of her dreams, it’s not the end of the world.  She can always choose another.  Her path will constantly change during her lifetime, and the best thing we can teach her is to go with the flow, and make adjustments as needed in order to find happiness and fulfillment.  That’s the REAL survival skill.  Then we are sending a well-prepared butterfly into the wind.

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