Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
In a week-long battle last spring, Rachel tried to reason with her parents, but every day the conflict escalated to screaming and crying. After anonymous letters from pleading friends, her father finally caved in. She would be allowed to participate in a Blair extracurricular activity under the condition that she maintained at least a 3.75 unweighted GPA.
Limiting extracurricular participation is only the tip of the ice berg for Rachel, a junior, and many of her peers. When parents demand academic perfection and impose strict restrictions and pressures to get results, teenagers' outside interests, social lives and emotional well-being often suffer.
Tightening the grip
Freshman Jeff Tseng has experienced pressure from his parents for as long as he can remember. "Since I was in kindergarten they were like, ‘Get into Harvard,'" he says. "In elementary school no one else cared about colleges and jobs as much as I did."
Caroline Tseng, his mother, believes that an early focus on academics is essential for future success. "Each subject gives you knowledge to build a foundation for your professional career or college study," she explains.
Ellen Briggs, who expects high grades from her daughter, feels it is a parents' responsibility to help their child make the necessary decisions to have time for schoolwork.
Ellen Briggs explains that times have changed since she was in school, and in order to be competitive in college applications good grades are essential. "It all depends on results-- we'll go with her decision first, but so far she's needed our guidance."
Briggs and her husband decided to pull their daughter, sophomore Claire Briggs, off the Varsity Lacrosse team with only one week left in the season because she had received three Bs.
No room to breathe
Rachel's parents, like the Briggs, have been unsupportive of her non-academic interests, specifically in the performing arts. She has never been allowed to participate in school plays or musicals or pursue her interest in voice lessons.
Some parents, like senior Lauren's, allow their children to participate in extracurriculars but don't trust that their children will get all their work done on their own and feel the need to micromanage every move from the second they get home. "If [my parents] ever see me idle, they'll force me to drop everything and do homework. They'll kick me off the computer, kick me off the Internet," says Lauren, adding that she is not allowed to shut her door.
Similarly, Rachel sees her parent's attempt to rule over every aspect of her life as a stifling, unreasonable imposition on her freedom. "My parents try to dictate what kind of music I listen to, what shows I watch, where I go online," she says.
For senior Catherine, phone, Internet use and social freedom have been considered privileges to be earned with good grades. "They would never let me out if they could," she says.
Sally, a senior, says her limited contact with the non-academic world started at a very young age. "Once I started school I don't remember going outside to play," she says. "I guess I never had a childhood."
Making the grade
Even students who are able to earn mostly A's find themselves berated for the one B. Lauren imitates her mother's reaction to any report card blemishes. "How could have possibly have gotten a B in that class," she says furiously, shaking her finger. "I saw you doing that work! What did you not do?"
For senior Julia Bertaut, punishment comes packaged in a disappointed face and tone of voice. Even when Bertaut's grades are perfect, she feels her mother is unimpressed, leaving her frustrated, with no where higher to go. "Nothing is good enough to say, ‘Wow, that's really good,'" she says. "I get straight As and she says ‘Good, now do it next quarter.'"
Julia's mother, Carol Bertaut, describes her typical reaction slightly differently. "I hope I give positive feedback," she says, showcasing a gap between the impact of a parent's reaction and their original intention.
B is for berate
When Sally was younger her parents would physically reprimand her for insubordination and in elementary school created a policy where she would be hit once for a B, twice for a C and so forth.
Her parents never followed through with this physical threat, and Sally describes their current relationship as more of a psychological battle. "I'm kind of afraid of them, but I'm more afraid of what they think of me," says Sally. The pressure makes her constantly stressed about her grades and upset when her percentage comes up short.
Pressure over grades often becomes a serious emotional ordeal. Senior Marianne Epstein used to have a hard time when pressure from her mom was her primary motivation. "My mom would kirk out and I had a lot of trouble dealing with it. I was really unhappy and realized I was blaming my parents for ruining my life."
When Catherine was unable to keep up in fast-paced classes during her freshman and sophomore years, her parents' restrictiveness and pressure drove her over the edge. She skipped school often and even ran away from home.
Epstein and Catherine both feel that their situation has improved, but Rachel believes that the damage she has suffered will stay with her for the rest of her life. In addition to being emotionally distanced from her parents, Rachel has internalized her mother's message that her grades are inadequate. "It's made me more insecure about myself because I keep being told that what I'm capable of doing isn't good enough," she says. "I've taken to hiding things away so they won't be able to criticize me-- including, to a large part, my feelings."
Clinical Psychologist Linda Kanefield explains that this is a normal emotional reaction. "Sometimes parents take for granted that their child will excel at everything and don't realize how much pressure the kids are under and how even subtle disapproval can leave a child feeling that he or she is not accepted for who he or she is," she says.
According to Dr. Michelle Miller-Day, who was involved with the study, it's important for parents to differentiate between "being disappointed for your child and being disappointed in your child." Teenagers are susceptible to feelings of inadequacy when they feel they much reach specific academic standards to earn a parent's love, Miller-Day was quoted as saying in a 2003 Nutrition Health Review article.
The great balancing act
Often in the mix of pressures and emotions, the source of academic motivation becomes blurred. "Anything less than perfection doesn't make me happy anymore," says Rachel. "But I don't know if it would have been like that if they hadn't pushed me like this."
An early transition from parental to self-motivation seems to be the cornerstone of the most healthy high-expectation family relationships. "Setting standards for you children is fine. But problems arise when parents' expectations become the sole motivating force for a child," said Miller-Day in the article.
Senior Christian Brown is much happier now that his motivation is internal, remembering how irritable, impatient and resentful he would get when his parents were overly controlling. "I've figured out that it works a lot better to want to do something for myself than wanting to do something because my parents want me to," he says.
Brown says his experiences have really made him closely consider what role parents should play in their child's life. "My parents had a more totalitarian style like ‘my way or the high way,' which really turned me off from that kind of parenting," he says. "It gave me an appreciation for more guiding than ordering."
Anna Benfield. Anna Benfield is a CAP swimmer, field hockey and lacrosse goalie and diversity workshop leader. She loves biking, sailing, collages, the zoo and her little brother. More »