Girl power!

Girl power!

An extensive Sunday New York Times package examines the hyper-achieving girls of Newton North High School in Newton, Mass. The article takes the tack that all these girls are excelling in school, even more so than the boys, because they’ve had the chauvinistic obstacles removed from their paths.

What I see is a lot of girls who have never had a childhood, but who are completely focused—usually at the prompting of their parents—on preparing for some future life. Everything is about compiling a resume for college, right down to the college-name shirts everyone in the photos seem to be wearing.

It is also to see these girls struggle to navigate the conflicting messages they have been absorbing, if not from their parents then from the culture, since elementary school. The first message: Bring home A’s. Do everything. Get into a top college — which doesn’t have to be in the Ivy League, or one of the other elites like Williams, Tufts or Bowdoin, but should be a “name” school.

The second message: Be yourself. Have fun. Don’t work too hard.

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

They take all Honors classes, except for the three or four even more rigorous Advanced Placement classes. They pay thousands of dollars for SAT preparation tutoring. They do 40, 50, 60 hours of homework each week. They participate in sports, theater, after-school clubs; play musical instruments; have jobs.

This is not unusual for high school kids. Is it any wonder one of the top three leading causes of death for teens is suicide? (The other two are accidents and murder.)

Parents’ responsibility

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  • Being a stay at home mom, my husband and I have been lectured by relatives that I should be working and contributing to the family. Yes, letured. As if I have an obligation to others outside my immediate family, so they won’t be embarassed telling people I’m at home all day doing nothing.

    On a good note professional organizations are supporting stay at hom mothers. The Massachusetts Bar Association is having a conference for transitional lawyers, any individual(mom or not), who is re-entering the field after being away from practice.

  • Any child doing 40+ hours of homework a week is in a class over her head.  And if that is truly the amount of homework being doled out to students who are working at the level of the classes, then the parents are negligent for letting their child take more than one of these ridiculous classes a semester. 

    I believe that much homework on top of school and extra-curricular activities is akin to child abuse.

  • Dom! You’re not suggesting that Harvard is a waste of time for a woman who winds up a stay-at-home mom?! Waste of money, maybe, because she could get a better education for way less at UD. But not a waste of time. Learning for the sake of learning. Knowledge for its own sake. NEVER a waste of time. Besides, if the lady in question is going to home-school, what better than for her to have a well-trained mind and a familiarity with hard work?

    When I was in high school, my parents forbade me to have a job. My father told me that my job was to study, get good grades, get into a good college and then make plenty of money after graduation so I could afford to put him in a nice nursing home. (My dad’s a little weird)
    I think it’s good for children to work hard and do lots of things, but not if they aren’t also having a good time with it. I never wanted to play sports , so nobody ever made me. I really enjoyed playing the clarinet, so I stuck with that. The exrta-curriculars are good, but they can’t be allowed to get in the way of important things like having a social life and sleeping.
    (this is long and rambling. Shutting up now.)

  • As someone not to far out of college, I know that there are too many kids out there like this and it’s not good to their overall development.  Do they ever develop normal social lives which is not only psychologically healthy, but is important for networking.  Do they ever get to enrich their lives with their own interests?

    I’m a firm believer in challenging kids and hard work.  I believe in setting the bar high so it can be surpassed, rather than lowered and missed.  But kids also need a real life to be well-rounded.

  • Another question I didn’t address in my post: What happens to these kids when they’re in college and out from under their parents’ stern gaze and suddenly have a whole lot of freedom (and encouragement to “experiment” with it)?

    Girls Gone Wild?

  • “What happens to the girl who goes to Harvard after all these years of preparation and hard work and stress, and after graduation decides she wants to marry and be a stay-at-home mom? Has she wasted all that time and effort? How will her parents greet that decision?”

    My mother was that girl.  She was raised to believe, as was I, that the education is an end in itself, as opposed to merely a means to an end. My mother has said that she never would have met and married my father if she hadn’t been that high-achiever (which was one of the things that drew them together).  She says her educational achievements served her in every way as a stay-at-home Mom, from the most complex discussions with condescending pediatricians, to the most mundane judgment calls she had to make on a daily basis and finally to help her as an adult parent of grown professional daughters and a son.  Her parents greeted her news thrilled to know that if their son-in-law dropped dead in a week, their grandchildren would still have the benefit of one proven high-achiever running the family.

  • In case anyone is wondering, this is not a brave new world. It resembles, in good if not complete world, the world I knew in high school in suburban NY in the 1970s. Homework was more like 20-25 hours a week (3 hours a night plus extra for weekends – but more for some folks). But all HR (Honor Regents) course, AP, lots of extra-curriculars and jobs. Plus a lot of pot for many, if not all (which I was uninterested in because my older sibs were all heavy users); maybe that’s why no one showed the strain. But, in a class of about 1000 students, the tops students were all within a couple of grade points, and many of us had been in the same classes together since 4th grade (when tracking began) and knew our relative class standing for years. We were driven by the economic malaise of the 1970s; most of us had parents who were in constant threat of being laid off (starting with the space program cuts of 1970 that affected so many local industries), and capitalism was a wonderful incentive to focus on growing up too fast. Feminism as such was not the enemy – boys and girls responded equally to these incentives. If there was an enemy, it was the sudden crashing of economic uncertainty like a meteor into the postwar economic bubble (1940-1970). We’re still in that era of uncertainty. There’s nothing like sustained negative economic change to undermine family values.

  • The Contrarian strikes again!

    I was in a very competitive public high school in the 80s. It wasn’t like this. Perhaps the reason their parents are driving them so hard is because they are also under the mistaken impression that it’s the same as when they were in school.

  • At the Catholic-in-name-only high school I attended, we were told that, since Catholic schools were the cream of the crop (yet this was a school mostly populated by non-Catholics who were expelled from public school), we had to do everything the best, and since studies show a minimum of 1 hour of homework per night was necessary for success, *every* teacher assigned 1 hour of homework per night.

    I never understood how anyone did anything *but* school and homework.

  • Having just gone through this whole wild ride with my oldest, what I found was that a huge number of high achievers (honors programs, AP classes, sports, leadership roles and the newly important volunteer programs) all compete for the same schools. It all kind of feeds on itself, more striving to set yourself apart because your heart (and parents, too, it’s just as competitive among parents “Where is your daughter/son going to school” is now a loaded question) is set on BU or BC or Tulane or Holy Cross and there’s possibly thousands of kids just like you wanting that same slot.

    This early decision, wait listing, etc., is unbelieveable. One of my daughter’s friends is #16 in her class, very well rounded, good SATs, sports, leadership, the works – and she is waitlisted on 10 of the 12 schools where she applied (BU, Northeastern, Holy Cross, BC, etc).

    It’s really competitive out there, especially with almost all HS grads attending college. There’s no more blue collar factory/utility type jobs that support families anymore.

    And the loans these kids graduate with… oh my gosh.

    As an aside, my daughter has settled on Franciscan U in Ohio for the nursing program. Tuition is 25k and that is a bargain these days. I am thrilled that she’ll be in a very well paid profession that she can work around family life, because she wants to marry early and have a lot of kids (she says anyway).

  • I wonder how many of these kids who pine for the powerhouse schools will end up at the smaller schools like Steubenville or UDallas or Christendom for their junior and senior years anyway.

    The transfer rate into a place like Steubenville is very high. Kids think they want the big famous school experience, but many don’t like being just among thousands, a number in a crowd of students, many of whom are more interested in parties than education.

    I say this both as someone who started in a big school and ended up in a small one and as the husband of former college professor.

    Congrats to your daughter, Colleen. I hope she enjoys Steubie U as much as I did. Best four years of my life until now.

  • Hi Colleen,

    Congrats to your daughter on her decision. My daughter is a 2005 grad of Steubie and many of her friends were nursing majors, all working in well paying hospital jobs now. The nursing program there is superb, especially since it focuses also in the dignity of the human person.

  • Now retired, I dealt with a lot of high achievers in my 30+-year career as a Washington gummint and private lobbyist.

    One thing I liked about my work in Washington was the fact that the many very smart/able people you met very likely came from all over, or nowhere. It was a meritocracy. Arthur Burns, the smartest man I ever worked for, painted houses to get through Rutgers and by the way also helped define the business cycle in the 1930s, among other singular achievements. He never asked or cared where I went to school. At the Fed, I was surrounded by PhD economists, but the top economist was not a PhD; he had a masters from U. of Indiana.

    I expect many of these high school high achievers will flame out. Where will they be 25 years from now? Some who may not be fatally damaged may be able to come down to earth and find something that interests them, really interests them.

    The further they get away from any job that depends on having been graduated from a “top” school, the better off they’ll be. Some few may even “let go and let God” handle their lives.

  • Too often I hear from families that have lost a child to suicide “There was no indication whatsoever. He/she was a straight A student. Class president. Involved in XYZ clubs. Had an active social life. Was always cheerful…” I’m beginning to wonder if this is coincidence or is just as much a red flag as the student who underachieves.
    As to the single gender educational environment, it doesn’t work for everybody. Most of my A’s can be credited to whichever “obnoxious” male competitor dared to challenge me in any given class, from Kindergarten through college. (How else are you supposed to get through the boring topics, at least?)
    One of my daughters is an A student who achieves in a similar environment of competition with brotherly boys. The idea of an all-girls school makes her ill! I’m beginning to think this has to do with one’s upbringing. Both my daughter and I are used to dealing with a brother who is close in age.
    The pushing of the parents beyond normal discipline is s’thing else. Our kids have lost their childhoods in so many ways already…

  • I agree with many of the comments, so I won’t repeat what they said.  One thing I would add, however, is that all of this hard work to make good grades and build the right resume for college isn’t even giving us the right kind of intelligence in our kids.  In today’s world, “smart” people – those that are capable of making “A”s – are a dime a dozen.  What we really need to build a better world are people with true creativity and the character to put it to good use.