I was not surprised or outraged when I read Alan Schwarz's New York Times article on amphetamine use to boost grades. Anyone who has worked with teenagers these past few years is well aware of the abuse that is going on, regardless of predictable disclaimers from drug company officials or school administrators. The fact that the main abusers of amphetamines are high-performing students is perhaps not surprising in light of the fact that it is among the ranks of the most academically talented that cheating tends to be rampant.
The fact that amphetamine abuse carries great risk for addiction to other drugs, and is potentially lethal, makes Mr. Schwarz's article important in raising awareness. But as we move to increase awareness of discreet issues with high-performing students -- notable rates of depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, cheating, drug use, etc. -- we risk missing the heart of the problem. There is a group of students out there, often difficult to identify because of their well-honed façade, who will not live up to their potential to become capable, resilient, contributing, good people because the expectations that surround them are not only unrealistic, but damaging and counter to everything we know about healthy child development.
The issue is best summarized by Madeleine, the student in Schwarz's piece who clearly articulates the dilemma many of her peers feel they are facing. Does she want to "underperform" both in the classroom and on the playing field because of inadequate sleep? Or does she want to take stimulants and "make the teachers happy and the coach happy and get good grades, get into a good college and make my parents happy?" She and apparently a third of her classmates find that an easy choice. Her decision is reinforced by the fact that she does indeed gain admission to an Ivy League school. Two things are striking about her statement. First, she seems unaware of her ability to make a choice. She could take a more manageable schedule; she could stay home on the weekend and put in extra study time; she could decide that "four hours" of sleep is unhealthy and that she needs more. But none of these options appears to occur to her. Far more ominously, she herself is completely missing from the list of people who will be pleased by her drug-enhanced performance. This young, bright woman has completely missed the major developmental advance of adolescence -- developing a unique, independent and capable sense of self.
Walking across the Stanford campus, a new student looks around. She is unsure of where her next class is. So she pulls out her cell phone and calls her mother. In Asia. Sixteen time zones away. Mom gets on the computer, looks up her daughter's schedule and moments later this student's problem is solved. Except what if mom wasn't awake? What if her cell phone was uncharged or in the next room? Every time a child or teen looks outside of herself for help on problems that she could solve on her own with effort, she misses one more opportunity to beef up the coping skills that will allow her to meet challenges not only in school, but in life. The issue isn't an occasional phone call for assistance, or even an occasional use of drugs (this is not an endorsement), but the extensive and persistent reliance on external help at the expense of developing internal resources.
Our unremitting anxiety about our children's performance, how well they stack up against the competition and how to make sure they have a "leg up" -- expressed through the hiring of unnecessary tutors and expenditure of large sums of money on prep courses for everything from preschool to college admission interviews, for example -- has sent a clear and dangerous message to our children: That we value their performance more than we value them. That their grades matter more than their health. That coping skills matter less than conning skills. Lower Merion School Disctrict spokesman Douglas Young is right on target when he tells Schwarz, "It's time for a serious wake-up call. Straight A's and high SAT scores look great on paper, but they aren't reflective measures of a student's health and well-being . . . [W]e need to embrace a new definition of student success."
Success is not something to be measured at the end of a grading period. Rather, success is something that only our children themselves can measure ten or twenty years down the road when they move into their adult lives: when they find work they enjoy, experience relationships that strengthen them and feel within themselves a loving, reliable sense of self that is available in times of both happiness and challenge. There is no drug that crafts an internal sense of self. Reliance on external reinforcements only gets in the way. Allow your child to cope with challenges. Stand back before stepping in. Remember that there are few guarantees in life, and that the best thing you can arm your child with is not a Harvard diploma, but rather self-knowledge, self-confidence and the ability to manage adversity. This -- not the "addies" that some of our most academically talented kids pass around like candy -- is the "leg up" that children really need.