Home/school balance

Many professionals struggle with their work/life balance. I’ve never met an adult who said, “I wish that my boss and my job-related stress and my performance at work would play a bigger role in my life at home.”

And yet many kids today are struggling with home/school balance.

Parents, what if your home became the place where kids could be free of:

  • Measurement of performance
  • Comparisons to other kids
  • Judgment based on grades or test scores
  • Suggestions to fix their weaknesses
  • Pressure to succeed by subjective metrics
  • Recurring conversations about college admissions
  • Imposed guilt for mistakes made

Not a home free of expectations or bloated with universal praise. But a place where the love is unconditional, where a student’s performance as a family member is more important than their performance as a college applicant.

How would that change the environment at home? And how might it embolden them to thrive in the environment at school?

Both might improve with a better home/school balance.

Giving kids agency

It’s a difficult balancing act for parents to help their kids develop the skills to be successful while simultaneously letting go enough to allow them to develop the agency to become capable young adults. If you’re a parent struggling with this challenge, give this 40-minute interview with author and former Stanford dean of freshmen Julie Lythcott-Haims a listen. And if you’re unsure whether you’d benefit from the advice, the first minute alone might turn you around.

Regularly ask “why?”

In response to my post last week with data demonstrating why teens need to get more sleep, a parent replied with an earnest and totally reasonable question: How? As she pointed out, getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep is a challenge with school, classes, activities, part-time jobs, etc. For a concerned parent who agrees that too many students are taking on too much, and who would very much like to encourage their kids to get more sleep, what exactly can be done about it?

There’s no easy answer here, but I recommend that families start start by asking “why?” when confronted with those choices that are preventing kids from getting more sleep.

Four AP classes—why? Activities filling up all their free time–why? And if the answers are, “Because kids need to get into ‘good’ colleges,” stick with, “Why?” There are hundreds of colleges in this country that will happily admit a kid with B’s, no AP classes, average test scores, and a part-time job after school as their only activity.

These are choices that kids and families make. And one of those choices is to opt in to—or out of—the race for a coveted spot at one of those colleges that denies most of their applicants.

We might say that this is the way it has to be, that kids need to get accepted to the most selective college they can lest they somehow be left behind their more competitive (and sleep-deprived) classmates. But if you meet that assumption with a powerful “why?” you’ll see that it doesn’t hold up. There’s no data to support that kids who go to highly selective colleges are happier or more successful in life. The namebranditus afflicting so many families is a powerful story they’ve been told and now tell themselves. But it’s not a fact-based objective on which you can predicate your high school career.

The truth is that some kids thrive on competition and achievement. They’re internally wired to finish at the top and feel a sense of exhilaration in the chase. But many more do not. I don’t prescribe one way to approach high school. But whatever approach you see—and even endorse—with your student, take the time to regularly ask, “Why?”

Our kids need more sleep

From Challenge Success’s regular newsletter, which arrived in my inbox this week:

“Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that not getting enough sleep is associated with certain health risks and that more than ⅔ of U.S. high school students report less than 8 hours of sleep during school nights. When teens consistently get the right amount of sleep, they feel and function better. A lack of adequate sleep is associated with increased risk of physical illnesses, such as obesity and diabetes, injury-related risk behaviors (e.g. risky driving or not wearing a helmet), poor mental health, attention and behavior problems, and poor academic performance.”

On praising by comparison

Too often in high school, the praise that kids receive is rooted in comparison.

“You scored in the 97% percentile.”

“You had the most points on the team.”

“Your solo was the best one.”

Comparison isn’t inherently bad, especially when it’s the standard of judging a performance. If you’re on the swim team, your performance in a meet is based on how fast you swim compared to other swimmers.

But even when the comparison is the basis, the praise at home doesn’t need to be that way.

“I know you studied really hard for that test.”

“I’m so happy that you’re really enjoying playing on the team this year.”

“I was so proud. You didn’t seem nervous at all during your solo!”

Naysayers may claim that we need to get kids prepared for the cold, hard, real world where winners get ahead. But that’s not rooted in fact for most industries–or in life. Most successful people have a string of failures on their unspoken resume entirely because they were willing to take on uncertain challenges. And your personal life is rarely rooted in competition (there’s a reason most wedding vows don’t include a promise to be a winner).

Parents, the next time you want to express your pride to your student, look for a way that doesn’t rely on a comparison to others. Home should always be a place that cares more about who you are and less about where you placed.

A different (teen) management model?

Parents, have you ever had a boss who was a micromanager, someone who needed to be kept informed of or outright involved with every step of your work?

If so, were you thankful for their style of constant oversight and for their reluctance to trust you? Did it leave you happier and more engaged? And perhaps most importantly, were you able to sustainably produce your best work?

There’s a reason I have only ever heard people use the world “micromanager” pejoratively—it doesn’t lead to better outcomes or to happier employees.

Now, what type of management style are you using with your teen?

Are you constantly checking their grades online and intervening at the slightest sign of a dip? Are you involved with everything from selecting activities to communicating with teachers to choosing appropriate colleges? Are you spending more time as a manager of their lives than you are as a parent to the human you’re raising?

Some parents may quibble with the comparison and point out that responsibilities as a parent to a child are different from those as a manager to an employee. I couldn’t agree more.

And that’s exactly why if you’re micromanaging your teen, it might be time to consider a different model, one that embraces your role as their parent and diminishes your role as their manager.

Which parenting plan are you embracing?

In just a one-minute video, Challenge Success co-founder Madeline Levine shares her recommendation that parents embrace the “30-year parenting plan” over the “CEO model.” The former aims to raise a future 30-year-old who’s happy, caring, engaged, etc. The latter focuses on last quarter’s numbers.

It’s all going to be OK

Parents watching kids go through the college admissions process already know how the story ends.

You don’t know the specifics yet. You don’t know which colleges will say yes or if your kid will hit it off with their future roommate. You don’t know what job your student will hold after college, where they’ll live, or who they’ll marry. Those are the unknowns.

We know that no teen has ever suffered as an adult because of one low grade, test score, or admissions decision in high school. We know that no adult is still smarting over not getting into a dream college when they were 18. We know this. The ride to college may include some bumps, but it’s temporary turbulence on a much longer flight of life. Transcripts, test scores, and college applications eventually recede into high school memories of our much younger selves, often in ways that aren’t reflective of the adults we become.

So please consider this: how would you behave if you knew everything was going to be OK?

Would you wring your hands over 50 points on an SAT exam?

Would you wage academic war with a teacher over a B+ you wished were an A?

Would devastation be an appropriate reaction to a denial from a dream college?

I understand that rationality often goes out the window when it comes to our own kids. The specifics may be uncertain, but deep down, you know it’s all going to be OK when it comes to all-things-college-admissions. And it’s worth reminding yourself of that every now and then.

It’s easier to manage, to accept, and yes, to enjoy when you know it’s all going to be OK.