Today, young people are measured by their academic success and achievements, where parental and employer expectations have been set at a very young age. I don’t remember a time when my parents or grandparents didn’t pressure me to get good grades, or do extracurricular work, or be good at sports, not to mention the already competitive natures of school and athletics. In my mind, getting good grades was a way to make my parents happy, or to make me happy, but as a twenty two-year old I’ve learned that I will not necessarily obtain happiness from these things. When I’m old and gray, I probably won’t look at the awards framed on the wall, or my bank account, or my job to measure myself, but the people I’ve met, loved, and those I’ve shared a life with along the way. But feeling the pressure to be successful makes me wonder if, as a parent, I’ll hold my children to the same standards as mine have held me. I wonder if my kid’s success will improve my life, or is it their happiness that I will want most.
Palo Alto offers insight to how parental and communal pressures to succeed may have unintended, harmful consequences. In 2014, a series of suicides at local high schools raised questions into environments conducive to mental health problems among young adults. Suniya Luthar studied the situation in Palo Alto and shared her findings in an article for The Atlantic. Luthar, who received her Ph.D from Yale University in developmental/clinical psychology, focused on the “vulnerability and resilience among various populations” of which included impoverished youth, families affected by mental illness, and teens in affluent communities. She found that mental health issues arose in the youth of affluent communities as frequently as those living in poverty, which might contradict what most would expect. In her published article “The Problem With Rich Kids”, she indicates that kids from affluent communities often feel alienated from their parents and correlate their parent’s expectations with their own happiness. In some of her other work, she explores the particulars about these communities, including youth delinquency, which is on par for those living in poverty, and the household environments that contribute to the higher-than-normal rates of mental health disorders in affluent kids. Reading her work, and thinking about these upper-class communities, reminded me of “Dead Poets Society”, where Robin Williams’ character inspires a group of young men to grab the all but tangible heartbeat of life, and how this glimpse into this proposed life, compared to the life his parents want from him, led to one of the kids’ suicide. I thought about how old this movie was telling us about a kind of problem that still plagues communities across the nation.
I imagine that different demographics experience different kinds of pressure at young ages. Although my parents instilled in me a work ethic, I never stopped questioning what it was that would give me happiness later in life, and they didn’t discourage my curiosity, but there are parents who do. They give their kids expectations to meet without ever letting them set their own. I look at my friends and see their goals laid out before them and wonder whose they are. I worry that when they reach those checkpoints that they won’t feel any greater for it. That when they’ve become successful in life, with a spouse, with kids, they’ll think maybe their kids’ success will make them feel whole.