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Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond, by Kenneth R. Ginsburg

Redefining Success
Interview with Kenneth R. Ginsburg, M.D. M.S.E.D.

-- Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston

The senior year of high school can be very stressful. Twelve years of a life are summed up in a few numbers (grade point average and standardized test scores), a few recommendation letters, and some essays. Anonymous admissions officers decide whether a teen is worthy (as measured by acceptance to their illustrious institution). Teens and their parents want to succeed in this admissions game (as defined by getting into the best schools as possible), and they set very high expectations. (Who wants to go to a safety school? Don't all children want to go to their "reach" schools?) Every fall, this becomes the all-consuming discussion around the dinner table and at Home and School Association meetings across our community.

Several months ago, I wrote about academic success and perfectionism in the Jewish community. I expressed concern for children when emphasis on academic pursuits becomes excessively high or misplaced. Although I offered a few suggestions for parents to break the cycle of high expectations and disappointments, I knew that a 1000-word article was insufficient to give parents the skills that they needed. Just in time for the fall college application crunch, I am thrilled to let you know that a new book, Less Stress, More Success, has hit the bookstores. Marilee Jones, Dean of Admissions of MIT, and Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, Adolescent Physician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania (Philadephia Magazine "Top Doc" in Adolescent Medicine) and international expert on resiliency, teamed up to give parents the ability to step off of the treadmill. I had the privilege to sit down with Dr. Ginsburg to get a preview of his book. 

"Parents and their children are caught on a treadmill," he said. "Over-scheduling and over-stretching kids are making them unhealthy, but parents are afraid that if they get off the treadmill, their children will be left behind."

He described several myths about the college admissions process - "the big lies."

Myth 1

"If you give up your present life to study for the SAT's and do well, then your future life will be handed to you on a silver platter." 

As a result of this myth, teens are giving up some of life's greatest pleasures that involve down time and time for reflection. Unfortunately, these sacrifices in high school will not achieve the goal - cruising through adult life. Life is never handed to you on a silver platter. In order to succeed in life, you have to continue to work hard. In order to sustain your efforts you need to have a balanced life, a life filled with enjoyment, relaxation, and pleasure. When we raise kids who do not understand this, we are raising kids who cannot succeed in the long run because they will burn out.

Myth 2

"In order to succeed in the world, you have to be good at everything." 

Parents are signing kids up for too many extracurricular activities — community service, sports and academics. These parents incorrectly believe that their children have to be good at all of these activities or they will not get into college. This unrealistic expectation can create children who are never satisfied with who they really are. The truth is that no one is good at everything. Successful people are good at one or two things. Interesting people are people who will test their boundaries and enjoy things at which they do not excel. 

While many highly scheduled adolescents are thriving, those who are highly pressured may suffer serious consequences. Our goal as parents is to raise healthy high achievers rather than to overly pressure our kids, inadvertently producing perfectionists. Less Stress, More Success offers insights to help you strike that balance.

The real danger of over-scheduling and over-pressuring kids to achieve is that they may develop a deep-seated fear of failure. This fear of the B+ stifles creativity and diminishes innovative potential. In order to raise kids who will truly succeed, they need to be able to think outside the box and leverage failure to find a better solution. Kids who fear the B+ will do what works to get the A rather than try something new. Inventor Thomas Edison took 100 chances at failure until he created a light bulb that worked.

On the other hand, healthy high achievers push themselves hard and enjoy it. They are at their peak when they are trying new things and reaching for the stars, not in pain. When they achieve, they know how to celebrate. Think about a composer who has heard his symphony for the first time; does he hear the violinist who was flat, or does he marvel in his achievement? As parents, do we put out our child's weaknesses, or do we help him capitalize on his strengths. Are we wind behind our children's sails while they navigate the route, or does our pressure serve as the anchor that prevents them from comfortably taking the journey.

Unrealistic expectations, as opposed to healthy high achievement, create an enormous amount of stress. Children (and adults) cannot live up to their own unrealistic expectations or those placed on them by others, and this creates emotional pain and physical illness. Unrealistic expectations and perfectionism can lead to anxiety and depression, chest pain, headaches, reflux, abdominal pain, and fatigue. Ultimately, they can even lead to eating disorders and self-mutilation.

According to Dr. Ginsburg, "The ultimate answer is to redefine success. Success should not be defined as getting into the school that some magazine defines as the best school." Less Stress, More Success reminds us what success in high school is all about — not what college accepts your child but rather whether your child has developed into a balanced, compassionate, creative, and responsible young adult. Parents need to remember that the college admissions process is a rite of passage for many children. When parents over-manage the process, they are sending the message that their child is not capable, not ready. 

As a pediatrician and the mother of a senior, I see the unhealthy stress that my patients and some classmates of my son go through during high school, particularly during their senior year. As your child goes through his senior year, allow him to make decisions for himself about college. Once he commits to applying to college, help him define what he will see as success. After he list his own goals, you may suggest a few others: independently manage the college admission process, meet all of the deadlines, and, most importantly, find
the right match — a school that allows him to grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially.

For book excerpts, please visit the AAP Web site.

Previous Columns

Raising A Mensch Section Editor: Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston parenting @ pjvoice.com
Dr. Flaura Koplin Winston is a practicing pediatrician, professor of pediatrics and Scientific Director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She welcomes your comments, questions, contributions and suggestions for future columns.