Myth #2: Being a Top Student Leads to a Great Life
We all want the best for our kids. So when we urge a teen to be the best possible student, it’s often because we know this will get him into the “best” colleges—and we assume this will lead to the best life. On the flip side, we assume that if you’re not a top student, you won’t have a wonderful life.
We assume wrong. Here are a few places to start if you want to question your assumptions:
1. It can be bad for your health.
The more that students focus on others’ approval, being seen as intelligent, or academic performance, the more their symptoms of anxiety and depression increase, say researchers Judy Crocker and colleagues. Shockingly, children in the 1980s had more symptoms of anxiety than the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s, Jean Twenge found.
2. An elite degree is no guarantee.
Some Harvard students–in a group that was selected for academic, physical, and psychological superiority– went on to live satisfying lives and some went on to live unhappy lives, says George Vaillant. Underprivileged students who went to any college (no matter which one) had the same life-health pattern as the Harvard group, Vaillant explains.
3. Hearts trump.
People who score higher on the “heart strengths”– zest, gratitude, hope, and love – are more satisfied with their lives than those who score high on intellectual strengths, report researchers Nansook Park, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. “Social Aptitude… not intellectual brilliance…” is the critical factor for “a well-adapted old age,” George Vaillant writes.
Surprising Results from the Best-Student Myth
What is most surprising about the myth-of-the-best-student is that it hurts the very teens we think are best-served by high school today. If we encourage kids to focus on high grades, teachers’ opinions, class rank, or getting into the “best” colleges, we are asking them to give their attention to things that increase their chances of becoming anxious or depressed.
Not only that, we teach them that being the best is what counts and leave them to learn for themselves how to develop strengths that could make a profound difference in their lives.
Telling a Better Story
How can we tell a better story to our teens and to other parents and teachers?
1. Find out what a college ranking does and doesn’t do for your teen’s life.
When you learn about the facts: what makes for a good college, how many there are (far more than most of us think), and the thriving adults who did not go to a “name” school, you’ll learn there’s no need to worry. Colleges that Change Lives by Loren Pope offers a unique view that can help take the edge off.
2. Learn the game colleges play.
Rule #1 for colleges: get as many teens to apply as possible, so you will have a higher rejection rate. This supposedly makes for a better education—at least in the guidebooks. Read The College Admissions Mystique to learn more.
Ask yourself this: what does the admissions game have to do with giving your child an education that will let him flourish in life?
3. Appreciate the beauty of your teen’s gifts. Encourage your child not to worry (much) about grades, status, or teacher opinion. Instead, help her find, value, and develop her special qualities– even when they don’t fit neatly into what others claim is important.There are many adults who were great students, but not happy in life. There are also many adults who were not good students but flourished because they developed their gifts. Throw out the myths. Tell these stories instead.Note: This is the second article in a series on The Myths of Education™. To learn about Myth #1, watch a new video interview and see last month’s article about Bright Kids at the Bottom.
Christine Duvivier & Dr. Ned Hallowell periodically offer Unwrap Your Teen’s Gifts, an interactive workshop to increase family happiness. See Positive Leaders for event information.
Young man at trading desk;
Hearts; Lecture Hall;
Happy girl in field
Duvivier, C. (2007). Appreciating Beauty in The Bottom 80™. Philadelphia, PA: Capstone Project for University of Pennsylvania MAPP degree.
Duvivier, C. (2009). Myths of Education: Bottom Students Are Not Hardworking, Motivated, or Bright (Part I of III) Retrieved on 1/27/09 from: http://PositivePsychologyNews.com/news/christine-duvivier/200901091421
Maher, W. (1998). The College Admissions Mystique. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 603– 619.
Pope, L. (1996). Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. New York: Riverhead Books.
Sargent, J.; Crocker, J.; Luhtanen, R. (2006). Contingencies of Self–Worth and Depressive Symptoms in College Students. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 628-646.
Twenge, J.M. (2000). The age of anxiety? The birth cohort change in anxiety and neuroticism, 1952–1993. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 1007–1021.
Vaillant, G. (1998). Adaptation to Life. New York, NY: Harvard University Press.
Vaillant, G. (2003). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. New York: Little Brown.
Reading your article makes me feel more relaxed, and I’m not a parent yet, so I think you must help out parents even more. Seriously.
How many colleges (5? 10? 50?) would you recommend for a senior to apply for? I imagine this is personal, still I wonder if there’s a recommended range based on your suggestion for not letting the process go beyond sanity.
Great article, Christine! I’ve always been a big fan of your work, and this article is so concrete, clear and concise, I find it particularly helpful.
Having always been a top student, I can relate to your arguments – unfortunately! What’s interesting in my case is that my parents really weren’t putting pressure for me to be in the top – I did it myself. I was the one thinking that if I didn’t have the best grades, I wouldn’t get to the best colleges and therefore wouldn’t have my best possible life. All that to say your advice doesn’t only reassure parents; it’s also very comforting for the young ones.
Hi Senia, Great question! I don’t know the target number of colleges for a student to apply to but I’d say enough so that he/she has a great set of choices — and many students seem to find 7-14 a comfortable set of choices (given that they probably will not be accepted at all of them and it can seem quite random). Fortunately, there is no shortage of schools where one will get a great education and develop beautifully.
Hi Marie-Jo, thanks for your candid feedback! I agree with you that often the students put pressure on themselves and like you, I hope that the information offers them some relief. It’s also great to know that you thrived and developed into a flourishing adult!
As a Director of College Counseling and a current MAPP student, I have to say you nailed it! The balance that really makes us human is being lost by many students as they trudge to please, make the grade, or hit the numbers to gain admission to college x. Furthermore, many lives outside of school are driven by what may look “good” to college x. The students who typically do best, in school, life, and their college search are those who know who they are and have either discovered their passions or discovered what they are not passionate about.
As a current MAPP student, I love what I am learning, our students are benefiting, and I’m positioning to spread the word.
Thank you for adding your voice!
As for Senia’s question about how many applications, I would say it depends upon the student. We emphasize fit and our three-year average is six applications per student. Barry Schwartz also has an opinion, if memory serves me right, he indicated that eight or nine may be the place where the paradox starts to kick in.
Dear Dave, What a wonderful role you play for students! Thank you for your feedback– it’s fascinating to hear your perspective. I look forward to meeting you and learning more from you.
I’m delighted to hear that you are bringing positive psychology to the world of college counseling! Enjoy the rest of this very special year,
Great article Christine! I passed it along to my taughter who teaches 5th grade in Houston through Teach for America. She loved it and it along to her colleageus. This mornning she called to tell me your article made for a great topic of conversation in the teachers’ lounge! Thank you!
Christine: I enjoyed reading your article. You hit the nail on the head with Myth #2 when chatting about anxiety issues with teenagers trying to be the best – maximizers who may be bankrupting other aspects of their life.
Margaret, thanks for letting me know — and thanks for sharing it with your daughter. I’m happy that it sparked a good discussion for the teachers.
All the best,
John, thanks for your comment! It gives me great hope when I see that wise educators like you will help to reduce anxiety levels for teens.
All the best,