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?
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.
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.
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.