Looking back on his daughter’s childhood, a DC lawyer named Jack (not his real name) says a constant theme was “achieve, achieve, achieve.” The pressure on her to excel in school was so intense that he sometimes felt as if he were raising a diamond, not a child.
In elementary school, all the parents seemed to tutor their kids and even do homework for them. “You know there’s no way that little kid built that model of the Great Wall of China with sugar cubes,” Jack says.
In high school, his daughter—who graduated from Sidwell Friends two years ago—had sports practices every day in the spring followed by five or six hours of homework. A bright girl who would have breezed through some other schools, she struggled to compete with all the other overachievers in her class. She seemed always tired and often in tears. By the time she was a junior, her hair began falling out.
In many ways, Jack’s daughter is a success story—she got into a “good” college and brought home straight A’s her first year there. Her college workload was lighter than what she’d faced at Sidwell. And she stays close with her high-school friends. “When you survive a traumatic experience with someone, you have a bond,” Jack says. “It’s like being in a war.”
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But he worries about the price his family paid for his daughter’s academic success—a concern that seems to be spreading among parents who watch their kids sacrifice sleep and family time to plow through homework and juggle extracurriculars, all in the hope that they’ll land a spot at a top college.
Jack’s daughter’s story may sound extreme. But parents at elite schools say that because of a trickle-down effect from ever more competitive college admissions—and a fear of what it might mean to attend a second- or third-tier school—tales like hers have become far more common.
Psychologists in Washington say that over the last ten years they’ve seen more kids with high anxiety. William Stixrud, a neuropsychologist who has worked with children in Silver Spring for 27 years, says antidepressants are widespread in top private schools. He recalls one first-grader bursting into tears and saying: “I can’t read very good and will never be able to get into an Ivy League college.”
Teens in particular report feeling under pressure, as though “every minute of the day their whole future is on the line,” says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a B Minus.
A National Cathedral School graduate who’s now a freshman at an Ivy League college describes it this way: “If I took any time to relax, I would feel like I was slacking and I would worry it would hurt me later on. I felt like everything I did was going to end up on paper and someone was going to review it. We were all terrified of not being successful.”
In a region with plenty of successful workaholics, having a child who studies five hours a night can be seen as a badge of honor. Many parents seem to want their children to reach or exceed their own levels of success—a high bar in the nation’s best-educated area.
Ned Johnson, president of the Bethesda-based tutoring company PrepMatters, says some kids tell him that their parents won’t pay for college if they don’t get into an Ivy: “The message is ‘I’m going to make you successful no matter what. Happy or not, you’re going to be successful.’ ”
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