Empty Promises: Are We Failing Our Kids By Telling Them They Can “Do It All”?

In January and February, it’s “roll out the red carpet” time here in North Texas for area middle schools, junior highs and high schools.  Which means if you’re entering one of those illustrious institutions next fall, you get to attend a welcome night at said school, and if you already attend one of those schools and are involved in any elective/extracurricular activity that can “show off” in three minutes or less, you are invited, sometimes required, to be a part of this welcome.  And if you’re a parent of a kid in one of these categories, you attend, too, to sit on gym bleachers and either learn (“Umm, is that a beard and sideburns I see on that senior?”) or watch your child perform (“Should I wear my photo button?”).  Over the past six years that I’ve been attending these dog and pony shows, one mantra has been repeated louder than any other.  No, it’s not “Hooray for Making it This Far” or even “Our School is the Best!”, it’s “You Can Do It All!!”  To further underline this, coaches and administrators take to the microphone again and again to point out those students who are obviously involved in more than one activity: the drummer who’s also wearing a cheerleader uniform; the student government member who’s wearing a volleyball T-shirt.  Some kids are active in three or even four major activities.  Or more.  Having one child in jr. high and one in high school, both who perform in various groups at welcome night, I’ve heard the message again and again over the last couple weeks, so much that it made me want to scream.  But, somebody else was already screaming.  It was a principal, loudly informing the crowd as if she was at a political rally: “WE’RE NOT GOING TO TELL YOU THAT YOU CAN ONLY DO ONE THING! HERE, WE ENCOURAGE YOU TO BE INVOLVED IN AS MANY ACTIVITIES AS POSSIBLE!” She went on to say something about how we all know that “an involved kid is a kid who keeps out of trouble”.  (Thunderous applause. Cue the orchestra next, who’d picked out their best catchy rock song to play…) 

I just shook my head, because I now know all too well that this kind of almost maniacal encouragement by the schools, that our kids should get involved in numerous electives/extracurriculars, does not come with the coordination and support from the schools that’s needed for a plan like this to work well, and our kids suffer as a result.   They naturally want to participate in as much “fun stuff” as possible and so they happily buy into this “do it all” message, yet at the same time, they’re expected to get all their homework done every night or face detention the next day; get in trouble if they nod or fall asleep in class from staying up late and doing that homework; and get good grades or risk not getting into the college of their (or their parents’) choice.  The unsympathetic demands on today’s “involved” kids are incredible.

Case in Point: Our 17-year-old is currently involved in drill team, theatre and choir. All the drill team and choir kids were highly encouraged to try out a couple months ago for the school’s annual musical– this year, our high school is one of only a handful across the nation who have been granted the rights to produce “Phantom of the Opera”, so it’s a big cast, and all who made it in, including my daughter, are very excited to be a part of this special show.  School administrators likely approved it because it would be not only a phenomenal experience for the kids, but a huge feather in the school’s cap, a public relations gem, that has already generated media attention. So, with all that in mind, you’d think that teachers, coaches, etc. might give the kids involved some breaks.  Several nights the kids have rehearsed until very late (my child didn’t get home until about 11 last night; for others, it was well past midnight) as is expected, especially the week before the show opens.  Our daughter said she couldn’t do her homework between acts as she was always either changing costumes, doing her hair, or helping others with their hair and costumes, and so around midnight, she settled in here at the house to finally work on some physics.  Yet she was still expected to be at drill team practice at 7:25 a.m. the next morning, as she is on every school day for the next several weeks…and she is just getting over a very nasty bout with brochitis, so what she really needed was a good night’s sleep…and I just read a quote from Dr. Oz about how people who get less than six hours of sleep a night have a 50% higher chance of getting viral infections…but drill team “contest” is coming up soon, and there’s lots of work to be done…

Second Case in Point: Our 7th grader started off her first year of jr. high this past fall with a bang.  She was fired up about being involved in as many activities as she possibly could and was determined to do good in school as well.  She made “A” team volleyball; made the top band; earned first chair in the percussion section, being told she was “the first 7th grader anyone could remember” that’s beaten out the 8th graders; participated in choir; auditioned for “Encore” (the “Glee/New Directions” of her jr. high) and earned a spot in that; ran for an office in choir and made that; did respectably on the Cross Country team; and kept up her grades, not to mention participated in several activities outside of school.   At one point in the fall, she was assigned her first big jr. high class project, involving a lot of research, printing, cutting, and pasting.  I was pleased by the way she planned ahead, starting well in advance (over a week before the deadline) and worked on it every day, squeezing it in among all her activities.  Yet the night before the project was due, after coming home from playing in a volleyball game, she was still working on it. She worked until 1 a.m. and finally decided to go to bed and finish it in the morning. Which meant she would have to skip her weekly percussion sectional, a group class, scheduled for 7 a.m.  She finished her project, but a few hours later was notified that because she’d missed the sectional, she’d been dropped to last chair.  LAST CHAIR, which in her section is eight spots down from the top.  She dejectedly told me after school that day that she knew she’d probably never make it back to the top during the school year, no matter how hard she tried, because they don’t have chair tests that often…and I thought, this kind of punishment from a program who once told her, “You Can Do It All!” …???

It’s definitely time for administrators, teachers and parents to take a hard look at the messages they’re sending kids and how they’re following up on that message. For starters, can’t parents “just say no” when kids say they want to “do it all”? Well, it’s tough.  We say to our kids, “How can you?” and then they remind us of the numerous upperclassmen who were trotted out and praised mightily on welcome night, who appear to “do it all” and are alive to tell about it.  Kids figure, if that high school boy and girl can do it, so can I. And the parents let them give it a try…It’s not until the kids and parents are knee-deep (or is it waist-deep?) in several activities that we realize that “lifestyle” is a lot harder than it looks, and a lot harder to change.

As mentioned earlier, to help ease the pain of a
multitasking teen, there needs to be more coordination of schedules and sharing of information between coaches, directors, teachers and administrators.  Surely in this computer age there’s a way to at least coordinate activity and testing schedules.  For example, when football players, trainers, cheerleaders, band members and the drill team are required to be at an “away game” on a Thursday evening, from right after school until late at night, couldn’t teachers at least push their Friday quizzes or tests until the following Monday, or extend the Friday due date for a major project? Should kids really even have homework due on a Friday like that? 

At the same time, if administrators are going to keep using super-involved kids as examples of how to be a good, well-rounded high school student, then they also need to let them inform the newcomers, both kids and parents, how it’s really done so they can make more informed decisions when choosing classes, and get needed tips to help during the year.  Let us have a Q and A with those high-achieving kids. Let us find out about how they cope, or maybe how they don’t cope.  Are all of their core courses advanced? Do they have room in their schedule to attend tutoring, or have they had to hire a private tutor in order to keep up their grades? How much sleep do they get on average? Do they have a job? How do they handle all the fundraisers involved with their various activities? How do they stay organized? How do they keep up with basic stuff like keeping their room clean and doing laundry? (Our high school has just started a once-a-week class for freshmen called S.O.S., which brings in senior girls and boys to teach about how to be successful at the school, and I’m hoping that what they cover is similar to what I’m talking about…)

More than anything, I think we need to start valuing quality over quantity. If a kid is involved in only one, maybe two, activities, yet does them well, and keeps all their grades at a B or higher and manages to “stay out of trouble”, isn’t that praise-worthy? Isn’t that the kind of kid who’s probably the most balanced, because maybe they’re healthier, and maybe they’re also spending time with their families and friends, or exploring their community, or just enjoying life instead of being stressed-out all the time?

Might not make for a very exciting dog and pony welcome show, but it sure would be a meaningful one…

7 thoughts on “Empty Promises: Are We Failing Our Kids By Telling Them They Can “Do It All”?”

  1. LOVED THIS ARTICLE! Very well written Patty. You should mail a copy of this to the schools in your area. Let your voice be heard!!!! 🙂

  2. Bravo! Your blog should be required reading for every high and middle school student and their parents. Only one suggestion–on that panel of students sharing how they “do it all” require that their parents also participate in the discussion so you can get the real story.

  3. Well said. It’s not even about really enjoying some of the activities kids get into nowadays; it’s about having enough “stuff” to put on your college résumé. I taught at a highly competitive private college prep high school in the Metroplex for 6 years. One year they had to have 2 valedictorians because the difference in their GPAs was .0001 ! The second place student probably got a 99 on a quiz one day when she was sleep-deprived.

    Regarding your suggestion that teachers move the testing and project dates around to accommodate this: pretty much impossible, since, for the same reasons that kids can’t make it all happen, in spite of marvelous organization, teacher’s can’t produce the ideal syllabus, which requires constant on-going evaluation, that would accommodate the needs of every athletic event, play rehearsal schedule, projects due in other classes with other teachers, and a long list of etceteras without stepping on somebody’s toes. Somebody has to stop the roller coaster and say that enough is enough, and tell kids it’s OK if they are only in one or two things, and learn to pick their 2 favorites. Or something similar. And for the record, I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I spent after school administering make-ups for quizzes and tests because I did actually try to accommodate students with their extra-curricular activities. There has to be a better way.

  4. Thanks for writing and thanks for the insights– I was hoping someone from the secondary education world would chime in!

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