"If I've never been to the moon, why would I expect my kids to go there?"
When psychologist Suniya Luthar posed that question to The Atlantic's Hanna Rosin, she was talking about how the pressure parents put on their children to attain goals depends to a large degree on the attainments of the parents.
In Silicon Valley, where launching companies that reach billions of people and make billions of dollars is something that happens all the time, standards of success for high schoolers are narrower and harder to reach. Parents might expect their kids to attain the near unattainable. This puts a lot of pressure on teens at high schools like Gunn High School and Palo Alto High School, both in Palo Alto.
Rosin's cover story in the December issue of The Atlantic draws a link between Silicon Valley's cult of success and a recent rash of teen suicides there. She pinpoints a few common factors in the kinds of deep depressions that can lead to those tragedies, and also some additional consequences of asking too much of the very young.
These kids don't sleep.
One Gunn student who killed himself in 2014 wrote in his suicide note that his decision to die had nothing to do with family, friends or school. Community members noted that the student seemed to sleep very little. He would often stay up into the early morning, saying he had been studying. Lack of sleep among teens is linked to mental health issues. Being exhausted and under-slept is pretty par for the course among classmates of the student. Until recently, Gunn allowed students to arrive an hour before normal school started for an optional pre-class period.
These kids feel isolated.
When Luthar studied risky behaviors of wealthy and poor high school students in Connecticut, she found that students from affluent families felt isolated from their parents. The kids might spend a lot of time alone, with parents out during afternoons and evenings.
Pressure to excel outweighs everything.
Luthar found in her studies that children in affluent families believed their accomplishments held outsized significance to their parents. Basically, they felt like the recipients of a conditional kind of love. "Their parents glowed warmly when they did well in school or sports but seemed let down when they didn't. Often the kids learned to hide their failures--real or imagined--for fear of disappointing their parents," explained Rosin.
This isn't how it used to be.
Speaking with Re/code about the story, Rosin commented on a certain irony in expectations of these youth to earn perfect grades, excel in extracurriculars and attend top-rated universities. The narrow metric of success that's so pervasive in places like Palo Alto is based on accomplishments of a generation of scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs whose successes were largely catalyzed by breaking away from such a mentality of checking off all the right boxes. "Well, we're in second-generation Silicon Valley now. A lot of people say that it was initially 'rebels' or 'outsiders' and 'visionaries' and 'kooks,' and now it's much more, kind of, mainstream corporate," Rosin told Re/code's Noah Kulwin.
And the pressure may not have the intended effect.
One study referenced in the story showed that children whose parents reacted warmly only to their accomplishments and not at other times showed little interest in intellectual pursuits where they would not be tested. Elite education systems create students who are smart but who lack a sense of purpose. Basically, the pressure cramps the kind of creativity that you might say turned Silicon Valley into the kind of place where so many people have accomplished so much that such a pressure is endemic.