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Op-Ed | Pressure vs Passion: Making the case for pursuing joy in high school

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May 8, 2024 By Chris Herman

Our teenagers are under immense pressure, and high school has become more a time for curating resumes than exploring new interests. Decisions about which activity to join or how to spend February break are now dictated by what colleges they might want to see. Teenagers specialize earlier and select majors before even stepping foot on college campuses.

They are competing for coveted spots at universities and this reality only grows more concerning as admission rates drop each year. Factors like test optional and the common app have resulted in more applicants for the same handful of spots. Parents and educators are tasked with ensuring children are competitive in the admissions process. Thus, the pressure to perform and achieve is coming from within, from home and from the system at large.

This pressure is not without significant impact. According to the CDC, the number of teens reporting diminished mental health is on the rise. Across several studies, well over a third of American teens experience symptoms of anxiety or depression and the pressure on them is certainly a contributing factor. We should ask ourselves if we are okay with this.

What does it mean to be well-rounded, well-adjusted and still highly attractive in the college admissions process? Is there a way to be high-achieving without all the pressure and stress? I suspect the pressure on teens is not actually necessary and young people can have the same outcomes while still pursuing passions and experiencing joy.

Research on joyfulness and the benefits of children engaging in activities that speak to their passions is not sparse or new. Passion-based activities are high-interest endeavors that fall outside of core academics. These activities reduce stress and enhance well-being. It is also commonly known that joy positively correlates to outcomes for people young and old.

Several studies have shown levels of cortisol, a marker of stress, drop after making art by as much as 75%. Other research finds engaging in creative activities leads to an improved sense of well-being that lasts long beyond the activity itself. High-interest group activities promote social connection. Those engaged in team sports are less likely to experience depression or stress.

It comes down to parents and schools making time for passion and lowering the temperature on the admissions machine. Let us begin by waiting to talk about college or SATs. These conversations are happening too early, and we can stop being accessories to this by rejecting the urge to run parent seminars too soon, begin test prep in 9th grade, and push everyone towards all the APs.

We can encourage students to try multiple sports instead of committing to yearlong Club seasons and require children to step out of their comfort zone, so robotics kids also participate in the arts, and theater kids also try their hand at chess. We can still curate a bit behind the scenes, but we can do it while our kids become well-rounded and remain happy.

School should be a time for exploring one’s identity, taking age-appropriate risks in and out of school, learning about life through an after-school or summer job and developing and honing interests. The teen years should be a time for becoming well-rounded, interesting and interested, not for becoming stressed out, panicked about the future and unwell as a result.

* Christopher Herman is Head of School at Garden School, a Nursery to Grade 12 Independent school in Jackson Heights, NY. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s School Leadership Program and former adjunct faculty at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He writes and speaks often on topics relevant to education.

Chris Herman

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