Ask the Experts: Academics Versus Emotional Health

How can I help my child find a healthy, balanced approach to personal and academic growth?

Q: Schools and society overemphasize academic achievement. How can I, as a parent, not stress or feel pressured into the same values? How can I let my kids grow into who they are and achieve a balance of both personal and academic growth?

A: As parents, we are always barely five minutes ahead of the next thing. Our parents just read Dr. Spock for advice; we are constantly bombarded with many different experts with many different opinions.

As a parent myself, as well as a doctor who works in adolescent medicine, I believe we need to teach our children and adolescents three things: how to fall asleep; how to eat well and exercise; and how to look in the mirror and say, “I love what I see.” We spend so much time worrying if our children’s paths lead to the right future that we forget our most important lesson: loving yourself so that your kids can love themselves. If you fear overemphasizing academic achievement, demonstrate your own version of a balanced life, say, one that contains work (achievement) and play.

A recent Time magazine article titled In Praise of the Ordinary Child by Jeffrey Kluger highlighted the work of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. One of its pilot programs is being tested in Bellevue and Seattle, with the goal of teaching students and teachers how to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate (RULER) emotions. The premise is this: Aim to teach your children how to regulate their emotions and then you can have conversations about what they think about academic achievement. If they can understand their emotions and inner drives, they can work toward their own goals, on their own terms.

Here’s an example from my own life: My son, Jupiter, has been saying good-bye to friends before leaving for college. He was crying as he came into my room last night and said, “This is really hard. I’m not going to see these people for quite a while. What do I do with this?”

I said, “I think you just feel it for a while, experience it and then the next feeling comes.” And I started to cry, too. Then the dog started licking us, and we laughed. Finally, we talked about what was next, and my son said, ‘I guess we go to bed because we will feel better tomorrow.’ This is what RULER is trying to teach students. School may teach our children how to learn, but we are teaching them how to live well-adjusted lives, which includes feeling their feelings and then moving onto the next feeling. And I believe what we model at home is louder than society’s ideas on academic expectations.

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