Lucy Clark on why we shouldn’t stress about our children’s academic success — or lack of it.

Expectations are a funny thing. We all have a sense, as we set out on the great adventure of parenthood, of our hopes for our kids. We imagine self-sustaining successful adults who, on their own thrilling adventure towards adulthood, have ticked off all the boxes that get them there: crawl at this age, walk at that age, read, write and learn times tables as the grades are ascended at exactly the right moments, get a brilliant score, go to uni, get a great job, repeat. Follow the rules, keep to the programme.

We read all the parenting books and we know what to expect from the moment we are expecting, and beyond. Life is prescribed and if things don't quite fit perfectly, the term "the range of normal" becomes your best friend.

When she was about 14, my daughter went off the programme with extreme prejudice. She pushed back against most things, but school was the major issue - the rules, the competition, the pressure to perform, the pressure to conform. For her, it all added up to a recipe for chronic anxiety.

By the time she reached the crucial final two years of school, she was failing at everything, or feeling as if she was. Failing to hand in assignments, failing to turn up on time (or at all), failing to meet uniform requirements, failing, at every turn, to meet all the standard-markers and expectations of the education system.


It was confronting for a self-confessed goody-two-shoes former prefect like me (why can't you just hand in the assignments on time?!), and deeply frustrating and painful to watch (wouldn't it be so much easier for you to just follow the damn rules?!). Thirty years earlier, I had ticked all the boxes, hit all my marks, played every sport possible, studied hard and did the best as I could. For me, school was a bit of a breeze; the stakes didn't feel that high.

And here, with my first child, I was confronted by the anti-me, not mini-me. A child who - for whatever reason - would not tick any boxes. In adults we revere disruptive thinkers - thinking "outside the box" is a trait to be admired - but in kids we want round pegs for round holes. Particularly at school.

And so there were countless threats of detention and suspension, and me in the deputy principal's office on many occasions looking for answers, trying desperately not to cry, and failing miserably every time.

It was difficult for her family, and difficult for her teachers.

But it was difficult for no one more than her.

Every day of my daughter's high school life was like an enormous mountain to climb, and very often she didn't scale it. It was a daily struggle just to get her ready to go. When she did make it to school, if she could make it past the park bench where she would sit and watch her friends continue on, the urge to flee overtook all sense. She panicked and froze while the noise of anxiety drowned out everything a teacher might be trying to teach her. She slipped further and further behind in her work; the anxiety got worse.

Expectations, hopes, and dreams were revised on a daily basis, systematically lowered to the point that by the end of school - which she desperately wanted to finish because not finishing would make her feel even more like a failure - we were just hoping that she made it through another day unscathed and unharmed, and school success be buggered. In a funny way it was liberating not to enlist in the final year of school stress programme all my friends were trapped in, and the three weeks of her final exams were the most relaxing of all her high school years; it was almost over, her freedom was in sight.

Looking back, I can see that these terrible years can be partly explained by my daughter's personality - her rejection of judgment of any kind, her anxiety about competition and the need for winners and losers - but it says much more about the increasing systemic pressure on kids today and she was, is, by no means alone. More and more kids are feeling anxious about school, finding the pressure too much, and reporting school stress as the source of their anxiety and depression.

Lucy Clark says maladaptive or challenging behaviour is not the result of
Lucy Clark says maladaptive or challenging behaviour is not the result of "naughty" children who choose to be that way, but children whose ability to cope is outstripped by the demands being placed upon them.

And as our definitions of success become ever-more focused on academic outcomes through a narrow set of standard indicators, more and more kids feel like failures. But even those who succeed suffer too: for so many kids, the pressure is unbearable and they will find ever more disturbing pressure valves. They starve themselves until they are skin and bones, risk-take and self medicate, or they carve neat lines into their flesh.

I've lost count of the number of conversations with other parents expressing confusion, dismay, and, very often, deep emotional distress about what's happening to our kids. Where does this damn pressure come from? It wasn't like this when we were kids, was it?
Well no, it wasn't. We can look back and recall more carefree days, a system more accepting of different types of kids, and it's not just nostalgia. In the space of a generation the pressure on kids has been ramped up, our definition of success has become pro forma, while at the same time mental health disorders are on the rise.

Add to the educational pressure the endless parade of judgment they face the minute they get online, and it's no wonder that kids are anxious.

I often think that if the internet and smart phones had been around when I was a teenager I would have developed anxiety too. But life was a low-key mix of hanging out by the creek with the local kids, of Brady Bunch re-runs and walks to the corner shops, and endless hours of boredom in our bedrooms by ourselves, being ourselves, finding ourselves. It was much, much easier to build a strong sense of self to get you through those vulnerable and excruciating teenage years.

Today kids experience more and more adult-like stresses at younger and younger ages when they don't have the resources to deal with them; if we take a compassionate view, we know that maladaptive or challenging behaviour is not the result of "naughty" children who choose to be that way, but children whose ability to cope is outstripped by the demands being placed upon them.

The precious bubble of childhood is burst to make way for a scheduled life of study, achievement, competition, and school perceived as a training ground for adulthood. This is real life, kid, you better get used to it.

And parental expectations are hard to shake. We've all internalised society's messaging about success, we don't know any other way to talk about education except in terms of grades and numbers. Even while we know that a number can't describe a child, in the race that education has become, we all want our own kids to get ahead, to have a head start. They're all gifted and talented; they should all be at the top of the class.

I'm ashamed when I look back and see how long it took me to stop challenging my daughter and start challenging the one-size-fits-all system that was, in fact, failing her.

For too long I tried to get her to join me in my own submission to the unquestioned rules, tried to get her to conform to fit a system and, in retrospect, her refusal to play the game was so much braver than my willingness to be compliant in the face of authority.

And we are mostly compliant in accepting that this is the way it is and we just have to get through it. We read books about how to help our kids cope with the pressure, but we don't actually think of reducing that pressure.

It wasn't until the moment my daughter finished school - she sent me a text, "just finished!!!!!!" when she walked out of her final (yes, failed) exam - that I could take a breath and start thinking about it.

As a mother I wanted to find out what had gone wrong for my daughter, not just for her sake but for her two younger brothers, too. As a journalist I started asking about what is going wrong for too many kids, about this pressure, where it comes from, and what it's for.

When I did so, I went from a world where only my child mattered into a world where every child matters, and what I learnt changed me as a thinker, and it changed me as a parent.

I never really went in for the concept of learning lessons from your kids until my daughter, my beautiful failure, taught me so much. She taught me to rethink the meaning of success, she taught me to question authority - including my own - and most importantly, she taught me that we must pay close attention to who our children are, not who we want them to be.

Beautiful Failures: How the Quest for Success is Harming our Kids, by Lucy Clark (Ebury Press, $26).