I’ve been to visit Palo Alto a couple of times in the last few years. It’s a beautiful place, one that seems almost idyllic. Mike and I found a few people living in the shadows of the grandeur of that place who appeared to be economically disadvantaged compared to their neighbors but for the most part the citizens live in beautiful homes with perfectly landscaped lawns and better than average cars parked in the driveways. Many of the residents work for one of the many tech companies in Silicon Valley earning salaries and bonuses that few of us ever have. Others are professors at Stanford University, lauded as the best in their respective fields. Everyone that I saw as we drove around town looked fit, attractive, and stylish. Lots of runners and bicycle riders exercised along the many pathways. Beautiful people sat in the sidewalk cafes. One would suspect that this is a place where people truly live the American dream.
Unfortunately there is trouble in paradise. In the last few years there has been a near epidemic of student suicides at the premier Palo Alto High School. In a place where young people should be feeling a sense of security and privilege they are instead consumed with anxieties. Many of the students report that the challenges, competition, and expectations are so exaggerated that they often feel overwhelmed. This is where the sons and daughters of the elite must perform with no excuses. The pressure consumes many of them.
Researchers are now studying the environment at the high school to determine what factors may be leaving some students with psychological problems so deep that they feel hopelessly lost and confused to the point of wanting to be dead to stop the pain. The kids are the children of high achievers and whether the expectations are spoken or overt they perceive that the adults in their world want them to be superstars. Sometimes the race for the top becomes too much for them. They simply can’t take it anymore.
I’ve learned over time that we never really know what is going on behind closed doors. High school classmates that I thought had perfect lives were in fact struggling with some very difficult problems. As a society we have a tendency to hide our flaws and to project optimism even when things are very tough. People love to hear about our victories but they tend to cringe when we mention defeats. For kids who spend hours reading about the wonderful lives of their friends and acquaintances on social media, it may sometimes seem that they are the only ones who are struggling to make it from day to day. We’ve created a kind of fantasy world in which reality is too often masked by photos and posts that only tell about the fun in our lives. If someone who is deeply depressed sees enough of such celebrations of universal happiness, he/she may begin to question self worth. On the other hand, kids sometimes perceive so many slights that they double down on negative obsessions. They literally create problems where there are none and their peers reinforce their feelings.
I taught briefly at a private school where I had students who came from extremely wealthy families. Many of their parents were famous. Not always, but sometimes, the parents were so busy building their incredible careers that they took little notice that their children were suffering. I specifically remember one young lady who rode a city bus to the Galleria each and every afternoon once at the end of the school day. Once there she shopped and ate using the hundred dollar bill that her mother left for her each morning. When the stores closed a housekeeper picked her up and took her home. There were often days when she never once saw either of her very busy parents. They would leave the house before she was awake and come home late in the night after she was already asleep.
This young lady’s grades were atrocious. She rarely did her homework and she often appeared to be daydreaming in class. When I had a conference with her parents they were appalled and confused. They both confessed that they had been A students when they were young. They had worked hard to get where they were and they couldn’t understand why their daughter did not appreciate the gift of wealth and opportunity that they had provided her. They criticized her weight and pointed out that she was lazy. They mentioned that they employed many people who worked full time to make the girl’s life easier. They didn’t seem to realize that what this child really craved was a bit of their time. She felt lonely and unloved. She didn’t see their work as a sacrifice for her benefit. Instead she thought that they hated her so much that they simply wanted to be away from her. With a willingness to set things right the parents decided to undergo counseling. They really did want to help their child. I would like to believe that ultimately everything worked out fine for this young lady.
On the other hand I have known students whose parents had little education, sometimes not even a high school diploma. They struggled to make ends meet by working at menial and back breaking jobs. In spite of the hardships they always found time for their kids and made it a point to tell them how much they loved them and how proud they were of their efforts. Most of those young people have gone on to be the first in their families to graduate from college. They are happy and healthy adults who understand beyond a doubt that their parents will always be there for them.
There are certainly cases of individuals who suffer from chronic depression through no fault of their own or anybody else’s. It’s possible that some or all of the Palo Alto youth who have committed suicide simply suffered from a chemical imbalance in their brains. Many successful working parents raise emotionally healthy children. Some who dote on their children and seem to do everything right still discover problems with their kids. We know a great deal about good parenting but we also know that sometimes things just don’t go right no matter how hard the parents have tried. Peer pressure, bullying, and mental illness can overwhelm the best of situations.
If I would suggest anything to parents who worry about their children in today’s high stakes world of competition, it would be to listen to their little ones, their adolescents, their teenagers, their young adults. Keep a steady conversation going. Keep it as non-judgmental as possible. Hear what your kids have to say more often than telling them what to do. Always remember that they are not you. Don’t compare them to yourself, to each other, or to their peers.
I often think about another of my former students and his parents. The father was almost angry that his son was so quiet and introverted. The dad kept accusing the boy of being weird because the young man desired to have time alone each day to recharge his emotional batteries. The irritated father bragged about himself noting that he was outgoing and loved being around people. He could not and would not understand that his son was different. He saw his son’s behavior as something unnatural. It pained me to realize that the boy had been goaded into feeling quite badly about himself. He truly believed his father’s assessment of his personality and felt that he was somehow damaged.
We are each unique. Our children are not clones of us. Their characteristics both physically and emotionally are derived from a mixture of genetic traits and the environment that we provide for them. Our role is to support them as they slowly become the people that they want to be. All we can do is instruct them in the foundations of ethics, morality, and good character. Our duty is to give them experiences that will allow them to find the things that they most enjoy doing. If they are motivated to be the best at whatever they do, we should be proud. If they are more interested in learning than in earning medals and kudos, even better. The competition in their lives should always be with themselves. We should teach them to work hard, be nice, and strive to improve. Most of all they should understand that life is not a race and failure never signals the end. Our journey is lifelong and we always have opportunities to grow and change and set things right. We are most likely to do that if we know that someone who loves us is really listening to what we have to say.