Wednesday, March 25, 2015


I will never forget the news about my friend's daughter: She was going to Stanford University – and felt devastated. Her friends were all going to prestigious Eastern schools, while she had "settled" for her second choice.
Just the week before, I had spoken with the father of three teenage boys – all great kids, but low-average students. And each felt like a failure.
Then, listening to the college counselor at my daughter's college prep night, I was struck by how high the bar has been set for youngsters: Average now equals failure. American society is so competitive that the pressure has filtered down to the youngest children.
Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?
Is there any place in childhood where you can just be where you are, not "getting ready for the next level?" My son's teachers in middle school pushed hard to get the kids ready for high school. I understand the pressure teachers feel, but I wonder if kids might not be better off if teachers just helped them do something well for the feeling of satisfaction in a job well done.
I do know of a fifth-grade teacher who doesn't always speed through assignments and grade kids on their first effort. Several times during the year, she works with each child until an assignment merits an "A." Each student gains the experience of producing fine work.
But she is an exception. When I mentioned my concern to fellow psychologists, each had examples. One woman's sister had gone to a very high-powered high school. Her teachers and classmates had made her feel like a failure, because she was only a C+ student. Though she went on to get a doctorate and now holds a prestigious job, she still sees herself as a failure.
In contrast, another psychologist described her sister, too, who had struggled through school. But their parents had encouraged her to find many sources of satisfaction and kept telling her she would find her niche. She did, and is now a happy, successful adult.
Maybe there is an underlying belief that, if we make satisfaction unattainable, children will be more motivated. But perhaps we will end up with highly motivated people who never experience satisfaction. Or youngsters like the teenagers who feel that only A's "count," so why bother if you can't achieve them.
Some of this pressure represents a misguided sense of what it takes to be successful in this world. In less pleasant cases, it is a sign of people who use their children for their own sense of status.
In parenting workshops, I often ask participants to consider the question: "Are the people I know who went to Stanford and Berkeley so much happier than those who went to other colleges?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, then what are we doing to our kids?
Society has put so many conditions on children's value, it's easy to see how they can end up feeling like nothing. Psychologists practicing in affluent communities are kept in business by this trend.
The pressure also seeps into activities out of school. One mother described her feeling of inadequacy at a young child's birthday party. One little guest came late because of chess lessons. Another left early because of violin lessons. The first mother was almost embarrassed that she wasn't in any hurry, and was just taking her child home to hang out in the backyard with the cat.
I tried to give her some perspective in seeing that overprogrammed children do not always benefit. A few excel, but many just wear out or don't develop the capacity to pursue self-initiated activities. I don't encourage parents to eliminate expectations, but instead to appreciate children and help them find skills that give them pleasure regardless of the grade, the money, or the status that goes with them.
After 12 years of college, what is my greatest source of satisfaction? A patch of ground well weeded. A friend well cared for. The ability to notice the wonderful things that happen when the autumn sunset puts a rosy filter in front of the fading hydrangeas.
I enjoy my work, but this is not because I have a PhD from Berkeley. It's from parents who loved me unconditionally and helped me, by their example and support, find many sources of satisfaction in life.
It is possible to motivate people without keeping satisfaction unattainable. In fact, what could be more motivating than the desire to reproduce the wonderful feeling of a job well done?
There are many routes to happiness that do not pass through the doors of Ivy League colleges.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist.

College Admission Letters -- The Wait

Gallup just published a study confirming the issues described in this article published 10 years ago in the Christian Science Monitor. It's more about how you go to college rather than where.

College admissions capitalizing on worry?

  • Print
  • E-mail
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Digg
  • Add This
  • Permissions
By Susan DeMersseman / February 15, 2005
In a country whose economy depends to a great degree on hype, it's not surprising that school grades have been swept into the mix. There's been concern about grade inflation - students getting better grades than the same work might have earned years ago. But my concern is due to the inflation and hype over the importance of grades in education these days.
Many young people are in the midst of college application mania or are waiting for news from their chosen colleges. And I have been a resentful participant in this mania, during my son's critical junior year, the year in which students need to achieve a certain grade point average and set of SAT scores for many colleges.I have felt like a hyperactive border collie nipping at my son's heels to get him to take care of every little step in this questionable process.
I know there are many students who have their own panic attacks and stress reactions. In our house I seemed to be having them for my son. On the other hand, I know of households in which the craziness is a family affair.
Being able to make us worry seems to be the mark of success for any modern advertising campaign: worry about thinning hair, indigestion, and emerging wrinkles. If we don't worry, we don't buy. We are made to worry, so that all the SAT preparation programs will have customers. So that colleges can have so many applicants that they can reject more and advertise how selective they are.
My son and I once discussed this issue, and his perspective was, "High school seems to be about grades; college is about learning."
Unfortunately, I can see why he might draw that conclusion. He has had some good teachers in high school and has learned some content. But he has also learned to focus more on classes where the grade is most important for college admission, and to focus less on classes where the content may be valuable but is less critical for college admission. What is lost in this process is hard to measure.
Some of the things that make him a fine person and a great candidate for college are not ones you get grades for. Otherwise, he'd get an "A" for navigating a huge, diverse high school and making friends in every group. An "A" for occasionally stepping in to protect another student in a way that helped to resolve a conflict. An "A" for bouncing back from disappointments. An "A" for practicing daily with a football team on which he knew he would probably never get playing time. An "A" for optimism and enthusiasm. An "A" for common sense and good judgment. And most important - an "A" for patience with his mother as she struggles - not always calmly - to help him deal with a very flawed system.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    Wednesday, March 18, 2015

    Good manners and the counter intuitive response

    An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor.  A recent trip to a produce market reminded me to post this.


    My random acts of kindness versus talk-radio-type rudeness

    In my neighborhood, I've found that even small gestures have made a big difference.

    This fall's trio of outbursts (from Rep. Joe Wilson, singer Kanye West, and tennis star Serena Williams) brought the topic of civility front and center.
    Like bad weather, everyone complains about rude behavior. But unlike bad weather, we can actually do something about it. Right?
    I have started a small-scale experiment to see if one person can change the public tone.
    My proving ground is a popular produce market in my neighborhood. You might think it would attract a lot of people seeking health and harmony.
    Not so much. A grumpier, more sour crowd would be hard to find. Maybe it's the narrow aisles or the limited parking, but the people who shop there are often very cranky.
    So as a quiet mission I sometimes see if I can turn the tide just a little during my regular shopping trips. It makes the long lines and narrow aisles more tolerable when I have this secondary mission.
    I start with simply trying to keep a pleasant expression. I give other shopping carts the right of way. And I offer sincere compliments.
    One day I told an older lady how much I admired her beautiful white hair. Her big smile and "Oh my gosh, you made my day" response reminded me how little it takes.
    This small exchange transformed the tone of each of our trips to the market. This type of change is possible in almost any setting, and with remarkably small gestures. Even if I haven't been able to spread mass goodwill, at least I am not part of the problem.
    What does it say about our society when the considerate, polite gestures have become out of the ordinary? We have become too casual with our own manners. If more of us were doing things, even small things, to sweeten the social stew, those people who are bitter or sour would stand out as unnatural more. And that could encourage more polite behavior.
    Some people say that good manners render one less competitive in the workforce. On the contrary, there is great power in good manners. Even teaching small children how to use "please" and "thank you," along with other little habits, will open opportunity and instill a pattern into adulthood.
    As a psychologist, I have worked in communities where social skills and the ability to reframe a potential conflict can be life saving factors for youngsters. But even when it isn't a matter of life and death, the ability and willingness to express respect can make our own lives much better.
    I admit it is disappointing when courtesy is met with an entitled response – or no response. There are times when driving that I'll stop or pull over to let another car pass, and get nothing – no acknowledgment from the other driver. It makes me want to yell at the top of my lungs, in the most sarcastic way I can "You're welcome!" (OK, I have done that a few times). But that kind of response accomplishes little. What do I gain? It certainly doesn't make me feel like a winner.
    When my son was a teenager, he liked to dress as though he had just lost a hundred pounds and hadn't bothered to buy new clothes. One day, he and I were crossing the street together and a driver waiting for us pointed to him and made a rude gesture.
    Instead of what might have been the automatic response, I put my arm around my goofy looking son as if I were the proudest mom in town and gave the thumbs up sign to the driver.
    That counterintuitive response helped reframe the situation, and rather than leave a bitter taste, it felt good. The driver's confused expression was a satisfying reaction. And it helped my son see the power of a little good.
    There's a church song that goes, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." Maybe we need a new version: "Let there be civility on earth, and let it begin with me."
    Many people are ready to be part of something positive. Small actions repeated do make a difference. We can start today.
    Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2015

    Myth is truth

    Rural Mythology

                The web has over 470,00 citations related to urban myths. You can go to many of them and find out that some wild story you've heard is in fact bogus.  But the ones on rural mythology deal more with literary matters and information about Norse gods, not crazy stories from the heartland.  So I had no place to go to prove to my husband that I hadn't completely made up one of the classic myths of my childhood. I had to rely upon another source -- actual people, rural people.
                "Don't cross your eyes because if someone comes up and hits you in the back of the head they will get stuck that way".  When you're little the thought of people lurking around waiting to find someone with crossed eyes so they can make it permanent doesn't strike you as illogical. So, last summer at a 4th of July party, with my husband near by, I asked and sure enough, every one at the table back in my rural homeland had heard that one.
                Then they began to offer other ones they had heard. Mostly passed along by older siblings and often created by older siblings.  One woman shared that her older five siblings convinced the "little ones" that if you planted rabbit poops the Easter bunny would grow there. So the "little ones" did and watched every day for a fuzzy tail or floppy ear to emerge from their bunny beds.
                My older brothers created more havoc with their mythology. One told me that if you picked a mole you would die. So as I scratched my little arm one day in the first grade, off came a mole and I went into a complete panic. I couldn't tell the puzzled nun why, but I insisted that I was very sick and they should call my mother right away. I didn't want to die without her.  I also couldn't tell the nun why, because even at 6 I knew that there was a small chance that this, like the other 500 crazy things my brothers had told me, was not true.
    My mother came to get me and I don't even remember what happened after that. She probably explained things quietly to me and not so quietly to my older brother.
    Some rural myth is regional and some familial and some just crazy stuff older kids make up to control the little ones. One from my oldest brother kept me out of his room. According to him there was something called white lead that he used with his oil paints and if you breathed it, it would dissolve your liver. As with much mythology there was a grain of truth in it, but to a 6-year-old it was gospel. And so when I even got near his room I held my breath and washed any skin that might have touched anything near his room.
    Then one evening, as my mother made divinity candy, I took a drink from a little glass, set it down and it foamed. Not realizing that this had been used to measure egg whites for the candy, I was certain I'd been poisoned and went into a panic (yes-another one). This time my mom, who was a nurse, thought that I was going into shock. So they rushed me to the doctor for a shot of something to knock me out.  My brothers no doubt got another "explanation". And I grew up to become a child psychologist.
    Lots of rural mythology had to do with health and the workings of the body. We didn't have as many sidewalks to worry about as our urban cousins, but even we heard, "Don't step on a crack or you'll break your mother's back". Certain members of the community were excellent at predicting the weather by the feeling in their joints. But usually we heard about their predictions after the weather event occurred, "Yup, I knew it was going to rain, my elbow was acting up."
    I grew up with four older brothers and remember many dinners at which my father told the boys that eating the skins from the baked potatoes would "grow hair on their chest". Even as a little one I understood that this was a metaphor for being strong and healthy, yet I never developed a taste for potato skins.
    My mother had her own brand of mythology. Some also had to do with health and appearance. But a lot of hers turned out to have more than a grain of truth.  She said that she thought she didn't have wrinkles because she didn't hold grudges. Notably, she lived to be 90 with a sweet, smooth face. She consciously tried to maintain a pleasant expression and with that pleasant expression often went the pleasant response, "That's nice."  When my mother went on automatic pilot mentally, it was comforting the way she continued to say, "that's nice" to information she could no longer process.
                I admit that I have absorbed and passed on to my children some of this mythology. Not the part about crossed eyes, stepping on cracks or picking moles. But they have had to listen to my encouragement of a pleasant expression and positive response. They tease me about it now, but someday when I go on automatic pilot mentally, I know that they will be glad for my smile and my pleasant response. Some myth is truth.

    Thursday, February 19, 2015

    Selfies? What self?

    Since this article was published the current "appearancist" trend is an obsession with presenting an attractive digital image of oneself. Different technology -- same obsession. Adjusted "selfies" and non photoshopped pictures of celebrities become newsworthy.

    Has beauty become our beast?

    It seems that almost every TV network has some sort of reality "makeover" show. Three of these involve serious plastic surgery and one even requires the participants to take part in a "beauty" contest after their transformations.
    During a recent workshop for teenagers, I brought up the issue of appearance in their world. They reacted in a sort of resigned anger regarding the power of media images over how they should look and what they should own.
    I asked if they thought we would ever reach the point where qualities that were not visible would matter more than appearance. Would that human tendency to aspire to what is rare or difficult to attain trump the obsession with "beauty"?
    Now, it is easy to be plump - very easy. And so, the sought-after appearance is slender - very slender.
    For example, in times of deprivation, it was beautiful to be a little plump. In times when only peasants were tan, it was beautiful to be as pale as possible - or to powder oneself to appear so.
    I suggested that perhaps, now that medicine and technology make it possible to appear almost any way one wants - at least any way one is willing or able to pay for - could it be that positive internal qualities will become sought after? Could qualities such as perseverance, honesty, and compassion be things that people strive to develop? Will they come to qualify as the "rare things"?
    The teenagers were not optimistic. I'm afraid I'm not, either, but I continue to hope.
    I wonder if the maturing majority will help change the values of our society. Aging baby-boomers make up a huge market. Will what they value affect this trend?
    It's a long shot.
    Advertisers, whose revenues support most media, focus mainly on the young, considered a more malleable market. Perhaps more important, there is no sector of the economy that can profit by selling honesty, compassion, or perseverance as a commodity or product. So such values are not heavily promoted.
    And, unfortunately, media images are the pool in which our cultural values are reflected and reinforced. What is valued in this pool is appearance - the material and the superficial.
    How can a child who grows up in American culture not believe that billboards are altars to what is important?
    I grew up hearing phrases such as "Beauty is as beauty does," "He has a beautiful heart," and "Don't judge a book by its cover." We were cautioned not to try to keep up with the Joneses. It was considered bad form to focus too much on appearance and possessions.
    But now, as one wise old gentleman once said, "These youngsters are living in the kingdom of thingdom."
    The trend to reshape oneself through plastic surgery is perhaps just another example of how our society often confuses the possible with the necessary. Still, one of those invisible qualities that my parents valued and instilled in me causes me to look for some positive implication in our current trend of transformation to meet a narrow standard of "beauty."
    And so, I hope, as we search for the next rare thing, we start to look inside.
    • Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.