No Sense of Agency
The cover of this month’s (Dec 2105) Atlantic is compelling. Set against a blank white background a teenager stands, his head down, one hand up covering his eyes. Next to him the headline The Silicon Valley Suicides, along with the gut-wrenching subtitle Why are so many kids killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The article explores the impact that student deaths have on local high schools and middle schools, as well as the nightmare that families and communities must work through when a child makes this final decision. While it was difficult to ask Why? in the midst of such indescribable loss, parents, classmates, and community members did comment on possible factors. A re-occurring theme has to do with pressure students feel to succeed. This pressure can begin at home through the high and very specific expectations of parents and then is applied and intensified at school both academically (the push for honors classes and grades) and non-academically (though non-curricular activities like sports, music, drama, leadership positions, internships, etc.).
The amount of work that teenagers are attempting to accomplish, both inside and outside of the classroom, is simply overwhelming. Lack of sleep and anxiety are constant companions of kids trying to live like this. The situation is made more complex since students themselves outwardly seem in agreement with their lifestyles. They often express a desire to do better, to be more organized, to study harder, and to accomplish more. Who are we, as adults, to get in the way of their goals?
It may be, though, that we do need to get in the way of their goals. We must not forget, for instance, that students are trying to succeed within a system that those preceding them have created. They can’t be blamed for wanting to get over a bar that adults have set for them.
I was first alerted to this problem through the work of Tom Amato, director of the Napa Valley Youth Advocacy Center, and his connection to Denise Clark Pope, author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (2003). Pope, a professor at Stanford, described students who were caught up in the chase for success, a chase that had almost nothing to do with actual learning and everything to do with looking good and getting into an elite university. Amato also introduced me to Madeline Levine, a child psychologist from the Bay Area, and her book, The Price of Privilege (2006), which described how kids awash in wealth can be so alone and feel so misunderstood.
Levine was quoted in the recent Atlantic and I think the point she makes is crucial. Of Levine the article shares that –
What disturbs her the most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. A decade ago, she used to referee family fights in her office, where the teens would tell their parents, “This is bad for me! I’m not doing this.” Now, she reports, the teenagers have no sense of agency. They still complain bitterly about all the same things, but they feel they have no choice.
The phrase no sense of agency originally struck me because of its creativity, but as I thought about its meaning it began to strike me because of its awful implications. I became filled with sadness as I thought about teenagers with an identity and sense of purpose crafted and forced on them by their parents or the school system. I came to realize that no sense of agency is another way of saying giving up. As much as we may have goals for our students, I am confident none of us intentionally wants to direct them in such a way that they give up. This isn’t about us forcing students to adopt our pictures of success or even about doing what’s good for them. It’s about the Caring Habits of listening, supporting, and accepting, and staying in a connected relationship with students no matter what.
It was hard reading the article and hearing parents of a child who committed suicide wonder aloud about how they could have missed the signs. I have no easy answer for that. Based on the ideas of choice theory, though, I can offer the following –
+ Stay connected. Positive relationships are everything. As Glasser would say, “As long as you’re connected you have influence.” This is why the Caring Habits are so important.
+ Seek to help children and students form their own identity and create their own life purpose. It is all too easy for us to attempt to meet our own need for Power and Success through the success of our children. This agenda is unfair to the life journey of our child or student. And it is unhealthy for us.
+ Stop being enamored by the elusive chase for the top, especially when the end in itself seems to be an elite university and a high-paying job. School shouldn’t be a competition, but instead should involve the engaging, joyful pursuit of learning, real learning.
Without faultfinding, Glasser would have had much to say after reading The Silicon Valley Suicides. Find out why in his biography, Champion of Choice.