Are we creating a generation of fearful overachievers?

Laura K. Silver is a trustee of the Jewish Light who writes a blog for the paper’s website ( Laura is married and the mother of two middle school age children.

By Laura K. Silver

Over the past few weeks, my kids have been registering for high school   These days, the choices of electives are incredible. Students are able to take subjects ranging from improvisation to music theory from sculpture to broadcasting. If I were 14, I would be thrilled with what possibilities lay ahead. 

But I’m not 14. And as I think back to my 14-year-old self, I realize that, although a lot has changed in the years since I attended high school, some things have not. Like me, my kids are picking subjects, not based on how interesting they may be, but on how they will affect their GPA.

I remember wanting to take a class with that cool looking wheel over in the art department. I was intrigued by the alluring paint smell that permeated the art hallway and curious about my friends who would hang out over there and look so happy when they voluntarily stayed after school to do work on their projects. The sad truth was (and is) that I didn’t take a single one of those classes. Why? Because I can’t draw…..or maybe I can, but I’ll never know.   The last art class I took was in sixth grade. 

I excelled at music and with my good grades and high GPA, I couldn’t risk it.  I needed a “sure thing A,” so I took choir. I dreaded choir—I was made to sing alto when I’m a soprano—but I took it for the semester I was required to take it, and quit as soon as I could. Although I ended up at a great university and then an Ivy League law school, I failed in this part of my education. To me, the purpose of education is to learn, to try things, to challenge yourself… and I didn’t. I went for the safe bet. Having made this mistake, I want better for my kids. 

For myself, I know that “it’s not too late” and there is nothing stopping me from taking an art class now. I get that, but that’s not the point. What I get even more, now that I am an adult, is that youth is a unique time in life to take safe risks. to expand horizons. to get out of your comfort zone, so you have the fundamental base of knowledge for the remainder of your life.  

The pressure kids have to achieve now is far greater than the one I experienced. With the specialization and professionalization happening today with kids activities from sports to music, beginning as early as age 3, kids these days self-select early out of risks. And with the rise of helicopter parents, lawnmower parents, and Tiger Moms, parents are often driving these selections to ensure the best possible academic “success” for their high achieving kids. Even if, as parents, you don’t personally subscribe to these methods, you find your own children self-selecting because they know what their competitive classmates will be doing. To me, it’s a sad state of academia and an even sadder commentary on where we are heading as a society—creating a generation of fearful overachievers. 

Educational institutions are in a unique position to rectify this situation for their students. To me, the solution for high school is obvious. Allow students to take advantage of all of these incredible electives by making them all pass/fail. If students try and complete the assignments, they pass. By moving to this model, educators have the opportunity to be truly impactful—to impart a love of learning new subjects and of self-expansion to students that can last beyond those four years.

Because it seems to me that when we allow grades to dictate the decision about whether or not to engage in these incredible educational opportunities, it’s time to recognize that we are all failing these kids.