The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

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Kids today — well, teenagers specifically — are stressed. Recess is no more. Parents try to get their kids onto the short list for prestigious preschools before the tots are even born. Gracie and Harrison are stressed to the max, packing in varsity sports and AP classes while also trying to write the perfect essay that will get them into Harvard.

At least, that’s the premise of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids.

I really went back and forth while reading this book, which I did because one of my teenage piano students was reading it and mentioned it enthusiastically. For one thing, once I began it, I was about 95% sure I’d read it years ago (it was published in 2006).

It really attempts too much — it’s 500 pages of both anecdotes about various stressed high school students (too many to keep track of), and non-fiction info about SATS, AP classes, Ivy League admissions, and more. As you read, it’s hard not to feel your own stress level rising. It’s all just — too much.

There’s plenty of interesting stuff — Japanese kids evidently go to school 240 days per year (compared to Indiana’s 180; I assume other states are similar?). After a huge part of the book follows the incredible stress families go through to get their kids into Ivy League schools, the author references a 26-year-study which found that Ivy grads don’t earn more than those who attended “lesser” schools (merely going to college is a larger factor in earnings than the actual school attended).

The stories of the teens are stress-inducing and sad — “It was their last song of their last homecoming,” thinks one senior. “Thank God they wouldn’t have to do it again.” The kids followed all go to Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland — evidently an insanely-competitive place, and frequently while reading I was glad my kids didn’t go there (interestingly, while writing this I discovered that the author went to high school there). After reading this book, you would be under the impression that a majority of kids there talk constantly about their SAT scores, “early decision” college results, etc. I’m fairly Type-A/competitive myself, but this was an entirely different sphere of stress, and one that I’m quite happy to leave to others.

I feel for the kids profiled in the book, and can relate to some of their thoughts — “I feel like I can’t measure up to the success I had in school … I have a strong drive to succeed, but lots of times, I don’t even know what I’m striving for.” Another bemoaned his helicopter parents: “I wish my parents had some hobby other than me.”

I had zero desire to get my kids into a posh preschool (indeed, I didn’t even send them to preschool at all), and really don’t see the advantage in trying to get them into Ivy League Schools. The Overachievers was a fascinating look, if nothing else, into a subset of the population that I have had little experience with.

The author ends with some suggestions for improving this stress-filled situation. She mentions delaying school start times for high schoolers, and this is something I’d agree with. Teens seem to naturally have a night-focused rhythm, and yet our high school begins around 7:30 — while elementary schools start at 9. Why not switch these two around?

How about you? Have you observed any super-obsessed parents or students, at any educational level? Chime away in the comments — it would be interesting to hear some stories 🙂


3 thoughts on “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

  1. I’m so thankful I never lived under this kind of stress.

  2. I just read this to two sixth grade boys. One tells me he is an overachiever in one class – Science!
    A second boy was impressed with how much Japanese kids do – how they go to school so much more.
    I pointed out to the boys that Japanese students also do Saturday school. One boy asked me, “WHY?” To him, that makes absolutely NO sense at all!

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