Project Questions the Definition of Success


The Challenge Success project out of Stanford University was created to help parents find the balance between gearing their children for success and overburdening them with stress and work.

Gina Morris, Parent Education Program director with Challenge Success, spoke at Crescenta Valley High School’s MacDonald Auditorium to give parents tips for reducing the stress of their children’s daily lives and the ever-looming expectations of modern teenagers.

The presentation was titled, “The Well Balanced Student,” and in it Morris identified balance between work and the other aspects of a student’s life as essential to their success.

“In order for students to be the type of successful people who are prepared with 21st century skills that we know they need with the shifting job market and economy, there needs to be balance in their lives,” she said.

Morris led the parents through a series of activities intended to illuminate the various pressures and expectations placed upon the shoulders of today’s students.

Parents were given sheets with a list of attributes and were asked to divide 100 points among the attributes, indicating which traits the parents felt most translated to future success. The parents were also asked to distribute 100 points among the traits they felt the community valued as contributing to success.

The results suggested that many parents valued attributes such as “kindness, creativity and interpersonal skills” as opposed to what they felt the community valued in “high grades, strong earning potential and attending a prestigious college.”

Morris also had a group of volunteers participate in a role-playing exercise about the daily life of fictitious high school junior Andy Bishus. While one man represented Andy, the other volunteers played the parts of Andy’s friends, teachers and advisors, reminding him of schoolwork and activities. Each volunteer would tell Andy what he needed to finish, usually by the end of the day, and then cling to him, until Andy was mobbed by the volunteers like a swarm of insects.

Morris noted that the one party not present during the activity was Andy’s parents. Morris did not suggest that parents do not apply pressure to their children, but omitted the parents from the exercise to illustrate that parents should play a different role, especially when the stress can be overbearing, as in Andy’s case.

“The word we often use for parents’ roles is that of the gatekeeper,” said Morris. “You see your kid and you help them manage, set priorities. The role of the parent is not to add stress and pressure but to help mitigate it.”

Morris also presented findings from a study conducted by Denise Pope, one of Challenge Success’ co-founders. Pope researched adolescents, shadowing five high school students throughout one school year, following a different student each day and trying to identify what made them the high performers they were.

What Pope found was “a bunch of stressed out, pill popping, cheating, ‘robo-students’ going through the motions to survive school,” said Morris.

One of the students, sophomore Kevin Romoni, was quoted as saying, “People don’t go to school to learn. They go to get good grades, which brings them to college, which brings them the high paying job, which brings them to happiness, or so they think.”

Morris also presented the results of a survey conducted among 13,000 high school and middle school students from 30 different schools, which concluded that today’s students not only have tightly scheduled lives with little free time between school and extracurricular activities, but that those students are cheating more, getting less sleep and abusing drugs more often as a result.

According to the study, students are doing about 3.5 hours of homework a night as well as about seven to 10 hours a week of extracurricular activities – all outside of the hours spent in class. Conversely, the survey showed that middle school students get about eight hours of sleep nightly, while high school students get 6.84 hours of sleep on average.

Morris said that this runs counter to the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says teenagers need 9.25 hours a night. Unsurprisingly, when Morris asked the audience whose kids received 9.25 hours of sleep every night, not one person raised their hand.

Morris said that the focus on high grades and getting into one particular, respected college has led to graduates who are ill-prepared for today’s job market.

Morris described Challenge Success’ conversations with Silicon Valley CEOs.

“They say we can train these kids that come from these prestigious schools in business. What we can’t train them in is out-of-the- box thinking, how to get along with other people, important interpersonal skills, how to solve problems within the teams they work with, how to take a risk and risk failing,” reported Morris.

She returned to the theme of managing children through stress, making sure they have enough free time to balance out the workload and letting them know that their parents are there to support them.

“If you’re pushing your kid, you’re not guaranteed those results,” she said. “You can push, push, push all you want and one day, your kid’s going to be an adult and they’re going to do what they want to do anyway, regardless of all your pushing.”