Raising a well-rounded child in a competitive world

Jeri Lyn Stone -- an all-state concert-master, president of the science honor society, AP scholar and Silver Knight -- caused a small scandal at Miami Killian Senior High her senior year when she exhibited a bit of restraint not usually associated with such high achievers.

She turned down a second run as the school's drum major.

In an era of hyper-competitive students -- when kindergartners fight for spots in first-grade gifted classes and students hire college coaches in middle school -- some would say Stone might have written her own rejection letter.

"I was like, OK, are colleges going to look at this and say, 'she's not dedicated, so we're not interested?' But I didn't join because I felt like other things were more important, " says Stone, who graduated in May. "A lot of people say, 'I don't want to do this, ' but they stay in because colleges look at it. But then they're completely miserable."

What Stone discovered is she survived. Not only did she survive -- and have the time she wanted to devote to her family -- but she still graduated sixth in her class and landed a spot at Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music.

It's enough to make any parent proud. But the problem today, psychologists and pediatricians say, is that many parents expect nothing less from their children. In an effort to raise a "well-rounded" child exposed to a variety of experiences, many parents instead are raising the bar and expecting their child to excel at every experience.

We often hear about the success stories. But the reality is that while some children thrive under pressure, many don't. And the results of chronic stress can be disastrous: increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety.


"The pressure is incredible, " said Gary Lancelotta, head of pediatric psychology at Baptist Children's Hospital. "For some kids, being well-rounded means being involved in two things and for some it's being able to juggle student government, sports, volunteering for the homeless and homework. We as parents have to reflect on what our expectations are of our kids and we also have to consider at what cost.?"

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a warning last year to parents in an unprecedented report on over-extended children. The doctors' advice: Don't insist that your child be a superstar. The academy called on pediatricians to advocate for more play time and less stress in kids' lives.

"Pediatricians should encourage parents to allow children to explore a variety of interests in a balanced way without feeling pressured to excel in each area, " the report urges. The report went on to say that today's changing work world is leaving parents more than ever in the dark about the skills their kids will need for the future. This uncertainty is driving many to seek out enrichment programs and cling to the belief that if they expose their children to everything, kids will have the best chance to be prepared. But shuttling kids between numerous activities may not be the best use of time.

Instead, the report suggests, children would be more poised for success if they could bask in the knowledge that their parents unconditionally loved them.

There are signs that others want to curb the competitiveness. Some universities are dropping out of U.S. News & World Report's "best colleges" rankings, arguing that students should seek a school best for them, not one that tops some generalized list. Admissions offices are starting to talk about the appeal of students with singular passions, not driven, multi-taskers. THE DRIVE TO SUCCEED

But, with competition to get into colleges stiffer than ever, a new generation of students is feeling inordinate pressure to achieve. Students in the Top 10 still graduate with 6.0 GPAs while juggling chorus and tennis. A national PTA poll conducted with PBS last year found that 54 percent of parents with kids ages 2 to 5 had anxiety about their children's academic performance. Some 90 percent believed they needed to start pushing kids early to achieve academic success.

Debate over the well-rounded kid is nothing new. In 1981, psychologist David Elkind wrote his best-seller The Hurried Child (Da Capo Lifelong Books, $16.95), arguing that we were over-programming our kids and turning them into neurotic perfectionists. The problem is, some experts believe, we're having the same debate more than 25 years later.

Just last year, Elkind published Power of Play (Da Capo Lifelong Books, $24), again admonishing us for rushing our children into adulthood. WHEN TO SAY "NO"

Everybody has different degrees of stress tolerance, says Jon Shaw, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Miami. A key job for parents is to recognize how much is too much for their kids -- and when to say no.

At the same time, that doesn't mean parents should stop making demands.

"There are going to be parents who demand violin lessons twice a week and most kids don't want to do it, but there are a lot of violin players out there who took lessons twice a week, " Shaw says. "So, moderation in all things. You don't want kids to have absolute free reign, but the other extreme is just filling up the schedule."


With some kids, the drive to succeed is largely internal. Carrington Bester, who graduated 14th in his class at Carol City High with a 4.4 GPA this year, was taken from his drug-addicted mother at the age of 1 and placed in foster care. His younger brother and sister soon followed and for the next eight years they lived in a foster home in Homestead, where he struggled to negotiate school and a house filled with a rotating roster of children.

When the three siblings returned to their mother's home in Little Haiti, Bester's mother had to work two jobs to support the family. Carrington, then 9, took over the cooking and laundry. Still, he managed to overcome the odds. He credits the support of several teachers and his recovered mother, who used to call him "little president." But his own will to succeed can't be dismissed.

Carrington will attend the University of Florida in the fall to study political science. He hopes to go on to law school. An accomplished public speaker, Carrington has this advice for today's parents: Keep telling kids they can do whatever they set their mind to, but if they fall short then tell them it's OK. Let them know you will always support them.


Miami Lakes parent Dan Franquiz sees how kids respond to stress differently in his own children -- Lauren, 14, and Ryan, 11. His son, Franquiz says, responds to tough drills; Lauren does better without pressure.

"Ryan eats it up, " says Franquiz, who coaches his son's baseball team. "Whenever he gets a little lazy, I say, 'You're not a natural-born homerun hitter. Don't think you're some wonder kid. You've got to put in the time and that's why you get results.' "

His daughter, he explains, is more self-motivated and tends to do things well at her own pace.

Sometimes, it does help for a parent to push a little -- if it's for the right reasons.

When Rebecca Noble started her freshman year at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, her mother insisted she sign up for Symphonettes, a service group.

"I did not want to be in Symphonettes. I hated the idea, " says Rebecca, who graduated from Ransom in May. But she changed her mind.

"I ended up writing my college essay on it, " she says. "I loved it."

Rebecca's mom, Georgia Noble, says she encouraged her daughter to explore different interests, hoping Rebecca would find something she liked. (She did -- her passion became theater.) But Noble also wanted her daughter to volunteer to develop a sense of philanthropy.


Steve Frappier, Ransom's director of college counseling, says the biggest college admissions myth is that nobody -- no matter how smart or well-rounded -- is getting into college.

It's true that elite colleges are ultra-competitive. (Last year, Harvard had 22,754 applications, but accepted only 2,109.) But the majority of college-bound students get into their top choices.

Four-year colleges and universities accept 70 percent of their applicants, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Two-thirds of students get into their first choice.

"Things are getting more selective, so students apply to more places, " Frappier says.

His advice: Look for a college that suits your child.

Adds Lancelotta, the psychologist: "Parents have to ask, What do I buy into? Do I buy into that my kid has no chance because he has a 3.0 and his test scores are only an 1100, or are we going to say everybody has strengths and weaknesses and there are thousands of colleges out there and it may not be their first choice but they're going to get into some place?"