Including Some Extra-Credit Reading About What Teenagers Need
When I came to interview at Thacher over a decade ago it was immediately clear to me that this was a school unlike any that I had encountered. To start with, there was the amazing natural beauty of the campus, which is situated right on the doorstep of the 2-million-acre Los Padres National Forest. From the first moment we stepped on campus my family and I were captivated by the rugged terrain (with its miles of trails), the orchards, the surrounding ridge lines—and how great it all smelled! It was March and the orange orchards were in full bloom.
Once we started meeting students we were all struck by how positive, healthy, and friendly everyone seemed. My final takeaway from this first visit came only after I spent time with Head of School Michael Mulligan, along with his key staff, discussing Thacher’s unique horse and outdoor programs, its cohesive culture, and its intimate academic experience. What I realized is that you cannot have an excellent high school without leadership that is expert on teenagers.
My hope is that when prospective families visit Thacher they come away with a similar appreciation for what makes Thacher Thacher. To that end, we have crafted a visit day that includes the usual student lead tour and interview, but it also has something that appears to be unique in the world of boarding schools: a formal presentation to all families that outlines our understanding—based on the best available research—of what teenagers need to learn, grow, and become their best selves; and how we have created a one-of-a-kind experience that we believe gives it to them.
In the presentation and follow-up discussion with visiting families Michael and I usually reference a number of relevant books. Given the number of requests we have from families for information on these books, I thought it would be helpful to use this forum to provide a handy list. It’s just a small sampling of some titles we think parents will find interesting and useful as they think about the high school years.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
By Paul Tough
The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students
By Thomas Armstrong
The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just about Anything
By Daniel Coyle
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
By Carol S. Dweck
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
By Judith Rich Harris
How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success
By Julie Lythcott-Haims
This last book might be a good one to start with because its thesis, in a nutshell, is this: Our young adults today are not as happy, healthy, or resilient as they can be; this is especially true of the elite achievers at hyper-selective schools. At the root of the dysfunction is over-parenting; and the solution, as the New York Times has pointed out, “reads like a page straight out of a ’70s-era parenting playbook.”
The book’s case for change is compelling. In a 2013 survey of 100,000 college students at 153 schools, 84 percent of the respondents indicated they felt “overwhelmed,” 53 percent felt “overwhelming anxiety,” and 32 percent felt “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” A 2013 survey of college counseling center directors found that 24 percent of their student clients were taking some form of psychotropic drugs.
Through examples of students at Stanford, she also lays bare that college students as a whole lack basic life skills related to talking to strangers, managing commitments, and handling the basic ups-and-downs of life. In summary, she writes that young people today lack self-efficacy, defined as “having the belief in your abilities to complete a task, reach goals, and manage a situation. It means believing in your abilities—not in your parents’ abilities to help you do those things or to do them for you.”
For many readers, what makes all this even more compelling is that the author believes the highest achieving students—the ones with straight As, perfect SAT scores, and acceptances at the most elite schools—are many times the most dysfunctional and unhappy.
The author rightly points out that over-parenting is not a totally new phenomenon: “Of course, boomers weren’t the first parents in history to hover over their kids like helicopters—in 1899 General Douglas MacArthur’s mother apparently moved to West Point with him and lived in a suite at Craney’s Hotel overlooking the Academy, where she could watch him by telescope to see if he was studying.” But the author does emphasize that the new wave of over-parenting, which entails moms and dads doing everything for their kids and trying to keep them immune from any type of failure, has reached epidemic proportions. She is in total agreement with Madeline Levine’s statement that “the greatest harm lurking in the lives of our kids is not the rare occurrence of the perverted stranger on the street but the declining mental health and wellness of children whose parents do too much for them.”
Lythcott-Haims’ guidelines for parents are simple and based on common sense: accept that your child’s success is not about you; know when to push and when to pull back; help them find mentors; prepare them for hard work; don’t do too much for them; give them unstructured time; teach life skills; and normalize struggle. In summary, help create “wild flowers, not bonsai trees.”
It seems self-evident to me that this same advice is just as applicable for how high schools should be working with their students as it is for parents with their kids.
In one way or another, Thacher has been helping our students develop self-efficacy for more than 125 years, way before any of these books were written. The buzzwords may have changed, but founder Sherman Day Thacher grasped the importance of grit, resilience, community, and lessons learned out of doors and built his School around these ideas. To find out more about how our programs reflect these ideas today, I invite you to take a look around our website or, better yet, schedule a visit.