High expectations, high anxiety and high schools


The principal of the comprehensive public school could not contain his pride and delight; seventy mentions in the HSC merit list and excellent results for most of his students. The school community was thrilled to bits, the kids beaming, their parents well-pleased.

Compare this with a young man of my acquaintance who attended an élite private school. He received a number of mentions in the HSC merit list and a UAI at the top of the nineties and professed to be disappointed.

Which school would you prefer your child to attend?

Before you answer, consider the following. A friend of mine who works in counselling explained to me how damaging having routinely high expectations can be to your mental health and happiness. He asked me how I felt when I achieved what I had expected to achieve. Neutral was my answer, neither particularly happy nor sad. Then he asked how I felt when I achieved more than I’d expected. Ecstatic, I replied. And less than I’d expected? Disappointed, of course. He then explained that if you are a person with high expectations, neutral is the best you’ll ever feel.

 © Copyright Fiona Katauskas

© Copyright Fiona Katauskas

The young man who attended the élite school is at risk of just such a bleak emotional future, and he is not the only one.

Today’s middle class parents are increasingly obsessed with high achievement and high expectation, often with the very best motives. The current anxiety about getting your kid into one of the ‘best’ schools reflects the lack of confidence we have in our own, and therefore our children’s future. Many of us try to make them safe by pushing them to achieve at school so they can get a good job and be secure. But are there unforeseen consequences to our behaviour?

Perhaps the high expectations we impose on our kids must bear some responsibility for the symptoms of unhappiness we see more of these days; the increasing rates of teenage depression, suicide, eating disorders, drinking, smoking and experimentation with illegal drugs. If, no matter what you achieve, the best you are likely to feel is neutral, it’s hardly surprising kids seek other ways to feel something.

By trying to do our best for our kids we may be running the very real risk of damaging their natural capacity for joy, for pride and pleasure in their achievements.

The much-maligned comprehensive public schools are, it seems to me, better at celebrating their student’s achievements without applying ridiculous pressure. They have to be, because they are the only schools that must accept all-comers and cannot select on the basis of academic or economic advantage. They have learnt to encourage each student to do their best rather than expecting them to be the best.

No wonder current research shows kids who went to a public school are more likely to stick at university and achieve highly there.

More highly, perhaps, than they ever expected.

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