My freshman daughter came home from school yesterday and let me know that her teacher pulled her aside. “She wants me to move up to honors next year,” she told me. “She said she didn’t think I was challenging myself enough.”

“Well, that’s a compliment,” I responded. “But, what do you think?”

She looked crestfallen. “I just don’t know how I can fit it in because everyone complains about how much extra work honors is. Taking it as a regular class this year gave me some breathing room and it was the one class I didn’t have to stress about. And next year I have driving school and cross country and all my other advanced classes. I have to volunteer for Key Club and I want to babysit to have spending money and . . .” She went on and on for a few minutes.

“I guess we have our answer then,” I told her. “You are pretty busy already, so you don’t have to add to your schedule.”

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“But what about challenging myself?” she asked. “Like, are colleges going to be down on me because I didn’t take all honors classes?”

I looked at my young daughter and for the first time in a long while she appeared small to me instead of the young woman she is becoming—more like when she was a scared toddler about to get in trouble.

And I thought, how much more challenged does she have to be?

She is challenged to get enough sleep every night after long school days full of advanced classes.

She is challenged to find downtime because she chose to participate in a high school sport.

She is challenged to find balance in a stress-filled trek to get into a college.

She is challenged by peer pressure and social media and the dangers of simply walking into her school each day.

While the teacher wanted to encourage my daughter, all she felt was pressure from the world around her. Do more. Work harder. Take the challenge.

It’s not this teacher’s fault. It’s her job to see the potential in kids, and she has taught my child well this year. But my teenager’s response underscored what I think is a pervasive problem. 

I think we have to start looking at our kids in a more holistic manner and choosing our words a little differently.

Last year, my daughter (with our input) made a conscious choice not to take all honors classes in her first year of high school. As parents, we told her she should challenge herself in the subjects that she cared about the most, which in her case is math and science, and then decide one-off in the other areas.

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She has said several times it was the best decision she’s ever made, and her grades have backed it up. She’s adjusted well to the high school routine, and while she’s busier than I would like, she’s handled it well.

But I saw her anxiety first-hand when discussing her schedule for next year, and with her first round of finals coming up, she was a pressure cooker.

Not everything our tweens and teens do needs to be challenging or rigorous or competitive.

Most of us don’t thrive in that kind of environment, and for sure our kids don’t.

So, I told my daughter I thought she should take the grade-level course again for the next year. She challenged herself in other areas, and I thought she found a good balance this year in her course selection.

It’s the educators’ and coaches’ and activity leaders’ jobs to build our kids up and push them to their limits, but it’s our job as parents to also let them know that they don’t have to do this with everything. At the end of the day, it’s our job as parents to look at the big picture, but I think as a whole we should be changing the conversations we have with our teens.

I’m glad that my child has teachers that believe in her potential, but I’m also glad my daughter recognizes she has limits.

It’s tough to find the balance in teaching our kids to push themselves to reach their potential without burning out or breaking down.

We need to start putting our kids’ mental health first, and then teach them how to decide what they can handle. Because if your kid can’t sleep because of stress or starts hurting themselves to cope with anxiety or something worse yet, that “challenging” course they felt they should take or team we pushed them to join or added responsibility they weren’t ready for may not be worth it.

I absolutely want my kids to challenge themselves, but I hope they learn to care about their well-being more than anything else.

Whitney Fleming

Whitney is a mom of three teen daughters, a communications consultant, and blogger. She tries to dispel the myth of being a typical suburban mom although she is often driving her minivan to soccer practices and attending PTA meetings. She writes about parenting, relationships, and w(h)ine on her blog Playdates on Fridays.