At a recent youth retreat I found myself having an intense discussion with several girls about their school choices for next year. They had been accepted to several schools and with a deadline looming, they were unsure where they wanted to go. What made this conversation interesting was that these students were not 18-year-old high school seniors picking colleges and majors, but 14-year-old eighth graders in the midst of choosing high schools.

When I took the call to serve a congregation on the northwest side of Chicago, I quickly learned that getting into the “right” schools is a top priority. In Chicago, students have several choices for high school–their local high school, any one of the numerous private schools, apply to attend an International Baccalaureate (IB) program, or apply to attend a more academically challenging magnet school. IB programs require high grades, applications, and interviews to be considered. If the students choose to pursue a magnet school, they must start preparing as early as 6th grade to gain “points” based on attendance, grades, and performance on a special standardized test in the 8th grade year. With some magnet schools only taking students achieving 99 to 100 points on a 100 point scale, there is little to no room for error.

While it is highly commendable that students this young are taking their education seriously, it is troubling to me how intense this process can get. Students will refuse to stay home sick out of fear of losing attendance points, and take weekly classes to help boost their standardized test scores much like high school juniors and seniors taking the SAT and ACT. Once you receive the results of what magnet school you did or did not get into, you have just over a week to choose where you will go to school. This leaves students at 13 and 14 troubled over how to make the important decision between so many school choices.

The pressure of getting into the “right” high school is an example of how culture today expects perfection and performance from our teens starting at a younger and younger age. It has always been the American way to value success, independence, and striving to be the best you can be. As a culture we seem to only lift up those who achieve and outshine. The problem occurs when this pressure to achieve stresses students out beyond their breaking point and, more importantly, teaches them to idolize their own success over putting God first in their lives.

I struggle as a DCE to find the right balance of support and concern when it comes to the cultural pressure to achieve. I do want the teens I work with to be passionate and excited about school and the activities they do. Excelling at something isn’t inherently a bad thing, just like looking to find the best high school isn’t an inherently bad thing. We want students to be the best that they can be in all aspects of their lives. The struggle comes in when this pressure creates stress teens are ill-equipped to handle or when they start to become so fixated on their own achievement they lose sight of the God who gave them the gift in the first place.

Students are becoming less and less able to try an activity like music, sports, and theater out for fun. Instead of being concerned about being well rounded, adults and peers put out the message of be the best, or don’t try at all. Or worse, students feel pushed to create a level of achievement in an activity they aren’t capable of or even excited to produce. We are seeing high school students who begin to take ADHD medications in order to do better at their school work. Students are burdened to become “perfect”, taking AP college level classes by their sophomore year of high school while performing on the sports field, finding time to do extracurriculars, service hours, and have a social life. Anything less might result in a catastrophic failure, and they aren’t making this pressure up. Last year was the most difficult year in US history to get into a four year college. The expected Freshman GPA for entry into a school like UCLA was 4.1.

Can we as a Christian community begin to lift the pressure off our teens? I have recently begun to reassess the games I play in youth to make sure I include more cooperative rather than competitive games. I even am working now to tailor games so that my students who aren’t as athletic have an even playing field so they don’t feel such a pressure to play well or get off the floor. Our church’s school recognizes students quarterly who have shown kindness, responsibility, and service to others and the school. Recognizing Christian character, not just achievement, tells students that acting in a Christ like manor is just as important as being the best. Most importantly, I spend time reminding students they are sinful humans, who are going to make mistakes. God always grants us grace, and we should be looking to Him rather than to ourselves to find what will really make us successful in life.

I am sure there is more to be done to counteract the intense pressure students are under to achieve. What are you doing in your ministries that helps find the proper balance? What can be done to relieve the pressure from our students so they are free to learn and discover who they are without enormous stress of the need to succeed?