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COMMENTARY–May 5, 2002


The Terrible Cost of High Achievement



Last week, Deborah Sontag (New York Times Magazine, April 28, 2002) relayed the tragic story of a nineteen-year-old student named Elizabeth Shin:  she burned herself to death two years ago in her dormitory room at M.I.T.  Her parents are suing the university for failing to act in the place of Ms. Shin’s parents, in loco parentis. 


Ms. Shin’s parents claim that M.I.T. never informed them of their daughter’s numerous contacts with the school’s mental health services.  Sontag writes that the parents believe that they could have intervened on their child’s behalf had the university not withheld from them information about “their daughter’s precipitous deterioration in the month before her death.”  


Other colleges and universities are following this case with grave concern because it might set a legal precedent that would make them liable for student deaths.  In the meantime, M.I.T. denies responsibility for Ms. Shin’s death.  Regardless of who is to blame, an unhappy young woman committed suicide.


By all appearances, Ms. Shin was an outstanding example of success.  The daughter of Korean immigrants, Ms. Shin graduated as the salutatorian of her high school class, was an athlete and accomplished musician, and she was accepted to elite colleges like Yale and M.I.T.  Sontag notes that Ms. Shin chose M.I.T. because she wanted “to do something important with her life, like find cures for diseases” and because her parents believed M.I.T. was the “gold standard” of higher education. 


Sontag clarifies that Ms. Shin, despite having achieved seemingly great success in her young life, struggled with depression and low self-esteem.  Although her parents deny that she suffered from mental illness prior to enrolling at M.I.T., the school has records of Ms. Shin admitting to psychiatrists that she had very superficially cut her wrists after she was demoted from valedictorian to salutatorian of her high school graduating class.  Her parents knew she was upset with the demotion, as were they, but they had no idea that she had cut her wrists.


Sontag notes that Ms. Shin visited school mental health facilities frequently while attending M.I.T., often at the behest of her friends and instructors.  She had a propensity toward cutting her skin to experience the pain of the skin incisions and to watch the bleeding.  She described the self-mutilation in counseling sessions “as a way of forcing herself to feel something when she otherwise felt hollow or to distract herself from emotional pain.” 


She also had a history of one suicide attempt with an overdose of Tylenol with Codeine.  The month before her suicide, she was diagnosed to have a depressive disorder and a borderline personality disorder; at another visit, she was placed on anti-depressants.


Over the course of nearly two years at M.I.T., it appears that Ms. Shin’s friends rallied around her often and brought her distress to the attention of various adults, including the dorm master, her dean, the mental health facilities, and even the police.  Her parents were contacted only once, and that was after her overdose.  Sontag notes that they were not otherwise called because, as a friend says, “Liz didn’t like her parents, plain and simple.”


In the meantime, Mr. and Ms. Shin believed that Elizabeth was “their giggly, harried nineteen-year-old caught up in her busy, overachieving life.”  They could not fathom their daughter’s unhappiness because they believed that she had succeeded so well in life.  Ms. Shin died an excruciatingly painful death several days after she self-immolated:  she suffered third degree burns over 65 percent of her body. 




As I read this article, I felt tremendous sympathy for Elizabeth Shin because I can imagine that many other children may experience similar unhappiness.  From early infancy (or even from the fetal stages of life), youngsters are expected to achieve the success that someone like Elizabeth Shin realized. 


How many youngsters today are expected to ace exams, become adept at sports, display musical talent, be disciplined and courteous, and get into the right schools that will grant them admission into the most elite colleges and universities?  I live on the Westside of Los Angeles, and I can attest that all these things and more are expected of young children living in my area.


Precocity is expected at earlier ages, and children today appear to be smarter than their peers of even just a generation ago.  Hence, young children are being pushed to perform at higher levels at earlier ages, and it is taken for granted that anything that is pursued in the name of education is acceptable. 


Years ago, I was surprised by a great number of things that demonstrated the keen competition that was being forced upon young children.  I once saw a grandmother in the park pick up a leaf and spell out the letters “L-E-A-F” in all seriousness to her nine-month-old grandson.  In a gym for little children, I was appalled when a mother yelled out to her robust four-year-old twin daughters to “go get him” during a routine play exercise.  The mother was encouraging her daughters to run after a small boy who was obviously terrified by the prospect of being trounced upon by the inspired girls. 


In my son’s karate class, years ago, a mother insisted every week to the instructor that he needed to pay special attention to her uniquely talented five-year-old daughter.  Later, I met another mother who assured me that her son was so bored with kindergarten that he simply had to see a tutor to do third grade math. 


Over the years, I have been informed of the IQ scores of several children.  For some reason, parents have also chosen on occasion to confide their own IQ scores.  It has also become routine for many parents and grandparents to regale in tales of the superiority of their offspring, who do appear to do more incredible things at even more wondrous ages.  


The days when just a few kids did something extraordinary are over.  The number of children who exhibit ostensibly genius abilities continues to grow, and the pressure for them to achieve success increases proportionately.  In the meantime, parents invest a great deal of time and money to ensure their children’s success by providing a good education and enriching learning experiences. 


Regrettably, many parents seem to forget that what a child does now will not necessarily predict the entirety of her future.  Grades, performances, and achievements are mere embellishments in life.  A child may do something extraordinary now or later, but her life cannot be judged only by what she appears to accomplish.  Nevertheless, parents are utterly determined that their children must succeed constantly.  


A couple of years ago, I heard about a young woman who was on a path to succeed in life.  This young woman was a high achiever who did a great number of extracurricular activities.  She was poised to attend an elite college, but she was too confident about her choice of colleges.  After twelve years of costly private schooling, and much to her parents’ chagrin, the girl wound up attending a state college.


Her parents considered her college choice to be a profound disappointment, but this young woman wound up enjoying her college experience enormously and spent time doing things she had never done before.  Despite her parents’ regret, she was happy and fulfilled.  I can only say that this young woman was fortunate enough to find success in life on her own terms.


As parents, we wish success for our children, and many thousands of parents believe that education is at the root of future success.  This is based upon the meritocratic idea that high achievement in school can bring about success in life.  Today’s parents believe that their children can achieve even greater success than they did. 


The irony, of course, is that many successful people in various professions today (including medicine, law, and the entertainment industry) did not graduate from elite colleges.  Even so, the race is on for the progeny of thousands and thousands of parents to eventually attend only the best colleges.  A look at the case of Elizabeth Shin should be a wake up call to all parents who believe that educational achievement is the essence of a child’s life.




The only reassurance parents may have that they may be on track to help their children realize fulfillment in their lives is by understanding Ashley Montagu’s definition of mental health.  He wrote often that a mentally healthy individual must be able to play, to work, to love and to be loved, and to think soundly.  Ideally, a good education would enable a child to develop these abilities.  The goals of education today, however, are geared principally toward the ability to work. 


From early on, young children are expected to concentrate only on the work ethic, even during play time that is now organized and designed to have a purpose.  Tremendous emphasis is placed upon the “Three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic).  Meanwhile, little regard is given to the time that young children need to play, have fun, and simply relax.


Moreover, Ashley Montagu posited that the most important “R,” the ability to relate to other human beings, was missing in modern education.  He believed that it was imperative for educators to emphasize the importance of the fourth “R” since a human being’s ability to relate to oneself and to others is truly what creates fulfillment in life.


We must realize that education begins in the home and that the fourth “R” has its roots in what a child learns in the home.  A child who learns to love and to be loved in the home will have the true resilience in life to appreciate herself as well as others.  A book that illustrates this principle beautifully and perfectly is Ashley Montagu’s The Elephant Man. 


Ashley Montagu describes the story of Joseph Merrick, a poor young man whose body was grotesquely disfigured by a hereditary disorder.  [1]  Although Joseph endured the worst torment from complete strangers and suffered humiliation and rejection from nearly every person he encountered, he harbored neither resentment nor hatred for anyone.  This amazing behavior was not a matter of chance but a result of having received loving nurturing from his mother.


Ashley Montagu believes that Joseph’s mother loved him so sincerely and profoundly that she nurtured within him an unshakable love of humanity. Joseph Merrick developed the resilience and compassion that enabled him to endure the sufferings of life with great fortitude.  His resilience was grounded upon his mother’s love. 


Today, parents take for granted the idea that children will become resilient without fully comprehending the love that is needed to develop such fortitude.  Unfortunately for children today, love is treated often like a commodity that is measured in dollars per hour.  A parent cannot spend time with a child when an income of “x” dollars per hour can be earned. 


Mothers who stay home to care for children are informed that they are enjoying a rare luxury.  Children are presented with the latest gadgets, toys, and games while constantly being reminded what a luxury it is to receive such things.  Yet the true luxury is the love that children once used to receive so abundantly from mothers at the breast and in their arms. 


Children can no longer luxuriate in the love that mothers have given their youngsters for the duration of human existence.  More and more parents are learning that it is normal to withhold love from young children.  This is ominous since it is possible that a child will not develop resilience but an inability to relate to oneself and to others.


Elizabeth Shin, for instance, had no idea how to relate to either herself or others.  Her diary entries show confusion as she expresses one emotion and then quickly denies it in the next sentence.  She sought intimacy and suffered when amorous relationships ended.


Ms. Shin had friends, but they worried about her so often that they would take turns staying awake with her at nighttime.  Obviously, this young woman despaired a great deal and was unable to overcome her suffering.  At one point, Ms. Shin appeared to be the prototypical successful student, but she is now perceived more accurately to be one of many students who have been prepared not for life but simply for admission into an elite college.


According to Sontag, colleges and universities are now facing the quandary of accepting academically gifted students who do not know how to conduct their lives as young adults.  Incoming freshmen are immature, emotionally and mentally.  In fact, they are seeking mental health advice in increasing numbers. 


Apparently, these young adults can perform very well when challenged to take a test or to achieve a specific goal.  They have great difficulty, though, when they are faced with the task of daily living.  What else can be expected of children when they have been asked repeatedly to perform and excel since so very early on in life? 


Despite the fact that young adults are demonstrating less resilience, greater numbers of youngsters will be even less resilient in the future.  I write this because children’s needs remain misunderstood and underestimated.  More than anything, young children need the consistent care of a loving mother. [2] 

The general public, nevertheless, embraces any suggestion that children will do fine in any day care setting.  Every time a new study shows that children in day care fare no differently from those reared in the home, the media announce the results almost with jubilation.


If a researcher dares to suggest, as did psychologist Jay Belsky, that full-time day care for infants under the age of one year may be harmful, he will surely be vilified. [3]  Feminists readily support a woman’s right to an abortion, but they do not support a woman’s right to stay home and breastfeed a baby.  Instead, feminists inform women confidently and wrongly that the mother-infant bond is a scientific myth. 


The real myth is that youngsters can keep fulfilling their potential as humane beings when they do not receive the love that humanizes them.  We can no longer ignore young children’s need for healthy intimacy, love, reassurance, and the availability of a consistent caretaker.


Many parents assume that the nurturing of children involves just the assurance of food, shelter, and safety whereas the real nurturing of children involves intimate care.  Throughout human existence, mothers have provided the intimate care that enabled young children to survive into adulthood.  Mothers breastfed and carried their babies and young children and maintained close human contact constantly. 


In the past, it was generally assumed that young children needed the love and care of their mothers.  Such thinking, however, has been discarded.  Parents today assume that love is a given because they are working hard to rear children in an increasingly expensive and competitive world. 


Sontag, for instance, notes that Elizabeth Shin’s younger fourteen-year-old sister receives eight separate private lessons in addition to her regular schooling.  This type of supplementation is not unusual in wealthier communities.  The grand idea of education today is that knowledge will enable a child to achieve success in life.  Unfortunately, the acquisition of knowledge has very little to do with the ability to think soundly or to live wisely. 


Knowledge without wisdom is useless, as philosophers have suggested for thousands of years, yet the acquisition of knowledge is the primary focus of education today.  As children doggedly acquire more knowledge and perform at ever higher standards at earlier ages, the fact is that they are not growing up to be either more mature or wiser. 


I think a significant reason for the failure to develop wisdom is the lack of close contact between children and parents, as well as between students and teachers.  It is a fact that many parents are simply too busy to spend any significant length of time with their children.  Similarly, teachers are now so busy teaching testing skills and overseeing performance standards that there is very little meaningful communication between students and teachers. 


I do not blame anyone for this breakdown in communication, but I believe we need to think seriously about the real meaning of education.  For sure, parents cannot assume that pushing children to acquire a vast amount of knowledge will enable them to know how to live with resilience and confidence.  We need only to look at Elizabeth Shin to see how fragile students are, no matter how high achieving they may be.


The discussion at hand is not to blame parents for doing a bad job of parenting.  No parent wants or needs to be judged.  Most parents work hard and do so much for their children.  We need to alter, however, the direction of child-rearing from one of making children perform to one of helping them to explore their unique talents and wishes. 


It is time to reflect more deeply upon how parents can provide children with a humanistic education that will enable them to become fulfilled in life.  We are heading in the wrong direction as far as education is concerned.  The prestige of attending elite prep schools and colleges is meaningless when young adults are so confused that they contemplate and commit suicide.  It is truly time to reconsider the meaning of education.


To put things into perspective, I will quote the humorist Dave Barry:


But the main thing to remember is that in giving your child the precious gift of a college education you are enabling him or her to be exposed to the thinking of the greatest minds that the human race has ever produced–from Socrates to Aristotle to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Edison to Bill Gates.  None of whom, for the record, graduated from college.  [4]


I hope my children can survive their education and remember who they are: loving and caring persons who have unique personalities.  I hope they are resilient enough to comprehend how to live wisely and happily.  This is my challenge as a parent. 



Revised April 14, 2006



[1]   At the time Ashley Montagu wrote the book, in 1971, most physical evidence pointed to Joseph Merrick’s diagnosis as being Neurofibromatosis.  There is currently a question as to whether or not the diagnosis is Proteus syndrome. 
[2]   A consistently available and loving caregiver is the best substitute for a loving and available mother.  Please note that breastfeeding is truly the most underestimated need of young children.  Yet I fully comprehend the fact that some alternative lifestyles predicate the absence of breastfeeding while providing the presence of loving and truly dedicated parents.  Love, as Ashley Montagu often wrote, is the one thing that children need above all else. 
[3]   Siegel, Charles. 2002. What’s wrong with day care:Freeing parents to raise their own children. New York: Teacher’s College, ColumbiaUniversity, 46.
[4]   Barry, Dave. 1998. Dave Barry Turns 50.  New York: Crown Publishers, 192.

Copyright 2006 The Nurturing Mother. All rights reserved.
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