Two years ago there was a very sad but intriguing article in The Atlantic magazine examining why so many teenagers with such bright future prospects were taking their own lives in Palo Alto, California.
Palo Alto is located in the San Francisco Bay area. Stanford University is located there and it is headquarters to a number of high tech companies including Hewlett Packard, Loral, Tesla Motors, and Ford Research and Innovation Center. Not surprisingly, Palo Alto is one of the wealthiest cities in the country and its residents are some of the most well-educated.
For this reason it is so perplexing that in the two high-achieving high schools in Palo Alto the ten year suicide rate among their students is between four and five times the national average. So many of these suicides are cluster suicides, which are multiple deaths in close succession and proximity.
Suniya Luther, a psychology professor at Arizona State is quoted in the article and shares her assessment. She says it is not uncommon for children in affluent families to experience a high rate of anxiety and depression. They feel a great deal of pressure to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits. They see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success.
The source of all this pressure begins of course with the parents. As one parent asked after a cluster of suicides, “What are we doing to our kids?” Parents are beginning to recognize that they are to blame for putting the pressure on their kids to succeed. Yet they are having a difficult time letting go of their high expectations to achieve.
In last week’s blog, I wrote about the issue of idolatry. Where we allow something God has intended for good, and grant to it a power in our lives it was never meant to have. I am learning that one of the most powerful idols in the life of any parent is their children’s accomplishments. We deify our children’s success, and are generally not aware of it. In the process it makes for a very disappointing life, particularly if our children don’t meet or exceed our expectations. But look what it does to our kids.
Tim Keller, in his book Counterfeit Gods, shares the story of a mother named Anna.
Counselors would tell her she has to stop pushing her children into activities and projects they have no aptitude for. She has to stop punishing them emotionally for bad grades. She would have to give them the freedom to fail. That’s all true, but there is an underlying issue that has to be confronted. She must be able to say in her heart, “My desire for completely successful and happy children is selfish. It’s all about my need to feel worthwhile and valuable. If I really knew God’s love – then I could accept less-than-perfect kids and wouldn’t be crushing them. If God’s love meant more to me than my children, I could love my children less selfishly and more truly.”
Her overcontrol of her children was not only an unwillingness to let God be God in her own life, but also in their lives. Anna could not imagine that God might have a plan for her children’s lives wiser than her own.
She had mapped out a perfect life, without failures or disappointments. But that is more of a flawed life-plan than the bumpy ride God inevitably maps out for us.
The success and love of Anna’s children has been more important to her self-image than the glory and love of God. Though she believes in God with her mind, her heart’s deepest satisfaction comes from hearing a child saying, “Oh, Mother, I owe everything to you!” Tragically, she may never hear the words that she longs for most, because her inordinate need for their approval is pushing away the ones she loves most. She must be willing to put God first, to trust God with her children by letting them fail, and to find her peace in his love and will.
I had a man tell me one of the most liberating things that ever happened to him was recognizing he had allowed his children’s success to be a powerful idol in his life. When their lives did not turn out the way he wanted them to, it caused great anguish. Once he relinquished this idol, and let his children live their lives, he experienced a real sense of freedom and peace.