Our Kids Carry a Hole in their Hearts


In a conversation with a friend about the recent college admissions fiasco, we talked about perfectionism. The fear of not being good enough is pervasive in our community and has left our kids feeling stressed, anxious and depressed.* Our kids look great on paper, and they carry a hole in their hearts.

Success. In our single-minded pursuit of success aka college admission, we have hyper-focused on performance-based and external benchmarks like grades, test scores and awards. Instead of choosing classes and extracurricular activities based on their interests and strengths, our kids build a resumé and “[compromise] their mental and physical health in the pursuit of top grades.” Our collective obsession with the college admission process has reduced our children to constant doing, with little time for simply being. For over a decade the kids in our community have been telling us that in order to be fully human they need more time, more sleep, less homework.

In De-bunking College Admission MythsDenise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success summarizes the issue well: “The sole purpose of high school has become the four years that happen afterward. Lost is the engagement with learning, the ability to have any unscheduled, non-resume building time, and the 8 to 9 hours of sleep that kids truly need.”  **

Autonomy. Competence. Belonging. Research on self-determination by Edward Deci and Richard M. Ryan shows that students' mental health is closely related to their sense of (1) autonomy or having control over their learning, (2) competence (an ability to handle challenging tasks) and (3) relatedness (feeling a sense of belonging).

Self-determination theory (SDT) supposes that human beings are curious about their environment and therefore, interested and engaged in learning. SDT researchers Christopher P. Niemiec and Richard M. Ryan describe how SDT relates to educational practice.  They suggest that "intrinsic motivation and autonomous types of extrinsic motivation"  foster optimal learning and student engagement. They also point out that "evidence suggests that teachers' support of students' basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness facilitates students' autonomous self-regulation for learning, academic performance, and well-being." 

Recent Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) 2018 data for DuPage County, Illinois *** illustrate that many of our students have little sense of autonomy, belonging and are only minimally engaged in their learning.

In gauging meaningful participation/engagement and caring adults the IYS asked 8th, 10th and 12th grade students “how true” the following statements were. Response options included: (1) not true at all, (2) a little true, (3) pretty much true, (4) very much true.

The  percentages below reflect the number of students in DuPage County who responded to the statements with not true at all or a little true.

 At school, I do interesting activities:  44% (8th)  41% (10th)  43% (12th) of students did not think they did interesting activities. (Note: 8th grade response shows an increase of 7% from 37% in IYS 2016)

At school, I help decide things like class activities or rules: 70% (8th) and 71% (10th & 12th) of students reported that they did not help decide class activities or rules. (Note: 8th grade response increased 7% from 63% in IYS 2016)

 At school, I do things that make a difference:  60% (8th)  65% (10th)  61% (12th) of students reported that they did not do things that make a difference. (Note: 8th grade response increased 6 % from 54% in IYS 2016)

Caring Adults. In addition to student reports of not participating meaningfully in school, over a quarter of students, do not feel seen by an adult at their school: 26% (8th), 29% (10th) and 28% (12th) of students reported that it is not at all true or a little true that there is a teacher/other adult at [their] school who notices when I am not there.

Furthermore, 32% (8th) 38% (10th) 37% (12th) of students reported that it was not true at all or a little true that at school, there is a teacher/other adult notices if I have trouble learning something.

“On the other side of our anxiety is our alignment with the path best suited for us.”

~ Amber Rae

The Truth of the Matter.

The truth is that our kids do not experience agency, feel little sense of belonging in school nor are they particularly engaged in their learning. We have forgotten that our kids are human beings. Humans become alive when we are fully engaged with our external and internal lives; when we feel competent and have agency; when we feel we belong; when we have space to listen to and follow what is in our hearts.

In the pursuit of college admission, we take much pride in our kids’ academic schedules packed with AP classes, their carefully selected extra-curricular activities, service hours in prominent community organizations, and participation in highly rated tutoring services. And all the while, our kids are stressed and anxious because they have no time to connect with their hearts, explore their emotions or follow their innate curiosity and be creative. We have sacrificed our kids’ well-being, health and sense of aliveness at the altar of a “college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives.”

When our external life does not intersect with our heart, we experience an emotional hole and a void that often expresses itself as anxiety, When anxiety shows up in our lives, it is a sign that something is out of alignment. Amber Rae, author of Choose Wonder Over Worry calls anxiety a devoted friend” who invites us to “hear our inner truth” and align “with the path best suited for us.” Our kids and all the research tell us as much. We need to recognize, articulate and help our kids’ to conceptualize themselves as more than their external accomplishments.

Healing the Hole in our Kids’ Hearts.

To heal the hole in our kids’ hearts, we all have a role to play.

As parents, we need to engage consciously and deeply with our hearts so we can pay attention to what’s in our kids’ hearts and love them for who they are and not for what they accomplish. We need to  listen to and talk with our kids about how we create meaning in our lives. We need to trust our kids and empower them to try things out. We need to cheer them on as they find their path in life. ****

In schools, we need to consider a school change such as advocated by Challenge Success to create time, space for students, educators and staff to thrive; where everyone is fully engaged and feels supported; where we are curious, create and make mistakes. A place where we learn, teach and lead from the heart. Perhaps a place like Iowa BIG where students “get to learn through projects and work they care about.” Real engagement, real work and growth in preparation for their life in the world.

As a community, we have the power to shift the prevailing paradigm of success that is fueled by fear and competition for approval and belonging to one that focuses on growth and collaboration. We need to connect with the truth that each human being is inherently worthy and in no need of constant perfecting. Let’s teach our kids that their “lesson in this lifetime is to find and trust [their] own precious voiceso they can be truly successful.


Copyright © 2019 by Dagmar Kauffman, founder & executive director, On Balance Parenting.

All rights reserved.



Depression: The following percentages are results of affirmative responses by students in DuPage County, Il to the Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) question, whether they had felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that [they] stopped doing some usual activities:

  • Affirmative responses by 8th graders increased 4% from 22% in IYS 2016 to 26% in IYS 2018.

  • Affirmative responses by 10th graders held steady at 29% in IYS 2018.

  • Affirmative responses by 12th graders increased by 2% from 29% in IYS 2016 to 31% in IYS 2018.

** At the SXSWEdu (March 4-7, 2019) conference in Austin, I attended a panel discussion presented by Dr. Denise Pope, co-founder of Challenge Success, and Dr. Ian Kelleher, head of research at The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning (CTTL). Listen to the audio recording of the session: Dialing Down Stress Without Dumbing Down School.

            ***  The Illinois Youth Survey (IYS) assesses social and health indicators of Illinois youth and is administered bi-annually to 8th, 10th and 12th grade students. In 2018, 43 DuPage County, Il public schools participated in the IYS, including all middle and high school students in Indian Prairie Community District (IPSD) 204 and Naperville Community Unit District 203.

            **** Are you interested in thoughtful conversations about raising & launching kids who follow their heart? Join us for Heart Talks: Parenting Courageously!, our monthly conversation that I co-moderate with Dr. Kelly Flanagan and his colleagues from Artisan Clinical Associates. Next session is on Tuesday, May 21st, 7PM at the Alive Center. All parents/caregivers are welcome. Get your free ticket here.

***** Lesser , E. (2005). Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. New York, NY: Villard Books. p.11.

“Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction.”