Teenagers are weary this time of year. Even if they’re not in high school yet, January signals the midway point in the school year, which you can tell by the way they carry themselves. If I had to draw a cartoon about the average teenager during exams, they’d be carrying a cartoon anvil shaped backpack around. This seems all very normal until you talk to them and realize that the stress isn’t just the work load or studying – it’s the numbers and grades that come at the end. Good isn’t good enough and many of them expect perfect (or near perfect) grades. More than one conversation has involved a back-and-forth like this:

Me: How’s school going?
16 Year Old Joe: Terrible. I bombed a test today.
Me: What does “bombed” mean?
Joe: 87%.

Like most people invested in their lives, I want to see them succeed in whatever God calls them to do. I want them to thrive by pushing themselves further. I want “Joe” to live his life as fully as he can. However, when “bombed” a test means they only get a small portion of the questions wrong – when the only standard that is good enough is perfect – I have to ask …

Are students today under too much pressure?

There are a lot of factors at play here. Students spend more time on a higher variety of tasks now than they ever have. There are more students competing for fewer university spots, more requirements to get into those programs outside of their academics, and more skills needed to be successful at a high level. Costs are higher for them to go to post-secondary school, which increases the pressure to make sure that they get the most out of their (or their parent’s) money. They want more out of life and therefore more out of their careers, their social lives, and their grades. But considering all of this, students expect more of themselves, and this has in part to do with how they understand their value. They’ve attached what they do to who they are, and we often assume that they know that they are intrinsically loved and that their grades aren’t the condition on their value to us or God. I had one student say to me recently that God must love them “by default” because God has to love us. That there was nothing special about them and so they had to prove to everyone that they were worth it.

And my heart broke.

How can we say, regularly and creatively, to our young people that we think they are uniquely awesome because God values their specific contribution? That we push them not because of our expectations or responsibilities to them but because we want them to discover their place in the world and see them flourish? And that while school is an important part of that, it’s not the whole picture. God is moving in their lives and shaping them into the people HE wants them to be. We sometimes forget to remind them that while they plan, God provides. In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel:

“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” – Deuteronomy 8:3

After years of slaving away, the people had forgotten that they can’t control and plan to make things happen but that it’s God who provides them the fuel for their future. We need to buckle down and work all the while trusting that God will guide us if we let Him.

How can we remind students that as they work hard at their exams and school work, their value lies in God’s love for them? I have two ideas:

  1. Show It Instead of Saying It. Its possible that my kids are already sick of hearing me ask them, “You know I love you right?” But they never get sick of me playing with them in ways that are unique to them. What makes the young person you know special and how can you champion that? You could have a Lego build-off with them or display their art in a gallery in your home. Get everyone in your house to try out the program they wrote. Give them a gift that’s about them not just something they ask for.
  2. Help Them Relax. A lot of the pressure that students face this time of year is because they don’t really know how to relax. Take them for frozen yogurt or have a spontaneous dance party. Help them take good breaks, not just “text” breaks. Teach them how to recharge so they can regain perspective on their work.

Learning to work is a part of growing up. A challenge of our world today is that young people often have to grow intellectually and socially before they have emotionally and spiritually. By teaching them how to see the long view, adults can give teenagers the thing they can’t speed up: experience. No technology or curriculum can give them the lessons that come from being on the planet longer. Show them how you personally are learning to release the steam that builds up from work, and they’ll work harder and better than ever. They’ll thank you for it.

Plus, you’ll get some frozen yogurt too.