Under Pressure

As an eighth grader, Bella* (10) watched her mother navigate the complex college admissions process with her brother John* (‘16). After guiding her son through both successes and failures during his rigorous high school experience, Bella’s mom became even more determined to mold her second child into “the perfect candidate for college.” 

At a young age, Bella discovered she liked building things, and took a beginning engineering class in seventh grade. Yet her mother, unlike Bella, saw engineering not as the projects her daughter was tinkering with, but rather as a practical college major that can potentially provide her daughter a stable income and comfortable future. 

“I feel like the reason my mother pressures me so much is that she wants me to have a good career, but she sometimes forgets about my well-being, and that it’s my life, not hers,” Bella said. 

Today, Bella’s high school career revolves around completing a checklist of goals outlined by her parents, in hopes that she will major in engineering at the “perfect school.” Instead of changing Bella’s mind to seriously consider engineering as a future career, however, her parents’ pre-fabricated plan for success has drained Bella’s initial middle school-era interest in the subject. 

“She has forced me to join or start multiple organizations or programs that I was never interested in,” Bella said. “The pressure from my parents has made me sort of resent the career because they have made it so stressful to pursue a passion … Doing something engineering-based is just not fun anymore.”  

There are many reasons why parents push their kids into choosing certain majors. For Bella, “having a good career to get into college and live a successful life” is an explanation she has heard too many times.    

According to a report by the Department of Commerce, majors in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects earn, on average, 29 percent more annually than their non-STEM counterparts. Furthermore, research by the Department of Education found STEM majors were more likely to be employed and retain full-time jobs. While U.S. unemployment rates have dropped to pre-2009 economic recession levels, the it still faces rising income inequality, housing and rent prices, and a shrinking middle class. 
Economic anxiety, however, causes certain parents to push their children into STEM careers, leading them to believe that the stability and above-average pay offered by STEM degrees is the only way of achieving success. This belief that STEM is the only option for monetary success is described as a “mass delusion” by  Arizona State University professor of Psychology Suniya Luthar in a 2015 article for Atlantic Magazine. 

According to a Washington Post article, it is common for parents to excessively worry about how much their children will make if they choose to pursue certain academic fields, like STEM subjects, over other ones, like literature. Contrary to most STEM and business majors who earn median annual incomes between $60,000 and $80,000, the average humanities major makes around $50,000 —“enough to fit comfortably in the American middle class,” according to the Washington Post. 

While it may be true that most STEM graduates earn higher salaries, it is irrational to solely base major salary differences on a student’s decision to pursue a certain major. A study by economists at Yale found that “half of the premium earned by STEM majors can be explained not by what they learned in college, but by the greater intelligence, diligence and other characteristics” they possess. In other words, an individual’s drive, diligence and determination are ultimately the main factors that contribute to their eventual success in whichever field they choose. 

“Music and art have tough job markets,” according to Hamilton College Consulting founder and CEO Chris Hamilton. “I’ve got a friend. He was an art major, and he created a company that does artwork for Hollywood studios. He was really good at talking to people, [and] realized he could build a business. He made a reasonable living as an artist, [but] now makes more money than most doctors and lawyers.” 

A study found that only 27 percent of people actually have jobs that are related to their college majors, so it is important to note that “choosing a major is not choosing a career,” according to the Washington Post.

“When I look at my own friends, one is the VP of Bell Helmets, and his major was psychology,” Hamilton said. “Another friend is a medical doctor, but his major was philosophy.”

Over the many years of consulting thousands of high schoolers, Hamilton has rarely witnessed parents who put pressure on their kids. Whether that’s because parents are on their “best behavior” when attending a consultation or not, according to Hamilton, he most often sees parents who say they want their kids to pursue whatever interests them.
“Parents in Carmel Valley are pretty sophisticated and realize that there are many paths [to achieve a certain goal],” Hamilton said.

While he admits that “the most popular majors are the so-called ‘good’ majors: computer science and engineering,” Hamilton says that the students who are interested in those subjects choose their career because it is something that they sincerely enjoy doing.
Additionally, cultural differences largely contribute to the wide variation in parenting methods practiced across different families. 

“If you have a family where your parents grew up in a different country, an exam determines what majors are available to you,” he said. “Some majors are more prestigious, [but] our system doesn’t really work that way.”

Hamilton believes that excessive academic pressure subtracts from the student’s ability to enjoy the learning experience.

“It’s a mistake to push kids to study things,” Hamilton said. “If you really love something and get A’s, that’s going to impress people. It’s your life, and you should want to go to your classes.”  

Summit College counselor Jackie Woolley agrees that students should focus on their interests and not let classwork overwhelm and define achievment.

“Colleges really want to know how you spend your time when you’re not in class,” Woolley said. “Your [college] essays are your opportunity to showcast what you’re passionate about so [colleges] get a better feel about how you are as a person, not just as a student.” 

Looking back at his high school days, Hamilton understands what it is like to be pressured into pursuing a STEM career. After many intense discussions with his parents,  it wasn’t until the end of his sophomore year in college that he was able to confidently declare English as his major. 

“I get a lot of people who think they’re going to be doctors, but then change their minds in college,” Hamilton said. “[Or] once a week, some smart, nice kid in 10th grade will say, ‘I want to go to Harvard, and I want to be a business major.’ Harvard doesn’t have a business major [for undergraduate students].” 

Starting a major is very different from completing it, “given attrition rates of 48 percent among STEM majors” according to Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University. Students who choose majors only to please their parents are more likely to lose motivation and eventually give up, according to the Washington Post.   
Bella’s only motivation to pursue a STEM career comes from her parents’ own expectations.

“The emotional pressure that they have put on me can be horrible, mentally,” Bella said. 
Raised in an Indian household with two parents working in high paying fields and an older brother who attends a prestigious university, Bella feels that she has even more pressure to enter into a STEM-related career because of her impressive familial background.

“Parents show their children off like a trophy, so anything and everything that your child does is like your reputation,” Bella said. “It’s the culture that Indian people are always smart and never fail in school.”

Unsurprisingly, conflicts in familial relationships due to academic pressure are not exclusive to Bella, but are frequently seen in upper-middle-class households that suffer from similar situations as Bella.

Luthar’s research found that the strength of a parent-child bond is inversely related to the financial status of a household. In other words, kids from wealthier families experience more problems with their parents. 

“My mother definitely puts my career and my future monetary success over my happiness,” Bella said. “She really doesn’t care what my emotions are, or how I am doing.”  

Bella “[doesn’t] feel that close to [her] mom,” so she often finds herself seeking sympathy from her father, who “shows more affection and is more concerned” about her physical and emotional well-being than her mother. However, her father’s occasional display of sympathy is still not enough to make Bella feel that her  “parents entirely care about [her] as a person.”
“[The pressure] makes me feel like as a student and a daughter, I will never be good enough for college or anything else in life,” Bella said. 

What her family does not realize, is the destructive effect their demanding parenting methods have on their daughter, who only keeps her troubled feelings to herself and her closest friends.

“I’ve never been able to share my feelings of how this pressure had affected me, mostly negatively, because I feel like that will get me ridiculed,” Bella said. 

Despite having two more years of high school, Bella already dreads her college application process that awaits her. While she may dislike the rigid path her parents have put her on, as well as its effects on their relationship, Bella has reluctantly admitted defeat, accepting the inevitability of becoming the engineering major of her parents’ dreams. 

*Name changed to protect identity. 


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