By Maneesha Sharma
On Monday February 11th, 2019, a sellout crowd of over 500 parents heard a vibrant panel discussion by 16 high school students, moderated by Ms. Lucy Martin Gianino, Co-President of NYC-Parents in Action (PIA). This signature annual event, Teen Scene, was started 33 years ago to let parents hear directly from high school students, offering a forum for candid teen talk on the issues they face. The panelists, eight young men and eight young women, were drawn from 9th through 12th grades at independent New York City schools. The moderator remarked that this night’s discussion would address the same concerns that parents had in 1986, principally how to help their children navigate the journey from primary grades to high school graduation.
The first topic was, how are kids coping with stress? While there is universal pressure on students to do well in high school, a Sophomore student explained, “it is self-pressure” that she feels, as there is intense competition among her peers to compete by boasting; she cited lines like “I got only four hours of sleep,” or, “I am doing seven extra-curricular classes versus your four classes!” Furthermore, there is social pressure, which is harder to talk about as it is often related to friendships or the challenges of trying to “fit in.” A Freshman panelist explained that it was a big adjustment going to a new building, even at the same school. Some panelists expressed a feeling of culture shock at the beginning of high school, when they find themselves around older students. Feeling pressure to grow up and mature more quickly, a Freshman female student said she needed “more time to discover her true friends and interests.”
There was a range of freedom of mobility among student groups at different schools. One Freshman believed that “you had to stick with the afterschool club you had signed up for at the beginning of high school” and that there was pressure not to change clubs. However, at another school, a Freshman felt that even a year later she could comfortably join another group as a Sophomore. There was laughter in the audience when one student, a Junior, said that he had “signed up for more than 15 student clubs at the club fair at the start of the year!” After a few meetings he found his niche and now has developed as a leader in that group. He suggested that there is some need to be consistent in one’s extracurricular activities. Colleges like to see students who have a passion for something. Therefore, he explained, “being in a student organization over a longer period of time, looks good.”
A Sophomore mentioned that her school offered resources such as mindfulness and meditation to help alleviate stress but complained that “there is still so much homework assigned by the teachers every night.” There was loud laughter in the audience when a Sophomore girl exclaimed, “The school guidance counselors are surprisingly good!” She explained that some anxiety is good, but if it spirals out of control, or if a student internalizes stress, that can make it worse. A Freshman panelist noted that his school offered resources for academic support. He can’t always talk to friends about grades, as he feels like “everyone else is getting A’s.” In addition, students aren’t comfortable talking about the social pressure associated with friendship issues, as it often touches upon one’s own friends in school.
A Sophomore said “learning to manage his schedule better” was a part of the transition from middle school to high school. The panelists indicated they felt it was okay to speak up if they were struggling. However, parents were not always the first point of contact, as a Freshman explained, “because parents worry too much, and even a small issue becomes a whole dinner discussion!” Sometimes a student
doesn’t actually need a solution; as a Sophomore explained, they “only need to take a break and then get through it.” The audience erupted into laughter when a Freshman admitted he had “anxiety about a test” as he was “not prepared!”
The panelists agreed that sometimes parents can care too much, and kids needs space. One Freshman brought smiles to the audience as he lamented that he would “not be allowed to leave the house” if he told his parents all the things he is “really worried about!” The students reminded the audience not to force tutoring on a child, but for the college application process parents can be a support system. However, the students had heard of instances where their classmates’ essays were edited by a parent or reviewed by an outside consultant. The best message to relay to a child, the panel advised, is: “Do your best, try your hardest” but do not issue demands like, “You better get an A on that test!”
The panelists agreed that high schoolers have a better grip than middle schoolers on managing the challenges of social media. Still, some students observed that the addictive nature of online gaming (especially the popular game Fortnite, which includes talking on a headset and competing with others online) can pose a serious problem for both middle schoolers and some high schoolers.
Using tracking apps on smart phones, parents can follow the exact location of their children. Half of the panelists said they were tracked by their parents. While this may offer a sense of safety, there is a negative aspect to seeing where your friends are. A panelist confessed that “you can feel left out if a group is meeting in one place and you are not invited.” A Sophomore girl explained that “in high school you are supposed to be chill, you are not allowed to be upset even if you know where friends are hanging out, while in middle school you could share your hurt feelings if you were not included.”
In their free time, high schoolers are going out to dinner at a restaurant or going to a friend’s house, where the parents may or may not be present. Some parents offer to host parties known as “Frees” with the knowledge that while some high schoolers may consume alcohol on the premises, it is safer for the children to be at home. At some schools, the upperclassmen host a ticket party exclusively for that school. Students can buy a wristband, with prices varying for tickets, depending on the class. A Sophomore boy indicated that at Frees, sometimes there is alcohol in the home, usually in an unlocked liquor cabinet. The drinks of choice for teenagers are usually vodka or beer, but never wine. Some stores don’t check ID cards. Students still use the age old trick of asking a random person to go inside to buy alcohol on their behalf.
While it is possible to show up at a party and stay sober, there is peer pressure to “get lit” or turn up. This attitude stems from the need to blow off steam and relax over the weekend. It is possible for underage children to secure a fake ID but this is not an inexpensive proposition, costing up to $200.
The high school panelists agreed that there is a myth among younger students that vaping is less harmful than cigarettes. Young teens vape because they feel they will be perceived as cool.
Teens seem to be supportive and quick to help others in trouble. One panelist described being with a friend who was highly intoxicated and refusing to leave him alone despite that student’s insistence that “he was ok.” A Sophomore girl shared that she had “held the hair back of a friend while she was throwing up from too much drinking.”
With respect to issues of trust and consequences, a Junior panelist said her parents “are lenient” but they trust her to be responsible and safe and she suggested the parent child relationship is better
without strict rules. On the other hand, a Sophomore boy suggested that “rules are good, better to be a parent than a friend, and kids can abuse their powers, and trust comes when rules are followed.” Other Seniors agreed that rules need to be set, and adjusted according to age; for example, an 11th grader can stay out later than a 9th grader on weekends. One Junior made a poignant observation, saying you don’t want your kids to hide what they are doing in real life. You can have rules but “your kids have to live within a broader New York City culture.”
High school students are dating but the panelists suggested it is not that intense. Intimate contact takes place at parties or clubs, though prohibited in the latter. A Senior said that, based on his observations, “while teenagers may be hooking up at Frees, sex is rare and blow jobs common.” A Freshman said that the day before he was to start high school, his parents sat him down and had an extensive discussion about contact with girls and consent. Conversations in NYC independent schools around consent and issues of sex and power are happening regularly. Those who speak up are not stigmatized, though young adults haven’t necessarily learned how to confront those situations effectively. The panelists agreed that alcohol is usually involved when teenagers hook up. Some women panelists have heard from friends that “the consent talk can kill the mood.” Still, women are aware of the dangers of being in unfamiliar places and are conscious of knowing where their drinks are coming from.
On the topic of the LGBT community, most panelists agreed that their peers were having an easier time identifying according to their orientation. A Freshman student explained that her school has unisex bathrooms and recognizes preferred use of pronouns so a person can choose how they wish to be called. However, a student from an all-boys school shared a different opinion. In his experience, in a single sex education environment, students may tease and make mean jokes about sexual orientation, or even still ostracize those who are openly gay.
The panelists were asked about what excites them about high school. Their responses included, the idea that you can discover new opportunities, find people from different backgrounds, find a passion, grow as a person and make your own decisions, assert independence and choose what makes you happy, including playing golf!
New York City independent schools, the panelists acknowledged, can push kids to mature faster than in other areas, as they may have to deal with hard issues sooner. Due to the logistics of city life, students are going places alone at a younger age and trying to maintain a competitive edge in high stress surroundings. In closing, one message the high schoolers wanted to share with parents is: “Your child is stressed out enough, you don’t want to put more pressure on him or her! High school is a lot of work!” Be a parent resource!