High School

By Gabrielle. Image is from my high school Sadie Hawkins dance — do you like my scrunchie?

A few weeks ago, I read an article in New York Magazine titled “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” by Jennifer Senior. I confess, I was sort of rolling my eyes as I started reading, because somehow I managed to make it through high school fairly unscathed.

But as I kept reading — and realized how the topics being discussed were about to affect my own children (two of mine will be in high school when to we return to U.S. schools next fall) — I suddenly wanted to share the fascinating article with every one I know.

Some of the ideas that stood out to me:

“In adolescence, the brain is also buzzing with more dopamine activity than at any other time in the human life cycle, so everything an adolescent does—everything an adolescent feels—is just a little bit more intense.”

This is true for the good feelings, but also for the bad feelings, like fear. I keep reminding myself of this when my teens are upset — their reactions to problems aren’t necessarily proportionate to the actual problem.

“Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults.”

The article goes on to explain the harm that comes by having all these intense adolescents creating their own cultures and subcultures in a high school. It turns out that how you are labeled in high school, partly because you don’t get to control that label, will continue to affect you and can become a shame trigger for you as an adult.

“It’s also abundantly, poignantly clear that during puberty, kids have absolutely no clue how to assess character or read the behavior of others. In 2005, the sociologist Koji Ueno looked at one of the largest samples of adolescents in the United States, and found that only 37 percent of their friendships were reciprocal—meaning that when respondents were asked to name their closest friends, the results were mutual only 37 percent of the time. One could argue that this heartbreaking statistic is just further proof that high school is a time of unrequited longings. But these statistics also suggest that teenagers cannot tell when they are being rejected (Hey, guys, wait for me!) or even accepted (I thought you hated me). So much of what they think they know about others’ opinions of them is plain wrong.”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? Teenagers literally can not see the world clearly.

At one point the article surmises:

“Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.”

Ugh! Makes me want to skip high school altogether, hire a tutor, and keep traveling. : )

I hope you read it. I think you’ll find it fascinating through the lens of your own high school experience, and fascinating through your parental lens as well. And mostly, I’d love to hear what you think!

P.S. — I also like the article because it heavily references Brene Brown’s work. She’s amazing.

44 thoughts on “High School”

  1. This is very interesting, thank you for highlighting the article. I will read it for sure. I don’t have teenagers…yet…but am already trying to steel myself already. I lived in France for a year and a parent there told me that the N. American concept of teenagehood was certainly not universal. That rebellion and angst were culturally rooted in N. America, and perhaps Britain, but was not the European experience. Do you have a lens on that from your current vantage point?

    1. “the N. American concept of teenagehood was certainly not universal”

      I think there’s real truth to that. But I don’t think we’ve had enough time here to be real experts on the differences. I’ll have to ask some of my friends here who have teenagers.

      1. I experienced both. I went to the equivalent of high school in Switzerland, where we were treated like adults. Then I moved to the States for a bit and attended high school and felt a lot more pressure and cliquiness around me including what seemed at times ‘forced rebellion’. Back in Switzerland I felt a lot less of that, because it seemed that parents, once a child was 16, let go a bit more. Yes, there was ‘rebellion’, but it was not seen as being terrible enough to make a big stink about it.

  2. Sandra Gonzales

    I’m homeschooling my 8th grade daughter this year and her moods and demeanor has changed so much. She’s more content and back to being her sweet, silly self. She wasn’t bullied and she “fit” in quite well but it seemed like she was always trying to keep up with the Jones to the 10th level. She made the decision to do homeschooling and she wants to continue through high school. I had mixed feelings because I want her to have the experience but after reading this I’ll be sure to support her decision to be educated at home. Thanks Gabby.

  3. Thanks for the link. The article was really interesting, and reminded me of an article I read with my 12-year-old last year in the National Geographic. You can find it here:

    What stuck with me from the article was the information about how brains between our 12th and 25th years do a massive reorganization, so during those years, there is a tendency to improperly weigh and balance things like impulse, desire, ethics and rules, because our brains are making new connections. I think you’d like the way it dovetails with the New Yorker article.

    No wonder it’s so hard to be a teenager, or the parent of one.

  4. This article makes a lot of sense; I remember how everything in high school (and even in early college) was SUCH A BIG DEAL. I became so high strung. However, around the time I was in graduate school, things started to get to me less and less, and by my wedding, I was a fairly cool cucumber. I’m still a little high strung, but about the important things (my marriage, my son, my family and friends), and I know what to concern my brainpower with.

    As tempting as it might be to educate at home, there is a major value of high school in my mind (aside from educational). One can teach their children all the virtues and good things, but they can’t really understand them until they are challenged. You have to mess up (hopefully just a little) to understand the value of your parents’ lessons.

  5. It is a relatively new experiment in human history for children to be isolated into peer groups for the majority of their days.

    Years ago someone asked me, with quite a bit of venom, why we would want to homeschool. I floundered in my answer because I had never before had to articulate the reason in the face of hostility, and I told my husband I needed to come up with a satisfactory answer before I was asked again. His suggestion was quite simple: Why not? Given the poor academic standing of the US education system, the low moral conditions found in most schools, and the petri dish of adolescent relations as highlighted in the New Yorker article, why not indeed?

    The “concern” most often cited about homeschooling is socialization. That is nonsense. What parent would consider this kind of socialization a good thing?

    If you don’t want to homeschool your children, hire a tutor and continue to travel! That’s a far better education than they would receive even in the best of schools.

    1. I have concluded I would be quite awful at homeschooling, but the tutor option really does tempt me! : )

      On the other hand, Ralph and Maude are really, really excited for American high school. At the very least, they really want to try it for a semester or a year.

      Mostly, I like knowing I have options. If they aren’t thriving, there are online schools, tutors, etc. I like the approach that attending a typical high school is not a foregone conclusion.

  6. Gabrielle,

    Our oldest daughter began attending high school in the USA this year as a freshman, after we returned from living outside the USA for 12 years.

    I had some of the same thoughts as your post, but have been pleasantly surprised. We moved into the best school district we could afford (read excellent school district and smallest/oldest house on the block), which makes a difference. If you find a district that has a school board that supports their teachers and good parental involvement, it makes a significant difference. Greatschools.com is a great place to start the process of sorting through public schools (not affiliated in anyway with the website). We also tried to find a community that was used to having expats come in and out of their school district. We found this by looking at the newletters of the PTAs of the school several months before we moved back. We were able to tell from the bios in the newsletters that a good portion of the parents on the PTA board had moved back to the USA from other countries in recent years.

    Best –


  7. I found that as my kids got into their teens years, they were once again like toddlers in the sense that they needed new guidelines, explanations and experiences as their brains continued to develop and make connections – just like when they were toddlers, but in a different way.

  8. I went to a private high school and never really had to do with that much cruelty and problems, but let’s say movies and articles are enough to understand how tough it can be. It is very easy to get into the trap that you have to adjust, to change, to camouflage in order to be accepted. And this is the point where everything starts, a period that might last long of you don’t pay attention to yourself. Starting to act differently means you wear clothes you don’t really like or you aren’t sure of, you listen to music other people claim to be cool and the way you talk or tell jokes resembles someone’s else. You might even create a whole different character from what you are and build every piece around it. For me, it was somehow acting tough and not girly, a little bit funny, a little bit edgy. And when you make it through high school, there comes college or work and it is your own duty to dust off everything false, borrowed or copied and reveal your own skin. I find it a long and hard journey to dig into your skin and really bring the truth you hold.

    The part where only 37 % of friendships is mutual broke my heart. The number can be even higher.

    To end with optimistic notes, I had thought about your kids before, how much their school and life will change after the years spent in France. If you have the possibility, do what you said, tutor them yourself (Ben Blair and you) along with a tutor or two occasionally and keep on traveling. I don’t think there is a bigger possibility and education than what you are giving them. Providing traveling, exploring, foreign languages and cultures is like giving a child a pair of glasses to see the world differently from others. Makes you special, at the very least.
    Do what you think is right for your children, ask what they’d like to actually do and keep on accomplishing the life you all enjoy!

  9. This was interesting to read not only in the context of my high school experience but what I know of my husbands. We are both still pretty young (23 and 25) and so I see how a lot of this strongly defines us.

  10. This is a difficult thing for me to say but, just because something is hard (like HS) should one avoid it (do tutoring or homeschooling)? I know there are many teens who benefit from alternate ways of learning. However, I think some of the ways HS is so difficult (socially and emotionally) are some of the reasons it shapes us in good ways as well. I might just be playing devil’s advocate here but, I feel there’s a lot to be learned and experienced in a typical High School.

    1. I think I know what you mean. The article mentions something similar near the end — something like perhaps the experience preps people for what the adult world is like.

    2. I agree. High school can be difficult, but that doesn’t means it should be avoided altogether. It’s not necessarily the institution of high school that is difficult. It’s just a difficult time of life. It’s also what you make of it. Your outlook, whether it be positive or negative will influence your experience as well.

  11. Great subject! As we near high school (cue the dark music, dum dum dummm) I find my stomach in knots. My oldest isn’t even in middle school yet and the drama among girls is downright heart breaking. What happens when the hormones really kick in? And when-the inevitable-boys come into the pictures? Gut wrenching but I guess the best we can do as parents is to keep them as close to us as possible. I’m not talking helicopter parenting, but keeping that family unit the strongest bond possible. Or yes, locking them in their room until they are 27 if all else fails;)
    Reading a book right now that addresses the same subject, and I highly recommend, Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Their Peers. Love to hear what everyone else has to say.

  12. I wouldn’t wish my high school years on my own daughters — and mine was relatively free of drama.

    I think Maria Montessori was on to something when she said adolescents shouldn’t be sitting still in chairs for hours a day surrounded by peers. Based on what their brains and bodies are doing, she thought they needed to be active, mentored and surrounded by adults, and given a lot of independence, direction, and support.

    We plan to home school starting this fall, though I’m not sure what we’ll do Grades 9-12, to be honest; thankfully, we have quite a while to think about it! There are so many ways to homeschool now — so many resources, co-ops, support groups, tutor options, online courses, etc. A parent doesn’t have to be a gifted teacher. (I’d be in trouble otherwise!) It’s not for everyone, and there are some very good schools out there — but the school environment can be very tough on teens, for so many reasons.

  13. I am still young (I’m currently in college), so I’m not quite sure yet how my high school years will affect me in the future, but I had a wonderful high school experience. I attended a public school in a rural, low income area. I think the teachers matter a lot. I was very fortunate to have (for the most part) wonderful teachers that really knew the students and cared about them. I was also very fortunate to have a wonderful, close group of friends (we are still currently close and plan to stay that way). I think it may have helped that I went to a small school, so I knew all of my classmates really well (most of them since kindergarten). Our school is underfunded, teachers are underpaid, doesn’t have the best test score rates, and there is low parental involvement, but the teachers really cared and did a good job making sure we were looked after and mentored by adults that were mostly good role models. I think it’s possible to go to a public school and still get a good education and have a good experience to mold you into a upstanding, ethical, caring, and successful adult.

    1. i went to private high school in dc, in a very affluent part of the city. but when i was reading your comment, so many of the great things you said about your school resonates with me. small class sizes, camaraderie between people who’ve known each other for years, and teachers who really care about their students and make the effort to guide and teach them. all i wanted when i was in middle school (public) – or elementary school, for that matter (also public) – was for someone to really take the time to help me work through the issues that were bothering me, both inside the classroom and out of it.

      of course, i’m only one year removed from high school, so i really have no idea if and how my high school experience will shape my world view. but being able to meet kids of varied ages from many different socioeconomic backgrounds, and yet still feel like there was a common thread that stretched between us all…that is powerful, and important. what i think modern-day public school lacks – and this is across the board, not just high school – is the forum and encouragement to form friendships across grade and race and gender lines. kids don’t know how to be friends with each other, so they’re not – which leads to bullying, cliques, and general loneliness. and adolescence is lonely enough without lacking friends.

  14. This is so fascinating! It reminds me of a book I read a few years ago, which I count among the Top 5 most life-changing books I’ve ever read: It’s called “Hold On to Your Kids” by Gordon Neufeld. He identifies a concept called peer orientation, where kids make their mental home base their peers instead of their families, and details the serious problems this causes for teens and their parents. It is absolutely fascinating — I HIGHLY recommend it. (Also, what led him to his ah-hah moment was returning to America after spending time in a small town in France, and noticing the differences between typical suburban American culture and small-town French culture, so you might find that interesting too.)

    Thanks for a thought provoking post!

  15. Wow, lots of ideas to ponder here. We’re blessed with pretty amazing teachers at our schools, but if I ever felt that any of my children weren’t thriving, we’d re-trench, whether that meant finding a different school or diving in to teach them ourselves. So far, the whole “with our thoughts we create the world” philosophy seems to be working well for my two oldest.

    You know, my favorite part about this article is that it reinforced my belief that spending time together as a family is so important! It’s good to mix the teenagers in with all the other ages! :)

  16. The only reason we are contemplating homeschooling for our kids (2 and 6 months, so I have some time) is because of the years I spent teaching middle school and high school. Personally, I had a great (though imperfect) high school experience.

    We have a lot of time ahead of us – I cannot wait to hear about your kids’ experiences in school. I am so glad that they had are excited!

  17. Thanks for the article. I wonder how size of High School affects your experience? I was one of 13 kids in my graduating class. We moved the day after graduation (my family had sold the ranch in November but rented a house so I would not have to change schools mid Senior year). I’ve never been back or contacted anyone from High School. I’ve stalked a couple of classmates on Facebook but I just can’t go there to contact any. I don’t think I had a traumatic HS experience but my reluctance to connect might say something different. My kids went to much bigger schools (1000 – 400 students in class) and I always thought there was a greater chance they could find a group of subset that they fit into because there were more students. Maybe not.

    1. Woah. 13 people? You’re not exaggerating about tiny.

      I imagine the size of the school certainly impacts a students experience. Some will thrive in a larger student body, others will prefer a smaller school.

      I think I’m more concerned about how to make sure my kids are spending time with lots of age groups through adolescence. The idea of mentors and internships is really appealing to me. Currently my kids have a French tutor who is in her 70’s or 80’s — I think it’s so good for them to have interesting conversations with someone that’s in such a different age bracket.

  18. I absolutely agree with that! I’ve told my husband to watch out because I am in no way married to the idea of keeping my kids in “traditional” school after 5th grade…if we even make it that far. I understand the need to learn social capability but I don’t actually think that all of the socialization that goes on is positive.

  19. Great article! I can’t wait to share it with my 17-year old daughter who will be a senior next year. I was especially struck by the research surrounding the breakfast club identifications. The author found that at 24, the group that identified themselves as princesses had lower self-esteem than the girls that identified themselves as brainy, and and deduced that:

    “While those brainy girls were in high school, they couldn’t rely on their strengths to gain popularity, perhaps, but they could rely on them as fuel, as sources of private esteem. Out of high school, they suddenly had agency, whereas the princesses were still relying on luck and looks and public opinion to carry them through, just as they had at 16. They’d learned passivity, and it’d stuck.”

    I was one of those “brainy” kids who absolutely hated the high school dynamic, but I do find that I have much more self-esteem than I did in HS, and as I read this part of the article, it really rang true. I’ve been trying to help my own girls find their own source of self-esteem so that they can be strong amazing women during HS and beyond.

  20. Oh my! I’m sixteen and this article made me feel like us teenagers were being treated like laboratory mice haha. were not that strange, calm down… I don’t know why society has this bad image of the adolescent. It’s a hard period of life. You get all these strange changes in your body, your way of thinking develops, you are supposed to figure out what you want for the rest of your life and all that fun stuff… your safe, careless, happy childhood state is brutally ripped off you! So it’s normal we feel pressured or insecure. And adults should learn to deal with that without looking down on us like we’re the trouble makers. Don’t they make war? Don’t they beat up their wives? Don’t they steal? Don’t they lie on the media? Don’t they spend money uselessly? Don’t they drink and smoke until they get avoidable diseases? Adults can’t see the world clearly either… (I’m generalizing, adolescents get “generalized” constantly)

    Dear Gabby, I’m completely sure your kids will be happy in their teenage years because you support them and they feel comfortable speaking to you. I definitely encourage you to send them to high school because in my opinion its not high school thats hard, it’s growing up. And no one can protect anyone from that (only Peter Pan). I’ve found that high school has been one of the things that has helped/eased the transition: for example, being able to become close to others who are going through the same is helpful. I lovely love my family, but too much time with them (hello one month roadtrips) kills me because I have no one that truly understands me with whom to share my feelings or thoughts (thoughts such as I got this big pimple on my forehead and I’m
    dying, or I can’t handle it when my parents yell at each other for nothing). High school offers a lot of opportunities, support and connects you to like minded people (especially in the US). It’s a ticket to adventure (to polar plunges and college level classes and engineering summer camps and field hockey tournaments in florida).
    And, as long as your kids feel loved and cared, they will let you know if anything is not working, or if they wish to do something different. As long as you let them know they can make their own decisions and that you’ll support them. As long as you give them their space, their time alone, their friends and their right to choose. Each one of your kids will become a different person so each one will be interested in a different experience these years. For some it will be the best years and for some just mediocre. Or a mix.

    It’s natural that you worry. I probably will too when it’s my time to be a mom. But from the heart of a teenage reader, you and your kids will be good :)

    Ps- this is so long, sorry. I was born and raised in Barcelona but did freshman and sophomore years in the US. And after seeing all the differences, the good and the bad, I think high school (like most things, right?) is what you make of it.
    In Europe they tend to treat you like adults expectation-wise which is difficult. They focus a lot on content.
    In the US they tend to babysit you too much, give you less info (they don’t go in depth).
    I prefer the US system because even if I feel like American students lack knowledge and culture sometimes (you’re giving them this already with all the trips and such), if you need support it is always offered (non-honors levels, teachers always answer emails and stay afterschool for questions…) and if you want to try harder you can do that too (AP classes, student government, start a club…)

  21. It was an interesting article but seems a little bit exaggerated, things seem so different now, I know so many kids that start community college early or one of the many other options that there is hardly a set group of kids there for the entire experience. Maybe this is the case in a small isolated high school in a small town, but at a large high school there are just so many kids and subgroups that everyone found someone and no group seemed to dominate in the cool category. On top of that lots of people would have a separate group of friends for school and then friends at home, friends at extra activities, church, summer etc… Anyway, this is just my opinion, from the high schoolers I’m around, my own experience and siblings. I wonder when the studies were done.

  22. I found this article really interesting, but wanted to give New York Magazine credit. I think the article was in that magazine (not the New Yorker), which often has really interesting content – both light and weighty. I still get it delivered even though I’ve moved form NYC to California. A good read!

    1. I’m so embarrassed! A simple mistake on my part. I linked to New York Magazine, but typed New Yorker. Sigh.

      I just corrected the post. Thanks for letting me know!

  23. Thanks for sharing the article. Fascinating! I can see why you’ve been wanting to share it with everyone. I hope I can deal with some of my issues before my kids (who are still in elementary school) approach high school. The concept of the teenagers holding onto their fears, and having difficulties unlearning those fears, even later, is interesting, and that is what I found myself thinking about as I read.

  24. I love Guila’s perspective as a current high-schooler… that was great to read!

    I have a 13 yr old daughter who will be in high school in another year. She is currently in middle school and at times I do feel like I’m holding my breath. She’s had her ups and downs, but we have a very close relationship so I know when something is troubling her and we always talk. Even though I sometimes wish she didn’t have to go through the angst of shifting friendships and who to sit with at lunch, in a weird way it is also an experience that I couldn’t deny her. Whenever she hits a bump and sheds some tears, I can always tell her a story from my own experience. It makes us closer and helps her feel that she is not alone. And most importantly, that she will be ok. If I home schooled (which I have thought about from time to time, but I work + I would be bad at it), she would certainly avoid some teenage anxieties, but then wouldn’t she miss out on making connections? Connections with friends, connections with her parents who have been through all of that, and connections with future friends …and someday her own children.

    I think Guila is right in that teenagers need and love to spend time with like-minded friends. It is a time to separate from your parents and make bad choices and find your inner strength. I do think that it’s true to some extent that we will always see ourselves as our high school version. Even though I am 43, I will always and forever feel 18! I am different now in so many ways, but I love my 18 yr old self who was insecure and self-conscious, but who also had the funniest friends and who snuck out at night and did stupid things. I was just emerging as an adult and I can’t imagine having to spend that unique time at home with my mom.

    Gabby, I know your kids will flourish and love high school because they are ready and they want it, and they have the support of your lovely + loving family unit. They may become fish in the sea, but they will all swim together and create experiences of a lifetime.

    Bonne chance!!

  25. I know High School in the US only from TV shows and talking to Americans and I always had the impression that it is a very cruel place. It seems that bullying is very tolerated and kids who do that do not have to deal with any consequences. Also the peer pressure, regarding how popular or pretty you are, to be good in sports or a cheerleader seems to be enormous.
    I remember a time at my German high school where I was seen as something like a teacher’s pet and not very popular, I was a bit of a geek and did not have many friends but I still liked going to school and there were always kids that I would hang out with, so there was no pressure for me to change.
    Also it is true: by the age of 16 you can almost do whatever you want, at least in the part of Germany that I grew up in.
    And: The coolest boys at my school were all not very athletic and very much into Star Trek – I only learned from American TV that these are things that make you uncool.

  26. What a great article. I studied in France my sophomore year of high school. There were no “cliques” in school there. I thought it was a far better environment academically in Europe because you didn’t have to deal with that. As for the part in the article where cellists feel like nerds, I beg to differ. I was an orchestra musician from middle school through college. This did not make me feel dorky in the least, having a talent was something that gave me self-esteem. In our sphere, it was the best musician who was the envy of the crowd. I personally think music is far more competitive than sports. I enjoyed my freshman year of high school, but returning after being away was hard. I hope your children can enjoy returning to the US schools, though it may be hard. However, the world is a smaller place now so maybe they won’t be considered too unusual in this day for their experience. One universal truth about the article could be said: no one escapes this time frame completely unscathed.

  27. I am laughing right now because I recognize the photo. Did it make it into the yearbook or something? Man I feel old now. Scrunchies are so funny to look back on. I used to sell them at my first job. LOL.

  28. This article really gave me some interesting perspective on a lot of things in my life right now. I guess I didn’t appreciate how very fragile and important these teen years are, my oldest turns 14 next month so it was very pertinent to me. Thanks for passing it on!

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