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How Not to Prepare Students for Life

Schools are constantly under attack for graduating students who are ill prepared for college and career. There is much truth to the criticism. Yet one aspect has been less explored. It has to do with protecting young people from disappointment.

The most recent example was on display in New York City's elite prep schools ("NYC prep schools institute dress codes, Facebook guidelines about college acceptance," The New York Post, Apr. 22). With college letters of acceptance or rejection now in the hands of seniors, these schools are attempting to minimize the fallout by rules designed to teach the appropriate way to share news. No boasting is allowed, out of concern that it will scar those who were not accepted.

I'm sure the intent is well meaning, but I question the effect on graduating seniors. They need to be exposed to adult realities. In fewer than two months after graduation, they will be in college or, in the case of some public schools, in the workplace. There they will not always receive the grades or promotion they believe they deserve. If they have not learned how to accept disappointment, how will they function? Instead, schools try to make sure that everyone is a winner. But in point of fact not everyone has the ability to be No. 1.

I'm not suggesting a Dickensian approach. Instead, I'm saying that teaching students about rejection can be done with kindness. It's part of the process of growing up. We do a disservice to the young by trying to insulate them from life. It's how we teach them that's vital. Some of the most important lessons that adults learned at the time seemed absolutely devastating. But the passage of years put the matter into proper perspective.

I also believe that seniors are more resilient than we believe when they're given the support they need. No one wants to see students become bereft when they don't get into their dream college. But if we show them how to handle rejection, they become stronger for the unavoidable rejections that await them in the future. Robert Epstein, a former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, warned against infantilizing young people by artificially extending childhood ("Let's Abolish High School," Education Week, Apr. 4, 2007). He argues that teenagers are far more responsible and competent than adults believe. It's time to see if he is right.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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