- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

McLEAN, Va. (AP) - It’s a simple white oval with three big, black letters: JMU. But to Wilma Bowers, who sports it proudly on her black Audi sedan, it’s an act of subversion.

In just about any other community, driving around with a bumper sticker for James Madison University, rated one of the best schools in the South, would be a point of pride. But this is McLean, one of the most affluent communities in the United States. Flaunting a JMU bumper sticker in a field of Harvards, Yales and Stanfords, Bowers says, is a rallying cry.

“It’s one of the ways I advertise,” says Bowers, the Parent-Teacher-Student Association president at McLean High School, one of the top-ranked public schools in Virginia. Not pride in her alma mater, but a movement she’s leading that seeks to upend the achievement-at-all costs intensive parent and school culture in McLean.

“There’s such a status thing here: ‘I went Georgetown. I want my kid to go to Georgetown or better.’ It’s such a rat race,” says Bowers, who has lived in McLean for 24 years. “Nobody is taking a step back and asking, ‘Is going to Princeton going to make me happier in the long run? Is this even right for my child?’ Because there are real consequences to living this way.”

Bowers knows it’s a high-stakes parenting arms race in McLean and communities like it. The obsession with grades and college résumés can overwhelm everything. She wants people to back off - and is trying to get them to, with film screenings, workshops, lectures and meetings with clergy and mental health professionals.

Many fellow parents think that disarming sounds good, in theory. The problem is, they’re reluctant to try it with their own kid.

So, the pressure mounts.

It’s at a high point right now, as college acceptance letters - the aim of all the years of intensity - begin trickling in this spring. To Bowers, the annual Fairfax County Youth Survey captures just what all of that pressure is doing to kids.

Nearly one-third of high school seniors at McLean report that they have felt so depressed for more than two weeks that their work was affected, the most recent risk survey found. Only 10 percent sleep for the recommended eight hours a night. One in 10 admit to taking prescription drugs that aren’t theirs.

“We know of students who beg their parents to go on Ritalin because everybody else does it to get better grades,” Bowers says.

Although the push for achievement at all costs may be its most intense in affluent communities, the pressure also exists in middle- and working-class communities. Lower-income parents are beginning to tell researchers that although they have neither the time nor the resources to take part in the hyper-competitive parenting culture, they worry their kids will fall even further behind as a result.

In her family, Bowers had always privately rejected the intensive culture - telling her daughters that she valued their effort, attitude and what they learned rather than their grades. But reading the youth risk survey a few years ago spurred her to take action.

Bowers, trim, fashionable and fiercely determined, stands in her kitchen early one morning making breakfast and explains that she isn’t fighting to let kids off the hook. “This movement is not about mediocrity,” she says. It’s about what she calls “authentic success.”

“Yes, MIT is looking for a kid who’s taken 10 AP classes. If you’re a kid who has a passion for those subjects and is doing well, then that’s great,” Bowers says. “But if the kid is sleeping three hours a night in order to do that? Or gets to an Ivy League school and then commits suicide because they get their first B? Then that’s not OK. Our whole premise is: Are we really helping our kids be successful by pushing them so hard?”

It’s slow going.

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