Almond milk, BMW's and (toxic) Comparison Culture....The ABC's of parenting in Bethesda

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

By Rachel Auerbach, Isabel Danzis, and Grace Harrington

The stereotype of the Bethesda parent is that they are wealthy, well educated and work a high powered job in DC. These parents drive Audis and BMWs from Capitol Hill to soccer practice to Whole Foods. They force their kids to take up an obscure sport so they can commit to Yale for pole vaulting. Tutors are on retainer to raise an AP Calc grade from an 88 to a 90. Four follow up emails have been sent to the counselor because Brett doesn’t like his Honors Chemistry teacher. But are these stereotypes fair? Are Bethesda parents as demanding as they are made out to be?

Bethesda holds a uniquely high concentration of educated adults, with 84% of residents age 25 or older holding a Bachelor’s degree. In addition, Bethesda is considered generally affluent, with a median household income of $154,559, which is $91,380 above the U.S median household income. (U.S Census Bureau) As a result, a large percentage of the parents in Bethesda hold the money and the resources to help their children succeed academically and athletically. Some students, teachers and professionals believe that this trend can lead to a culture of highly involved, competitive parenting in this area. “[People] don’t get that way, that highly educated, without being driven and demanding and intelligent. Driving and demanding and intelligent parents lead to driven and demanding and intelligent kids who have a sense for the standards of education. If someone who’s that driven and intelligent and successful feel those standards aren’t being met, they’re not gonna lie down and take it, they’re gonna try and fix it. So that’s why I think we end up with such involved parents.” said B-CC English teacher Daniel Engler. The high graduation rates and academic success of the students in Bethesda area public schools, including B-CC, Walt Whitman, Churchill and Walter Johnson, can exacerbate the pressure parents place on their children to “keep pace” with their peers. In schools where earning decent grades and attending college is the norm, it is easy for parents to feel they must do everything in their power to ensure their kid is equally successful, whether that means paying for expensive tutoring, hiring college counselors, or contacting teachers with questions about their child’s grades. Certain parents in Bethesda feel that these high expectations leaves no room for kids who are not exceptional. “It’s very hard for a kid in Bethesda to be an average kid, because the expectation here is above average… it’s very hard for an average kid in Bethesda to feel good about his or herself. And I find that very disturbing,” said Wendy Silver, a B-CC parent. The push to be an exceptional child is reflective of the exceptional parents that raise them. “One of the challenges in Bethesda is that I don’t think you get to live in this community by being average. This is the community of the people who are the best in whatever they do,” said Engler.

The privilege that Bethesda has also brings its own set of struggles for its residents. Although the problems that many children and parents face in Bethesda can be considered first world problems, they still have implications that deeply affect all aspects of living.

Surrounded by the competitive culture of such an academically excellent area, many Bethesda parents are subject to some of the same pressures as their children. “I don’t think that kids understand that parents feel the pressure that they feel,” said a B-CC mom at a roundtable discussion about Bethesda parenting. She noted the college process as a significant source of stress, saying, “Then there’s the whole application process with questions, questions, questions. Where did they apply? Where did they get in? We feel it too.” The pressure parents feel can worsen when other parents showcase their child’s accomplishments through social media or in conversation. Scrolling through photos of sports trophies and college acceptance letters can be dejecting to the child and parents alike, especially when a child is struggling academically or socially. “Parents definitely brag. A lot of parents live vicariously through their children and sort of see their kid’s accomplishments as a reflection of them,” said a B-CC dad.

The competitive nature of Bethesda is pervasive beyond the classroom, with one particularly affected area being sports. Sports in Bethesda are very intense, with many kids playing on club or travel teams in addition to high school teams. Being on one of these extremely competitive teams is both expected and admired. “I believe that there is a certain pressure in Bethesda to join competitive sports because of the social norm that basically [says] that if you don’t play a club than you’re not actually playing the sport. That has been placed in so many kid’s minds.” said B-CC sophomore Lucy Ryan. The culture of club teams then affects high school teams. With the exception of a few teams, the competitive culture of Bethesda makes it difficult for kids to pick up new sports in high school. “Although it may be possible to join a sport in high school, it may be really difficult. Since there are many athletes who have been playing since they were old enough to play, there are not as many opportunities for kids in high school who are looking to try something new,” said Laura Barnard, a sophomore Laura Barnard.

Like academics, many parents also feel the same pressure as their kids when it comes to sports. This pressure that is often placed on them by other parents. The trend of parents talking to each other about their kids can create anxiety, thereby influencing how they parent their kids. “It’s hard to see the sports pressure. It’s hard when [the kid] says they like playing soccer, and then someone says, ‘Are you on a club team? A travel team? What level?’ I’ve gotten that five times in the past few days” said one Bethesda parent.

Academically, some Bethesda parents say that they challenge their children, and feel that it is okay to “helicopter” their children in terms of their grades. Even though a student is the one directly completing the homework and taking the tests, some parents are known to become involved by frequently checking their child’s grades online, talking with counselors or teachers, or grilling their child about upcoming assignments and tests. “There's helicopter parenting definitely [in Bethesda]. But I’m as guilty as the next person. I don’t know if that's a bad thing, if I’m being honest,” said Silver. “Sure, you want your kids to solve their own problems, and learn the skills to solve their own problems, and learn to advocate for themselves to overcome obstacles, but I really believe that academics is a partnership between the student, the school and the parents.” Although some level of parent engagement with their child’s academics can undoubtedly be valuable, Ned Johnson, the founder of PrepMatters and the co-author of The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives, has found that there can be a negative relationship between high parental involvement and student academic success. “In a perfect world, parents are there but they’re not overly controlling, including not checking in obsessively. [There are] those online portals where parents can sit there and look at the grades all the while and I think that’s a bad idea when parents are checking that stuff obsessively. If they’re hovering on every single assignment or every single practice test, that is rarely helpful to the students.”

Students have also noted the negative impacts of parents engrossing themselves too heavily in their children's lives. When parents are always taking matters into their own hands and ensuring their children remain successful, it prevents these children from learning to advocate for themselves and deal with disappointment. “Many children have become spoiled due to the lack of them having to do things themselves. From what I have seen, highly involved parents tend to solve their children’s problems at school and extracurriculars for them, which don’t seem to have a positive effect on their behavior.” said B-CC junior Angie Chavez.

In the social arena, some Bethesda parents feel that they are more uninvolved. Rather than manage their kids’ social lives as some parents do academically, they want their kids to make their own choices based on the values they were taught. “As a parent, you want to provide guidance, but you don’t want to do the work,” said one B-CC mom. Teaching children from a young age how to handle difficult social situations, such as peer pressure and bullying, can allow for more freedom and trust between the parent and child as they grow older and become more independent. “My husband and I have set the groundwork. [By high school] they need to make their own decisions,” said another B-CC mom. Students also feel like their parents let them take the reins on their own social life, as long as they meet academic standards. “For me, as long as my grades are good my parents give me a lot more freedom with what I do outside of school,” said B-CC senior Will Benzmiller. However, conversations still take place between parents about the social lives (or lack thereof) of their kids. “I know parents who have conversations about their kids, talking about where they’re sitting at lunch, who they’re hanging out with, [asking] why they aren’t going out on a Friday night, other kids are going to the Friday night football game, why aren’t [they] there? You worry, you want your kid to like [people] and be liked,” said Silver. This creates another expectation placed upon kids in Bethesda: to be as equally social and well-liked as they are academically successful.

Bethesda fosters an environment that is extremely competitive. However, that competitiveness isn’t exclusive to this area; across the U.S, students the same pressures from both their community and their parents, that many students in Bethesda face. “Any place where, I think, a combination of a lot of wealth and a lot of focus on education, you get this intensity and many cases a lot of fear. I think it’s more intense in Bethesda than it is in a lot of other places, but it’s certainly not unique. The intensity and the some of the challenges that come along with it are challenges that people all over the country have,” said Johnson. It is also worth noting that Bethesda is not a homogeneous town, as it is home to many families with a diverse range of cultures, values, and ideals regarding education and well-being. Regardless, the influence of the community of fiercely competitive, widely successful people in Bethesda can be seen in the way that many Bethesda parents raise their kids.

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