Maybe kids don't have to take several Advanced Placement classes, do hours of homework every night, excel at a sport or two, join a bunch of clubs, volunteer at the local health clinic -- and then, of course, get into a top university -- to be successful.
Maybe parents and teachers can let students discover what they enjoy and do well, then have them pursue that -- instead of joining a bunch of activities just because they think it will look good on their college applications.
Across the nation, parents, teachers and kids may be ready to embrace the idea that kids can take many paths to success -- if the popularity of the education documentary "Race to Nowhere" is any indication.
"There's a perception that there is a magical path, and there really isn't," said Laurie Lam, a mother of two in Thousand Oaks, Calif., where the film has been shown several times. "Competition is healthy, and hard work is healthy. But we need to think about how we do it."
In the documentary, several students talk about how miserable the pressure to succeed is making them. They talk about headaches, eating disorders, cheating, even suicide. Parents, too, talk about the stress that homework and over-scheduling puts on families.
Some parents and kids say the stress can be pervasive.
From the time he started high school, Cody Canerdy, 18, felt pressure to play sports, join clubs and excel in classes, he said.
"There's that push to do whatever you need to do to become the golden child," said Cody, a high school senior in Thousand Oaks.
Cody was on the swim team, which he loved, but he gave it up because he wanted to boost his grades to get into a good college and maybe study pre-med.
"I started hearing how competitive schools are, mostly from other students who were trying to do the same thing," he said. "I've never been so stressed before, trying to find the right school that fits me."
Pressure can come from parents, too, who may simply want their child to thrive, or may be looking for bragging rights through their children's successes.
Even parents with the best of intentions for their children can find the documentary painful. Betsy Connolly, a mother of two grown children who serves on the Conejo Valley (Calif.) Unified School District board, saw it twice.
"It took me back to the early days with my children -- the struggles I had as a working, yet overachieving, mother pushing my children to what I thought was the path to their success," Connolly said. "It took me back to that regret. It's a painful thing."
Connolly and others, however, aren't buying the whole message.
Matt Rhodes, 17, a senior at Thousand Oaks High who is taking five AP classes this year, argues that some stress is healthy. That's what keeps life exciting, he said.
"Kids should have to experience stress," Matt said. "If it's in moderation, it's a good thing."
And if kids do want to get into a top-tier college, then realistically they're going to have to work hard, said Michael Lynch, who teaches AP classes at Westlake (Calif.) High School.
But Lynch, who has two kids of his own, said it's not the right path for everyone.
"Just because your path is Harvard, Yale or Stanford, that doesn't mean that someone's else's path ... is less successful," he said.
Lynch is not a proponent of lots of homework, especially in elementary school. Instead, he focuses more on reading and group projects. "After a certain amount of time, you just don't focus," he said of homework.
The key may be to recognize that kids don't have to excel at everything to succeed, according to parents and students who saw the film.
At the end, the film calls for parents, students and teachers to take action. Teachers can try assigning less homework. Students can get enough sleep and limit AP classes to subjects they enjoy. Parents can avoid over-scheduling.
"We need to make sure we take care of our young people in every way, and it's not just schools," said Richard Intlekofer, a counselor at Newbury Park (Calif.) High School. "It's something our parents and our community need to work on."
On the Net: http://www.racetonowhere.com
Jean Cowden Moore is a reporter for the Ventura County Star in California.