How Parents Can Combat Achievement Culture
In her new book, “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic – And What We Can Do About It,” award-winning journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace set out to investigate the deep roots that have led so many teens to face a crisis of competition and achievement in today’s culture. A parent of three teens, she wanted to find out why her childhood was so different from that of her children today. With families stretching schedules and bank accounts thin to ensure their children’s success, Breheny Wallace wanted to discover how to help teach young people to achieve excellence without feeling crushed by the pressures of achievement. We sat down with Breheny Wallace to discuss what she learned and what parents and caregivers can do.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Eden Pontz: You talk about how the past several decades have given rise to the professional childhood. Explain it to us. What do you mean by that?
Jennifer Brehny Wallace: I spoke with economists, historians, sociologists, psychologists, and doctors. What I’ve come to believe, through the research, is that in the 1970s, life was generally more affordable, housing, health care, higher education, and food were more affordable. And in the last several decades, we have seen the crush of the middle class. We’ve seen steep inequity in our culture. So parents are absorbing these messages in their environment, and they are parenting more intensely today, trying to secure a good future for their children, than my parents felt like they had to do in the 70s and early 80s.
Parents today are sensing fewer and fewer opportunities and safety nets for their kids. We are feeling tasked to create individualized safety nets because we don’t know what the jobs are going to be like in the future. And parents are feeling as though it is our job to prepare our kids for the unknown. To do that, we are hoping that we can strap this safety net on them and send them to a good four-year college so they can stay afloat. Unfortunately, the safety vests we’re putting around our kids might be drowning them.
EP: What do you mean when you describe a professionalized childhood?
JBW: In the 70s and early 80s, children had more room to free play and to create their own kind of relaxed schedules. Childhood today is no longer a separate time from adulthood. Childhood today is now seen as the training ground for adulthood. And that’s why, in many ways, we see this professionalizing of childhood throughout our culture, preparing kids to compete with an ever-increasing competitive future.
EP: Where is all of this pressure coming from?
JBW: I asked leading experts on resilience and young people where the pressure is coming from. They responded,“Where is it not coming from?” It’s coming from parents, from teachers, from coaches. It’s coming from messages in our society that tell our kids they’re not good enough, they’re not smart enough, they’re not rich enough, not popular enough. The messaging around this ‘never enough’ has become so increasingly toxic that Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a rare public health advisory on mental health and youth. He calls out these messages in our culture that make our kids feel like whoever they are is never enough.
EP: The wider consumer culture, the busy schedules, and the pressure of meeting expectations, don’t only impact kids, they impact adults as well. What are some of the ways that you observed in your research that parents and caregivers are being affected?
JBW: What a parent needs to be today for their children is overwhelming. We are the first responders to their social and emotional issues. We are their Homework Helpers. We are their drivers to activities. I interviewed 6500 parents around the country, asking them about the pressures they feel, if any, in their parenting today, and 75% of the parents I interviewed said they felt responsible for their children’s academic success and future success. Today’s parents feel like they are directly responsible for their children’s futures. And 80% of the parents I interviewed said they wished childhood was less stressful for their children. So, we are feeling the brunt of this intensive childhood that we see our kids living in today.
EP: Adolescence is a time in which young people are trying to determine who they are. How is the process of figuring that out undermined when kids feel that they need to be high performers?
JBW: One of the greatest tasks psychologists say of adolescence is developing a sense of self, a firm sense of self, a steady sense of self. And that process can be undermined when our children believe their worth as a human is contingent upon their performance, what they look like, and what college they get into. For our children to develop that sturdy sense of self, they need to feel their value is theirs, no matter what. It doesn’t matter how they look, what grades they have, their peer group, how popular they are. They need to feel that secure sense of value deep inside. A sense that’s not reliant on performance.
EP: How do so many of the messages that young people get in media and popular culture contribute to a lack of self-worth?
JBW: No one is born knowing their worth. We develop our sense of worth as people in the environment we live in. Our caregivers give us the first reflection of whether or not we are worthy for who we are at our core. What is happening today with social media exacerbates it, but so do the messages in our wider culture, in the classroom, that certain people may matter more. So, as you are figuring out who you are as a person, you’re taking your cues from your environment, and you’re looking and you’re saying, “Well, this great athlete seems to matter more than I do, or this person with straight A’s seems to matter more than I do.” That undermines a child’s sense of worth when they feel they must outdo or compete with their peers to earn their worthiness. Our kids need to be told explicitly that they are worthy — no matter what.
One wise parent I interviewed gave me this great exercise she does with her children when they are questioning their sense of worth when they come home with a bad report card, or get cut from the team, or a friend rejects them. She goes into her wallet, and picks out a bill. It could be a $1 bill, a $5 bill, a $20 bill, whatever she has in her wallet, and she holds that bill up in front of her adolescent and says, “Do you want this money?” And her child says yes. And she says, “Okay, hang on,” and she crumples it up, puts it on the floor, squashes it with her dirty shoe, then takes it and, very theatrically, dunks it in a glass of water. And then she holds up this wrinkled, soggy, dirty bill. And she says to her child, “Do you still want it?” And then she says, “Just like this bill, your worth doesn’t change. Whether you are cut from a team, down in the dumps, crinkled up, your value is your value no matter what.” Our kids need to hear those messages from their parents day in and day out. Messages that drown out the other messages in our wider culture that tell them, “You need to earn your worth.” They need to know that they are worthy no matter what.
EP: I love that story. So, what are some critical ingredients to making your child feel like they matter?
JBW: Researchers who study “mattering” have put together almost a list of ingredients required to feel like you matter. First, you have to feel important and significant. You need to be known for who you are individually. So, for parents, to make our kids matter, we need to get a PhD in them. We need to know specifically what makes them uniquely tick. What are their strengths? Point them out and appreciate them. Another ingredient to mattering centers around feeling valued, appreciated, important, known, and seen. And the other half of “mattering” is adding value. Being depended upon or relied on at home. That could be through chores or through any meaningful activity that can benefit the family. The people within the family are the first introduction to society for a kid. For parents to help a child see how they can be an important contributing member to the family is a great way of training them to be the great citizens that our society so desperately needs.
EP: What about the parent who feels like their child does need a bit of a push when they aren’t living up to their potential? What might they consider doing?
JW: I spoke with psychologist Dr. Madeline Levine about this. She says for parents, it’s essential to “get curious, not furious” when it comes to children and performance. Most kids want to perform, do well in school, and be seen as kids who have these abilities. One job of a parent is to get to the root of what might be causing the disconnect between their performance and what they can do. You can look at whether your child may have a learning difference that’s gone undiagnosed. Instead of focusing on shiny outcomes, a parent can also focus on how the work gets done in the home. We can set up parameters in our own home. For example, when your child comes home from school, they can take a short break, but then that phone must be charged in the other room. Or they need to do homework at a desk, sitting upright without the distractions of social media. If you teach your kids these types of skills, these important study skills, the results will come. Children want to do well at school, so if your child isn’t doing well, dig in, get curious, and figure out what is holding them back.
EP: Based on your expert research, what are some effective ways that parents can help support their young people and help keep the professionalization to a minimum or out of their lives?
JBW: Researcher Dr. Suniya Luthar studied resilience for decades. I asked her what I could do in my own home after I learned how the pressures of our environment are causing mental health struggles in our kids. She said a phrase to me that I’ve kept front and center in my parenting since, which is, “minimize criticism and prioritize affection.” She explains that parents need to realize that for our youth, strong words and criticism impact them so much more than positive words do. Some research has suggested that it’s a three-to-one ratio – for every one criticism, you need three words of positive affirmation to outweigh the criticisms. So, she suggests being mindful of what you criticize at home and doing your best to separate the deed from the doer. Meaning, you might not like how a child spoke to you or performed on something but focus on that, as opposed to talking about the child and their overall personality and who they are.
Another thing she suggests keeping in mind is to prioritize affection. What she means by that is to greet your kids once a day like the family dog does – with unabashed joy. Show them how much they matter to you.
One more thing you might do is think about the messages you are sending at home, either explicitly or implicitly, about the importance of achievement and success. Psychoanalyst Dr. Tina Paine Bryson gave me four points that I found helpful in taking the temperature of the climate in my house. First, take a look at your child’s schedule and ask, “How do they spend their time outside of school?” Second, look at how much money you spend on your children’s activities. Ask, “Where are we spending money when it comes to our children?” The third piece of advice is to take note of what you ask your children about. And number four, notice what you argue with your children about. Those four things, she says, will help hone in and make more obvious to you the kinds of messages you may be sending around the importance of achievement in your own home.
EP: We talk at CPTC about the importance of modeling and kids seeing what their parents are doing. What are some things that parents can do to help support themselves?
JBW: One of the biggest takeaways from researching this book was looking at the decades of resilience research that point to the number one intervention for any child in distress. It’s not a magical list of things to do and things not to do. The number one intervention for any child in distress is to make sure the primary caregivers, to make sure their well-being is intact, to make sure that they have a support system, and that their mental health is sturdy and sound. As experts explain, a child’s resilience rests fundamentally on their caregiver’s resilience. And the caregiver’s resilience rests fundamentally on their relationships – the depth and strength of their relationships. In my travels for this book, I met many parents who were so busy with child care and work responsibilities. They had friends, but they didn’t have intentional time to build out those relationships so they could be sources of support. So, while it seems counterintuitive, what I have discovered in the research is that the best thing I could do for my family is to ensure my well-being and support system are intact, because my child’s resilience rests on mine.
EP: How can friendships act as a buffer against daily stress?
JBW: What I found so interesting in the research on friendships was that deep nourishing friendships act like a kind of shock absorber, helping to buffer against the wear and tear of daily stress. The parents that I met in these communities all had friends but they didn’t have the deep supportive friendships. They needed people in their lives, who could see them, that they could be vulnerable with, and that they could feel loved and supported by – the way that they want to be for their own children. So, just as we are these responsive, supportive caregivers for our kids, we also need relationships in our lives that allow us to be seen and heard, validated, and taken care of, just as we are trying to do for our children. We need the resilience of our relationships so that we can stand up sturdy and be the first responders to our kids’ struggles.