Every fall, many teens beginning their senior year of high school embark upon the fraught ritual of submitting their college applications.
But the preparation for this often-distressing rite of passage starts long before that. Throughout childhood, children and their parents soak up a sense of pressure from American culture that they must be constantly focused on academic achievement and long-term professional success in a world with few opportunities. With this mindset, many children grow up to measure their self-worth with their number of accomplishments in school or accolades from extracurricular activities.
In her new book, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It, award-winning journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace explores how the incessant push to perform takes a toll on children’s mental health. Wallace integrates the science of resilience with real stories from children and parents to highlight ways we can help our children learn that they matter beyond what they achieve or produce.
Maryam Abdullah: What evidence do we have that achievement culture is a problem?
Jennifer Breheny Wallace: For decades now, researchers have been studying how adverse childhood experiences, such as living in poverty or amid community violence, increase risks to a child’s health and well-being. In recent years, two national policy reports made headlines for locating a group of “at-risk” children at the other end of the economic spectrum.
A 2019 report published by some of the country’s top developmental scientists at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine added youth in “high-achieving schools” to their list of at-risk groups, along with kids living in poverty and foster care, recent immigrants, and those with incarcerated parents. The report noted “relatively high levels of adjustment problems, likely linked with long-standing, ubiquitous pressures to excel at academics and extracurriculars.”
A 2018 report by the influential public health and policy experts at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) had come to a similar conclusion when it named the top four environmental conditions negatively impacting adolescent wellness. Among them were poverty, trauma, discrimination, and “excessive pressure to excel.” According to the RWJF report, a “family and/or school environment characterized by extreme pressure to succeed or to outdo everyone else—often, but not exclusively, occurring in especially affluent communities—can affect youth in significantly deleterious ways, including causing high levels of stress and anxiety or alcohol and drug use and dependence.”
The majority of these students come from families within the roughly top 20 to 25% of household incomes, a dollar amount that varies depending on where you live and how big your family is, but an income level that roughly starts around $130,000. Of course, not all students attending these competitive schools are suffering, but these two important reports made it clear that a disproportionately high number of these students are experiencing negative health outcomes, like anxiety, depression, and substance use disorders, compared to their middle-class peers.
MA: What did you find in your reporting?
JBW: With the help of a researcher from Baylor, I conducted a survey of 18 to 30 year olds to find out what they wish their parents had known about their school years. Much of the student data pointed to the belief that they thought their parents “valued and appreciated” them more if they were successful in school—70% of students agreed with that statement. More than 50% went so far as to say their parents loved them more when they were successful, with 25% of students saying they believed this “a lot.”
So, when we talk about pressure, perfectionism, anxiety, depression, and loneliness in kids, what we are really talking about is an unmet need to feel valued unconditionally, away from external achievements. The “pressure” our kids are feeling is that they feel their worth is contingent on their achievement.
MA: You write that toxic achievement culture is fueled by parents’ anxiety about their children’s uncertain future. What are some economic and social trends that contribute to this?
JBW: Critics of modern parenting often say that we bring this stress and anxiety on ourselves, that parents are just pushing kids too hard, living vicariously through them, too focused on a narrow definition of achievement. But what I found in speaking with economists is that today’s intensive parenting isn’t a personal choice that individual families make in their living rooms.
Parents are responding to real structural conditions that have been mounting for decades and trying as best they can to adapt to some pretty extraordinary economic changes. With extreme inequality, the crush of the middle class, globalization, and hypercompetition, parents fear that without their intense guidance and push, their children may end up on the wrong side of the economic divide. With increasing inequality, childhood is no longer seen as a separate time from adulthood but instead as a training ground to prepare them for a very competitive, unknown future.
My parents and (I bet) your parents weren’t lying awake at night worrying about a drop from an A to a mostly B student. The hands-off, more relaxed permissive parents that we grew up with in the early 1970s were replaced by a roll-up-your-sleeves generation of intensive parents who now single-handedly needed to make sure their kids would land on the right side of the economic divide. So-called helicopter parents swooped in not so much out of individual conviction, but out of the need to buffer children against unpredictable market forces. In other words, these pressures our kids are feeling are much bigger than any one family, school, or community.
Parents feel trapped by the expectations around childhood today. With the assistance of a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I surveyed 6,500 parents. I asked them how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “I feel responsible for my children’s achievement and success”; 75% of parents strongly or somewhat agreed with that statement.
When I asked how many people agreed with the statement “I wish today’s childhood was less stressful for my kids,” 87% of parents strongly or somewhat agreed.
MA: How do we protect children against the stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness they are feeling?
JBW: Mattering—knowing that you matter to others and that you can add meaningful value to the world—is the story we tell ourselves about how much we are valued by those around us. Decades of research find that mattering expresses the deep human need we all have to feel seen, cared for, and understood by those around us.
Mattering occurs in life’s big moments, like being celebrated with heartfelt toasts by people who know and value you. It’s found in everyday moments too, like when you’re sick and a friend brings over a pot of homemade soup. The feeling that hits you when you open the door is mattering.
But today we are facing a mattering deficit, with record rates of loneliness, anxiety, and depression among our country’s youth. Research suggests that as many as one-third of adolescents in the U.S. do not believe they matter to others in their communities. When we don’t feel like we matter, we can turn inward: We give up, drink or use drugs to escape, and self-harm. A lack of mattering, studies find, is a strong predictor of mental health struggles, substance abuse, and even suicide.
To matter, we need to feel valued but we also need the opportunity to meaningfully add value to others. Knowing how to add value to others is at the root of the Mattering Movement, a nonprofit I cofounded. The more we add value to others, the more we feel valued—a healthy, interdependent cycle that protects our mental health.
MA: What is the first step to fostering our kids’ sense of mattering and resilience?
JBW: In the past, psychologists interested in helping struggling children focused on specific interventions, telling parents what they should and shouldn’t do. But it turns out that what makes the biggest impact to help a struggling child is to make sure the adults in that child’s life are psychologically healthy and that they have strong, reliable sources of support. In other words: To help the child, first help the caregiver.
As resilience researcher Suniya Luthar has put it: Parents are “first responders” to our kids’ struggles, and paying constant attention to their rollercoaster feelings and social and academic pressures can take a toll. All the ways we are overstretched—work deadlines, financial anxieties, meeting our child’s every need—can deaden our ability to be sensitive, responsive parents and make us less attuned to our children’s emotional cues. The risk here is that our kids can misinterpret our stress and impatience: They internalize the belief that something must be wrong with them. A feeling of not mattering, researchers note, is often rooted in small actions that accumulate daily.
Kids don’t need parents who take self-sacrifice to the extreme. They need parents who have the bandwidth and perspective to call out the unhealthy values of achievement culture for the threats they are. It seems counterintuitive. But to care for our kids we must first care for ourselves, because a child’s resilience rests on a parent’s resilience.
MA: You argue that underlying a lot of the pressure parents and kids feel is the assumption that “a good life is secured by admission to a ‘good’ college”? Why should parents consider rejecting this premise?
JBW: Of course, life experience allows adults the perspective to know this isn’t true: We all know plenty of people who went to top colleges whose lives didn’t turn out as they’d hoped, and we know plenty of people who went to less selective colleges whose lives turned out even better than they’d imagined.
There are better predictors of future well-being than attending a “good” college. Gallup and Purdue University teamed up to conduct the largest study of college graduates in U.S. history, surveying more than 30,000 college graduates to measure five key dimensions of their well-being: purpose (how motivated were they to achieve goals?), social (did they have strong, supportive relationships?), physical (were they in good health?), financial (were they effectively managing their finances?) and community (did they have a sense of belonging?).
What the researchers found was that the prestige of the college they had attended and whether it was highly selective or not selective, public or private, small or large “hardly mattered at all to their current well-being and their work lives.” However, what did impact later life success was a student’s experience while they were at that school. The study found six key types of college experiences that had an outsized positive influence on future success:
- Taking a course with a professor who made learning exciting;
- Having a professor who cared about you personally;
- Having a mentor who encouraged you to pursue personal goals;
- Working on a meaningful project across semesters;
- Participating in an internship;
- Being active in extracurricular activities.
In other words, these students who went on to have greater happiness, career, and financial success felt valued on campus by faculty and their classmates and had an opportunity to add meaningful value back through internships and projects. Or, simply put: These students enjoyed a high level of mattering.
MA: How else can we help children who are struggling amid achievement culture?
JBW: William Damon, a Stanford University professor and expert in human development, told me that young people today are stressed and anxious not necessarily because we’re overworking them but because they don’t know what all their efforts are for. Too often, we fail to help our young people understand a “why” that’s greater than landing a spot at college or building their resumes—a “why” for their role in the world. When we do this, we actually deny them the release valve to this pressure cooker they’re living in.
Adding value to others is an underutilized tool that can help our students combat feelings of emptiness, anxiety, and disengagement that so many are feeling today. As Damon notes, “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness.”
Damon offers parents some guidance for helping kids find their purpose:
- Listen for sparks of interest and then fan those flames.
- As guiding questions: What issues in the world are hitting them the hardest?
- Ask your children to contribute in meaningful ways to the family on a regular basis.
- Talk about your own purpose with your kids.
- Introduce children to potential mentors who can help them build this sense of purpose.
When we encourage our kids to overly focus on themselves and build their resumes, we crowd out activities that were once marked important by society, like caring about others. To raise a generation that will keep society strong and healthy and to protect our children’s mental health, children need adults in their lives to help them zoom out and see the bigger world and their role in it.