NYC-PIA SEMINAR May 16, 2023: Jennifer B. Wallace and Laurie Freeman, PhD, on “Toxic Achievement Culture”
By Himani Dixit
Moderator Laurie Freeman, PhD, introduced Jennifer B. Wallace, author of the forthcoming book, Never Enough, and award-winning journalist. Jennifer has done extensive research for her book, and promised to share what she has learned about raising healthy, joyful achievers in a hypercompetitive world.
Jennifer Wallace: In the 2019 Varsity Blue scandal, some parents were accused of bribing college officials to get their kids into brand name schools. There’s something deeper than the brand name, though, and I wanted to get to the roots of what was going on. Research shows there is a new group of kids most likely to experience anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. The group included kids living in poverty, kids with incarcerated parents, recent immigrants, kids living in foster care, and students attending “high achieving schools,” which are competitive public and private schools where the vast majority of kids go on to four year colleges. I set out to understand this last group.
Laurie Freeman: What are the main ways our kids become at risk? Up into middle school, a lot of kids are doing well and feeling good, but in high school sometimes that changes. Can you talk more about that?
JW: Starting around 7th grade, these pressures start to pick up. Red flags for parents include excessive peer envy and excessive time spent comparing to peers, on or offline. Activity buffers that used to be stress reducers, like sports or playing a musical instrument, have now become added sources of pressure and something else that the child has to achieve.
Relational buffers like close relationships with peers; close, uncomplicated relationships with parents; and a school where you have a sense of belonging without having to achieve, have been removed.
I conducted a parent survey with over 6,500 parents from all over the country and the pressure we are feeling is universal now, not contained to the coasts. 83% of parents said they felt that others think their children’s academic success is a reflection of their parenting. 62% of parents said the burdens of parenting left them stressed, anxious, or unhappy. 75% of parents agreed that they feel responsible for their children’s success and achievement.
LF: It’s clear that parents are feeling worn out, depleted, and depressed on what they’re going through to push their kids through the system, and are aware that their kids don’t feel relaxed and energetic, but are unable to get off the merry go round.
JW: I wanted to find out why my childhood in the 1970s was so different than today. One thing that resonated is that parents were more relaxed back then because there was more “slack” in the system. Things like healthcare, housing, and higher education were more attainable and affordable. The crush of the middle class and the hyper competition of globalization are also factors. Parents are absorbing the steep inequities in our economy and struggle to prepare kids to survive and thrive in an uncertain and hypercompetitive future.
It’s not that parents want a fancy bumper sticker on their car, it’s that parents don’t sense a safety net for their kids, and feel they need to provide an individualized one. That is the exhaustive task of modern parenting.
Parents hope a brand name college will be like a safety vest in a sea of an unknown future, but the research is finding that that vest is drowning the very kids it is meant to protect. It’s not a brand name college that will set up our kids for future success.
LF: So what will lead to future success?
JW: We looked at kids who were thriving – what was their home life like, what were the behaviors they exhibited, and what did they have in common? The common threads basically came down to this psychological construct called “mattering.” Mattering is the idea of feeling valued by friends, family and community and adding value back to these groups. Mattering was protective against stresses. The kids that were doing poorly were the ones whose mattering was contingent on performance. The kids that were not doing as well were never asked to do anything for someone else – were never asked to do chores or help out the family, or didn’t have a role at school, or were not asked to contribute in any meaningful way to their community, other than as a resume enhancer.
LF: How do you ask a child to contribute to say, chores, without stressing them out further?
JW: Researchers will say that we need social proof that we matter. Kids should hear the words that they matter at their core from their parents, because home is where we get the first sense of mattering. But kids also need proof they matter in not just words but actions. I now solve for my kids’ mattering and not for their happiness, because mattering leads to sustainable happiness.
My son joined a community baseball team that really needed him, even though he had a heavy academic load. I encouraged him to do it, and not only did his grades improve, but he got this really deep sense of mattering to his peers. It acted like a healthy fuel that motivated him.
If my kids are not acting like themselves, I ask myself, are they not feeling valued by their peers or family, or is it that have not been asked to give any meaningful value?
LF: The worry for a lot of parents is that will there be a situation where a kid is stressed out, but putting on a face of “I’m fine.” Do you have any thoughts about that?
JW: A common refrain from talking to parents around the country who have lost a loved one to suicide is that they never saw it coming. Thomas Curran, a leading researcher in perfectionism, talks about something called the “perfectionism façade” which is the idea that you can’t reach out for help because it reveals to people that you don’t have it all together. “The Perils of the Perfectionist Child” was an article I wrote in the Wall Street Journal that really talks about how to prevent perfectionism from taking root. One way is to tell our children that they matter at their core and that does not change whether they fail or succeed. Also, teach that reaching out is a sign of strength.
LF: We try hard to make NYC-PIA a safe place for parents to talk about what isn’t going well. Often, if one person is vulnerable and shares, it opens the whole group and parents start to be more real. Two important things I took from your book are that parents really need to have the type of friendships where they can be vulnerable, and are able to share that things aren’t perfect.
JW: Decades of research have shown that the number one intervention when a child is in distress is to ensure that the primary caregiver, most often the mother, has an intact support system and is taking care of her own well-being. A child’s resilience rests primarily on their caregiver’s well-being and resilience, which depends on feeling loved, nurtured, and valued for who we are. Then we can be a source of support for our own children. Our worth is not contingent upon external factors like achievement, looks, weight, etc.
From Lisa Demore, a clinical psychologist, I learned a strategy to use when a child’s worth is crumbling: crumple up and intentionally make dirty a $20 bill and then ask a child if they still want it. Most children will say yes. She then tells them, “Like this $20 bill, your worth doesn’t change.” In a world where kids are constantly fed the message that they need to earn their worth, they need to hear from you that they are inherently worthy.
You can motivate a child with “dirty fuel” or “clean fuel.” For example, when you compare your child to their sibling or another friend, that might motivate them, but it’s dirty fuel.
When you criticize your child, they don’t stop loving you, they stop loving themselves.
The alternative to that is to motivate them with “clean fuel” which goes back to the mattering.
LF: How can we as parents put these pressures into perspective? Because it is hard to not say to your children that they can get into any college they want to, and it’s hard to not push them in a way that they might feel like they don’t matter. So how do parents balance this?
JW: Competition and envy are natural parts of being a human, and can be used to motivate us in a good or bad way. A bad way would be to cut that person down or use indirect aggression like gossip. In the long run, that doesn’t make us feel good and it also fractures our relationships. A better way to handle envy is to talk about how it can motivate us by tapping ambitions we didn’t know we had. We don’t have to hold ourselves accountable for feeling the feelings, but we have to hold ourselves accountable for acting on the feelings. You can use envy in a way that can connect rather than disintegrate relationships.
In terms of parents and colleges, we have to remind ourselves to be grounded in our value systems as a family, and not spiral when we hear other parents talking about it in sort of this frazzled fear.
LF: What do you say to the parents who are then concerned about, “How will my child distinguish himself or herself in these competitive schools where their cohorts are doing all these activities?”
JW: I would ask whether the motivation is to have your child feel good about themselves, or to get them into an elite college.
The self becomes stronger not by being praised, but by being known.
The VIA survey, developed by renowned psychologists, asks two things- what are your, and what are your child’s natural strengths? We make it a point when our children are struggling to go back to what our children’s natural strengths are and how they can use them to distinguish themselves.
If your motivation is to get your child into an elite school, I would recommend reading Chapter 5 of my book, Confronting Grind Culture, where I lay out decades of research on what actually leads to later life happiness and career success – and it is not a brand name college.
I’m not anti-ambition, but I am ambitious beyond a brand name. I am ambitious to have healthy relationships, to have a heathy and strong marriage, and be a good and loyal friend. To live a well-balanced life, ambition needs to be spread out, it can’t just be in one facet of someone’s life. An individual spike of achievement can be easily knocked over. The goal is to build a pyramid on the strength of relationships and to find where we are valued. That is what gets us to the top of that pyramid shape.
Invest in the child, don’t invest in the brand name.
LF: When the child is very stressed out, it’s clear that the parent can provide perspective on what really does matter.
JW: The number one thing you can do is make home a haven – minimize criticism and prioritize affection. Your kids don’t need to be told how important it is that they achieve – they are getting those messages from school and peers. Be the place where they can go to replenish. It’s not that you don’t have a bar for your kids, but it is an adjustable bar that is set to each individual child.
Parenting is not about the parent, it is about the child. It’s about the relationship we have with our child, not a list of do’s and don’ts. What gets in early, gets in deep. Kids learn early about what relationships should look like, and a warm relationship with a parent who loves them unconditionally sets a child up with a framework to replicate those relationships for the rest of their lives. The safety net that protects your child and ensures their success is mattering. There is a huge link between mattering and achievement, mattering and self-esteem, and mattering and well-being. Lead with mattering.
Laurie Freeman then takes questions from the audience.
LF: A parent asks, “How do we stop participating in toxic achievement culture and toxic social media culture?”
JW: Focus at home on balancing the values they are seeing on social media and greater culture. Values operate like a see-saw with opposing options: material values that align with external success vs. pro-social goals like being a good citizen, being a good friend. Those two things act as a see-saw: the more time you focus on one the less time you have for the other. And actually, the more time you spend on pro-social goals, the less likely you are to suffer from suicide, depression, and substance abuse. Push back against negative cultural values. Unpack and dismantle the negative messages your kids are getting. Social media is exacerbating the mental health struggles, but it is not the root cause. These pressures are rooted in things that are much bigger than social media.
LF: How do we undo any damage that may have already been done, in a way that our kids will hear?
JW: My book has messages and actions to use in your own home to create this environment of mattering. It’s never too late. One thing you can do is, instead of asking, “How did the test go?” lead with something that isn’t about achievement. Lead with, “How was lunch?” or “How are you feeling?”
Ask yourself these four questions: what do you spend your money on when it comes to your kids?; how do your kids spend their time outside of school?; what do you talk to your kids about (what are most of the conversations about?); and finally, what do you argue with your kids about?
I am hyper aware of how many times college comes up in a week. I ask my son, who is now a junior, “We will have to start talking about colleges – when would you like to do it?” This contains the conversation to a specific time and place.
LF: I love the idea of asking questions that are more relationship oriented and conveying the sentiment that you matter.
Jennifer added that parents cannot do this in a vacuum, so she started something called “The Mattering Movement” which is an action arm for her book. She encouraged everyone to go to her website to check it out.
Laurie Freeman then wrapped up the seminar by encouraging everyone to attend their Parent Talks and share what’s happening, because that is a big part of how we can make changes. She reiterated emphasizing a child’s innate value, and acting as a safe haven for your child. With thanks to Jennifer and the audience, she ended this rich, informative event.