Under Pressure

The Pressure To Achieve Can Be Toxic. Here's How To Help Kids Thrive While They Excel.

It all comes down to a psychological concept called “mattering.”

by Rebecca Ackermann
Ready Or Not! It's Back To School Season

In 2019, a report from leading developmental researchers added a group to the list of young people most at risk for chronic stress and ensuing health issues. At first glance, this group — kids at so-called high-achieving schools, where academic and extracurricular success are emphasized — did not seem like they belonged on the list.

When Jennifer Wallace wrote about these findings for The Washington Post, she’d been reporting on family life for a decade, but this story felt different. It was the year of the Varsity Blues scandal, which saw celebrity parents exposed for trying to bribe their kids’ way into college and Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman publicly citing her daughter’s abysmal admission odds and her own panic about being “a good mother” as motives for her crimes. Wallace had three kids attending the type of schools cited by the researchers, where the pressure to succeed can be crushing. With her eldest about to enter high school, Wallace wanted to know what to do to keep her kids healthy, now.

Wallace set out to write her new book, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic And What We Can Do About It, to understand what went wrong with ambition. She ran her own large-scale surveys of parents and students before embarking on a nationwide tour of high-achieving communities — areas in the top 20% to 25% of income in the country. Wallace returned with optimistic answers: Healthy students are the ones who know they are important outside of any achievement, a psychological concept called “mattering.” And her research shows that a shift in how we think about the job of parenting could guide kids toward happy adulthoods, too. To learn more, Romper spoke to Wallace over Zoom one hot summer morning from her home on the East Coast.

This book started from your 2019 Washington Post article, but I’m curious if the hundreds of conversations you conducted across the country changed what you thought this book would be about.

When I first set out to write the book, I didn’t know the psychological construct called “mattering” existed. I have three kids — my oldest was an eighth grader [when I started] — so I wanted to write this book for my own benefit. How can I raise a healthy, joyful achiever in this world where the bar to achieve just keeps getting higher and higher? The narrative about helicopter parents and how parents just want bumper stickers for their cars wasn’t sitting well with me. I knew there was something so much deeper at play if parents were now committing fraud and conspiracy to get their kids into a quote-unquote “good college.”

Kids thrive when they feel deeply valued for who they are by their family, friends, community; and know they are depended on to add meaningful value back to friends, parents, community, too.

I met with families who had lost a loved one to suicide. I met with students who dropped out of school because the pressure just became overwhelming. And then I went in search of the healthy achievers. I wanted to know what they had in common. I traveled to Washington state, Maine, Wyoming, Ohio, all over — not just the coasts where people often think the pressure is. I was looking for a framework to present my findings when I came across “mattering,” and it changed my parenting. Honestly, it’s changed how I live my life.

You found that this idea of “mattering” is what makes for healthy, happy kids — and adults too. I’d never heard of the concept before, and it is a little more complex than it sounds, right? As a parent, I would say, “Of course my kid matters to me. I tell her I love her every day.” But how is mattering different from what we may expect when we hear that word?

We all love our kids unconditionally, but mattering is different than loving our kids. It was first conceptualized in the 1980s by Morris Rosenberg, who also conceptualized self-esteem. What he found was that the kids who had healthy levels of self-esteem felt that they were important to their parents for who they were at their core, not contingent on their performance. Over the last several decades, researchers have developed the definition even further. According to the people who research it, after the drive for food and shelter, it is the instinct to matter that drives all human behavior. Kids thrive when they feel deeply valued for who they are by their family, friends, community; and know they are depended on to add meaningful value back to friends, parents, community, too. For the kids I met who were healthy achievers, mattering acted like a shield protecting them from excessive pressure, stress, and anxiety. It wasn’t that these kids didn’t experience stress or have failures. It was that they were able to bounce back because their self-worth was not tied up in their achievement.

From your research, it’s clear that in many cases, kids are suffering not despite parent’s efforts to set them up for success but because of them. How did we get to a place where the intensive, sometimes martyring work that so many parents are doing — like scheduling tons of activities or pushing kids to take harder classes — actually accomplishes the opposite of what they hope for?

Over the last several decades, the world has grown much more unequal. There has been the crush of the middle-class, globalization, and there is now a steep divide between the haves and the have-nots. The goal of parenting is to raise people who will thrive, make our society richer, carry democracy forward, and live a fulfilling life when we’re no longer there. We live in a country with steep inequity and no social safety nets. So parents are tasked with what another researcher I interviewed called “status safeguarding” their kids, creating these individualized safety nets to make sure that their kids land on the right side of this huge economic divide. That’s really what intensive parenting is all about, whether we’re aware of it or not.

A lightbulb moment for me was an interview with Rick Weissbourd, who’s at Harvard's Making Caring Common Project. He said that parents have bet big that the surest path for our kids to end up in a good place is to strap the name of a quote “good college” on them, like a life vest in a sea of uncertainty. But unfortunately, what we’re seeing is that the safety vests we are trying to put on our kids with the best intentions are drowning too many of them. It becomes a lead vest.

A child’s resilience rests fundamentally on the resilience of the adults in their lives. And the adults’ resilience rests primarily on their relationships.

What follows is this idea that parents should be holding kids back at times, instead of pushing them forward. Encouraging kids to do less sounds like a pretty radical idea. But you talk about reframing the role of parents as “balance-keepers.”

We are our children’s prefrontal cortex. In the words of child psychologist Lisa Damour, it is about helping our kids be energy efficient, teaching them how to live a life that is balanced. If they are going to overwork in this narrow band of academic excellence, they are not developing the other areas that create a full life and give our kids the well-being that we so desperately want for them. Challenge Success, which is a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford University, calls it PDF: Every child every day should have playtime, downtime, and family time. If they are not able to have that, then you know there’s an imbalance. But the kids are too young to know that.

So many of the words you’re using like “balance” and “well-being” are coming up in the broader cultural conversation around how adults also need to push against the narrow societal concept of achievement. In the book, you describe situations where struggling parents regulate their own anxieties through their children. And then the children regulate their emotions through their parents’ expectations. How can we break this terrible cycle?

The most surprising research finding of my four years of writing this book is that no matter if you have a child living in poverty or a child attending one of these competitive schools, the No. 1 thing a parent can do for a child in distress is make sure that the mental health and support system of the primary caregiver is intact. A child’s resilience rests fundamentally on the resilience of the adults in their lives. And the adults’ resilience rests primarily on their relationships.

What I found in these communities all over the country was that parents have friends, but they don’t have the bandwidth to invest in those friendships so they can become a source of support. We need people who see us and love us for who we are at our core, even in our spiraling moments, just like we need to be that support for our kids. It’s not about putting on your oxygen mask first, which we are all told to do. It is about having people who see you start to struggle and can put that mask on for you. It feels countercultural, but I have seen how it plays out in my own home. We need to put ourselves first for the well-being of our family. As researcher Suniya Luthar said to me, “If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your kids.”

We are taught as parents that the most important thing is to raise our children to be independent adults. But there is a more profound skill that we need to give our kids if we want to protect their mental health: the skills of interdependence.

You even include step-by-step instructions on how to ask for help, which I appreciated because it can be weirdly scary! Why is it so hard for caregivers to reach out?

There are so many reasons why we don’t ask for this type of help. We live in a hyper individualistic society that says you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. That is what it is to be an American. Have you ever tried to pull yourself up by your bootstraps? It’s literally impossible. I can’t even understand how that became a saying.

The other thing is, in these high-achieving communities the adults are high-achieving too. One consultant I spoke with in Washington, D.C., said to me, “I solve problems for a living. The idea that I can’t solve my own family’s problems is embarrassing.” The problem with perfectionism is that it holds us back from being vulnerable. But I have found in the communities I visited and in my own life, when you reach out to other people to ask for help you are telling yourself that you are worthy of being helped, and you are telling the other person that they matter to you. There can be a cycle of generosity. We are taught as parents that the most important thing is to raise our children to be independent adults. But there is a deeper, more profound skill that we need to give our kids if we want to protect their mental health: the skills of interdependence.

You write about the other side of interdependence too: teaching kids that part of their value is in helping others. You use chores as an entry point into that conversation. What is the value of chores for kids?

Chores are a very important thing that we are lacking in society today because our kids are so busy. For kids to really feel like they matter, they need to add meaningful value to others. That gives a child social proof that they matter. Early on when my kids were in middle school, I had the opportunity to speak with George Vaillant, a renowned psychiatrist and for a long time, the head of the Harvard adult study, which is eight or so decades of looking at what leads to midlife and later life happiness, success, and well-being. He said that two things that parents have control over is maternal warmth, which is feeling valued, and kids doing chores or having a job outside of the home. He said that chores provide a work ethic for our kids, and that can be applied throughout their lives in building relationships and getting through hard times.

I also think we need to rebrand chores, and I’m trying to do that in my own home. One mother I met keeps a note on her refrigerator labeled “Family Matters,” and all the needs of the family go on that list. Another important thing that’s been critical for my kids — and the research bears this out — is not to tie chores to money or punishments. They are things that you do because you are part of the family. It lessens the burden on the adults in the house, teaches kids real life skills, and gives them a sense of mastery. But it also teaches kids that they matter to the family for reasons that have nothing to do with achievement.

The families and schools you spoke with for this book are in communities in the top 20% to 25% of income in this country, the group highlighted in the 2019 report. But how might these insights apply to other communities too? Is a world possible where every child knows they matter?

The bar of what success looks like is increasingly getting out of reach, and it has a trickle-down effect. I believe all kids are feeling it at this point. The research has not caught up with the impact on solidly middle-class kids who historically have fared the best when it comes to anxiety, depression, or substance abuse disorders. But other researchers, including Making Care Common, are taking the data now [on other demographics].

I’ve visited schools where mattering is front and center, and I visited communities that are working to shift cultures. This is actually happening in the United States, and I’ve seen it. To give one example, Maine is running a statewide mattering initiative, as a prevention tactic. It’s not on a larger scale yet. But I do believe in this. It works.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s Never Enough is available for pre-order now.

Rebecca Ackermann is a writer and designer living in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in MIT Tech Review, Esquire, Vox and elsewhere.