Can Achievement Pressures Poison Our Kids and Stymie Their Growth? — A Conversation with Jennifer Wallace | Elaine Griffin | 10 Min Read

February 26, 2024

I recently had the privilege of speaking with award-winning journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace about her new book, “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—and What We Can Do About It. The title was enough to grab me and it ought to concern you, as it goes to the heart of the tension between what society conveys about achievement and what might actually be best for our kids. Are we measuring the wrong things? And is externally measured status becoming more important than intrinsic and organic development?

Wallace is a co-founder of the Mattering Movement, an initiative that emerged when a group of New York City leaders gathered to discuss rising concerns involving the mental health crisis affecting so many in their community. Wallace became interested in the skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness among students in high-achieving schools. In 2019, a national study labeled these children “at risk youth” for the relentless pressure they experience. In the introduction to her book, Wallace calls it an “unsettling paradox” that “students who are afforded every opportunity were statistically more likely to experience worse outcomes than their middle-class peers according to tangible measures of well-being.” 

Well-resourced public and private schools in SuperZips—communities with the nation’s highest tax brackets—can essentially become pressure cookers for kids. Families allocate significant time and money to help their children build impressive résumés packed with athletic, extracurricular, and academic accomplishments. Trying to distinguish themselves amidst such excellence—query whether we are even correctly defining excellence—can make even the most able students feel inadequate. One mother described her children’s competitive school to Wallace this way: “It’s a school that makes smart people feel dumb.”  

Wallace found that the parents of students at these schools also “felt trapped by hypercompetitive societal norms.” When Wallace surveyed parents about where the pressure was coming from, she learned that almost 80% of surveyed parents felt that “academic and professional success was one of the top two priorities of other parents.” But only 15% of surveyed parents themselves identified “academic or professional success” as such a priority. Translated: We’re deluding ourselves about how we raise our kids; we’re blaming other parents for creating stifling environments even as we ourselves crank up the heat.  

The symptoms of stress are not just felt among high school students competing for limited spots at top colleges; elementary and middle school students can feel excessive pressure in an ecosystem of “professionalized childhood, in which seemingly every minute of a child’s life is managed to maximize their potential.” 

This parental anxiety isn’t occurring in a vacuum. Parents are reacting to an income gap that continues to expand between the haves and the have nots. They fear that their children won’t have the financial security that they’ve enjoyed. Parents have responded by doubling the time they devote to their children—especially in the area of academics—since the 1970s. In addition to assisting with school work, parents are spending more time and money on their children’s extracurricular activities. As one Harvard University psychologist told Wallace, parents see high achievement “as a life raft in an unpredictable future.” 

Getting your child into the right college can feel like the most important way to shore up their economic security and safeguard their status. As one woman said to Wallace, there is “the feeling that there’s an express elevator headed up—if your kid doesn’t get on it early, they’ll be left on the ground floor forever.” Unfortunately, children can internalize this pressure to achieve at a cost to their mental health.

Wallace’s book explores how families and schools can help children achieve in healthier ways. Her research reveals one central characteristic in healthy achievers: They know that their intrinsic worth does not rest on their external achievements. They know that they matter. Wallace defines mattering as “the feeling that we are valued and add value to others.” Such children have real responsibilities, contribute their time to others, and feel comfortable asking for support. And, ironically, children who understand that they are not the sum of their achievements are more likely to have the resilience and confidence to thrive as adults.

Wallace also digs into the data to deconstruct the myth that attending an elite college correlates with living the “good life.” Achieving is simply one element in a successful life; other parts include fostering deep relationships; contributing to meaningful work; making an impact on the wider community; and, very importantly, taking time to rest. When it comes to experiencing success, what a student does at college in terms of connecting with others and harnessing opportunities matters much more than where they attend college. Bottom line: The way we’re investing (financially, personally, and emotionally) in our kids doesn’t just risk failing to help them. It actively risks harming them and thwarting their future happiness and success.  

The following conversation with Jennifer Wallace has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

1. What is the elusive line between healthy high expectations and excessive pressure? My book is not anti-achievement. I love achieving. We all get joy from achievement. Achievement itself is not unhealthy but becomes so when one’s sense of self rests on it. Educators and families need to untangle achievement from a child’s developing sense of self.

2.  You cite evidence that high levels of mattering act as a protective shield against student anxiety. How can schools emphasize a student’s intrinsic value when reward systems are often based on outward achievements? 

This is why I co-founded the Mattering Movement with Dr. Sarah Bennison. Advising is a place where schools can give kids skills. Give students a chance to identify real needs in their school or community and find ways for them to contribute. Tell students, “you are not your failures, just as you are not your successes.” Society sells us this idea that “you will matter when.” You will matter when you have a big house, designer shoes, the logo of the right college. Ask kids to consider who profits from this materialistic perspective? Assure them that their value is their value — no matter what.

3. How can educators quell the parental anxiety that fuels intensive parenting, an exhausting practice that involves micromanaging their children’s schedules because they believe admission to the right college will provide the safety net for success?

Explain to parents that the pressures they feel are not unique to them. We tend to personalize instead of contextualize our experiences. Parents are responding to macroeconomic pressures involving scarcity and rising economic inequality. In the chapter of my book called “Confronting Grind Culture,” which I wrote as a stand-alone piece, I wanted kids to understand how unscientific the “U.S. News and World Report” ratings really were. If there’s a bad guy in all of this it’s “U.S. News and World Report.” The myth is that a good life comes from going to a select college. But the data on living a meaningful life has nothing to do with one’s college ranking. We need to expose what the real research says.

4. You write that “full-contact parenting” often falls upon the mother, leaving her exhausted and burnt out. How can we support women who spend so much time parenting that they are sacrificing their own mental health? 

Educate women in the community so they understand that their child’s resilience rests on their own resilience. A person’s resilience rests on the depths of their relationships. The best thing that women can do is create deep and meaningful friendships. Women in these communities have plenty of friends but no bandwidth to foster these relationships. But the research says that only one hour a week of intentional time is necessary. Women should calendar in time and commit to it.

5. When we talk about self-care, we often turn to the wellness industry’s advice to create more “me time,” yet you find people need “us time.” Why is it that American culture emphasizes me time and family time, but not so much friendship time? 

We live in a hyper-individualistic country. We’ve taken individuality to the extreme. We try to do it all ourselves, but that approach isn’t sustainable or healthy. We talk about the youth mental health crisis, but don’t talk that much about the mental health crisis of the adults in kids’ lives. Adults need others to support them, too. Parents of healthy strivers focus on skills of interdependence. They teach children to rely on others for help and to help others. In her book, Wallace writes that children need to know they matter to their family as well as to the wider world. They also need to know that they add value in both of these realms.

6. Could you speak about how we can broaden the idea of success among affluent children?

This is part of the Mattering Movement.  Adults need to talk about their values. Talk about what a successful life looks like with children and pick it apart. Find adults who are role models. Look at their family unit, their relationships, and their contributions to the wider culture. Kids will see that where these successful individuals went to college has little to do with the meaningful lives they’ve built and the impact they’ve made.

7. You make astute observations about envy within our culture of comparison. Could you unpack what you call benign versus malicious envy? 

When researchers go into competitive school environments, they notice high levels of envy. When you are swimming in waters with a narrow definition of success, you’re likely to feel envy. Don’t hold yourself accountable for feeling envy; it’s natural. But, hold yourself accountable for your actions in response to it. Cutting another down to feel better about yourself is malicious. Malicious envy destroys relationships and culture. Benign envy, however, occurs when you look at envy as a source of inspiration. Benign envy unlocks mattering in someone else. They feel valuable because you point out their strengths. You can ask them about the steps to get there. Life is not a zero-sum game. There is plenty enough to go around.

8. In your book, you cite somewhat old-fashioned remedies—like doing chores or volunteering—as ways that kids can feel value. Did it surprise you that these small things can have such a large impact on making kids feel like they matter?

Mattering is not another “to do” on a list. It’s a lens. How do you unlock the mattering around you? Achievement culture pushed chores out of the picture. And we should stop calling them chores. Instead, call them responsibilities. Being a contributing member of a family is critical for kids. Children need to know they can make an impact at home and at school.

Reflecting on my conversation with Wallace, one particular piece of her advice especially resonated with me: Just as high-achieving schools can unintentionally create toxic achievement cultures, they can also intentionally create havens of mattering. Parents can also create havens of mattering within their homes, emphasizing the intrinsic worth of each family member. 

Educators and parents have an amazing opportunity to discuss their values with children and to show them examples of the successful people in their community who live meaningful and purposeful lives.  We can emphasize how mattering comes from a framework of interdependence, underscoring that we must serve others just as we seek out their help and support. We can explain that our goal is to develop students who are healthy achievers for life. We can create an ecosystem that fosters mattering because in the end mattering is much more important than any grade or degree. 

I urge you to read Jennifer Wallace’s book. Her well-researched perspective will release you from the grind of high-contact parenting in favor of a much more humane approach, one that emphasizes mattering.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Elaine Griffin for Intrepid Ed News.

Elaine Griffin

Elaine Griffin is the Middle School Head at University School of Milwaukee, where she had previously served as an Upper School literature teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. Her essays have previously appeared in Education Next, The Once and Future Classroom, Chinese Language Matters, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Her professional interests include parent education, curricular reform, and social-emotional learning.

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