When journalist Jennifer Wallace learned about the 2019 Varsity Blues scandal, in which fancy, well-to-do parents paid a sketchy consultant to cheat their children into elite colleges, she didn’t buy the conventional wisdom about the story. Were they all just shallow snobs desperate to preserve their flimsy status? A mother herself, living in a community where nearly everyone, parent and child alike, fretted about college admissions — and flogged themselves to secure a spot at a top school — she believed something deeper was at work. Somehow, families had absorbed the message that a kid’s only hope for a decent life was to grind it out as a child and pray that the gods of higher education would bless their applications.
Wallace explores the roots and effects of this problem in her new book, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — And What We Can Do About It. Pressure isn’t limited to children of the well-off, Wallace explains. She reports that as many as one-third of high school students feel the compulsion to achieve, a function of widespread social and economic transformations that have altered American society and rattled parents.
“I’m not anti-ambition or anti-achievement,” Wallace told me. She is a striver herself, and cheers the pursuit of excellence. But something has gone off the rails when one in four kids believe that they matter to their parents for what they can do rather than who they are, which Wallace found in her research. Or when 70% of young adults sense that they’re more loved when they perform well in school or work. Or when 42% of teenagers feel “consistently sad or hopeless,” as the CDC discovered, and nearly three-quarters of high school students report feeling often or always worried about getting into their preferred college, as Challenge Success researchers recently found.
Parents have long worried about their kids losing ground vis-à-vis them; this “status safeguarding” is understandable. Fearful that their children’s margin for error has disappeared, contemporary parents feel compelled to get their kids on the path to success early, and never to waver from it. Admission to a top college seems like the best hedge against the unpredictability of modern life.
“To protect our kids, we want to strap a life vest on them, and we call that ‘college,’” Wallace told me. “But that very life vest is drowning too many of them.”
A flotation device that would actually keep kids above water is the conviction that they matter, irrespective of their class rank or batting average. Wallace explains how parents can shift their own mindsets about achievement and begin to help their children feel seen.
- Parents should start with their own well-being. Consumed and exhausted by their children’s activities, many mothers and fathers have abandoned the personal relationships that will help sustain them. As many as 60% of those Wallace surveyed confessed to letting their kids’ activities crowd out grown-up time with friends. This is so despite research showing that friends are more likely to generate happiness than kids or partners. To counteract this development, she encourages parents to make their own adult relationships a priority. Create “go-to committees” of select friends who agree to meet regularly and discuss their adult concerns.
- Protect children from “grind culture.” Insisting on limits is a form of love. Hold them back, occasionally, from activities that will only wear them down. By resisting the cultural imperative to keep kids constantly busy and performing, parents also teach their children an invaluable life lesson: genuine success means knowing when to push and when to let up. No one can be fully devoted to every endeavor, and helping kids figure out when to let the homework slide, say, better equips them for adult life.
- Embrace healthy competition and cooperation. High-stakes academics and athletics can be cutthroat, driving kids to treat their peers as rivals rather than partners. Add social media to the mix, and it’s easy to understand why young people might be wary of their classmates; high school can feel like a zero-sum game. Parents can model and talk about the value of deep friendships and interdependence to counteract that dynamic. This means acknowledging others’ contributions to personal success, asking for help instead of feigning omnipotence, and openly admiring others’ strengths — which might be superior to our own — and viewing them as exemplars rather than opponents.
- Encourage children to look beyond themselves. A largely unspoken side effect of achievement culture is the unpalatable effect of all that parental doting on kids’ self-concept: it nourishes narcissism. To slay that demon and promote well-being, adults would do well to open kids’ eyes to the wider world. Invite to think about why they’re striving for A’s; where does this all lead? Don’t allow a child’s pursuits to interfere with their responsibilities to others. No, you may not skip your grandmother’s 80th birthday for a soccer match. Sorry, your test is important, but so is the laundry.
- Let children know they matter. Mothers and fathers should be explicit: tell their children that they matter. They also can show it, by offering physical affection, communicating with warmth and kindness, and simply playing together. Resist the reflex to ask, “how was the test?” on first seeing them after school and greet them once a day the way you would a new puppy. Healthy kids know that their parents love them unreservedly.
Wallace reiterated her conviction that having high standards isn’t at odds with unconditional love. “I am ambitious for more than just achievement,” she said about her own children. There’s family, friendships, community, creative ventures — all these, approached wisely, lead to a rich life. “We’ve gotten so off-kilter,” she said. “I am suggesting a balance.”