Uncover the shocking impact toxic achievement culture is having on our kids’ well-being – and what we can do to change that for the better! 😵💫
With her extensive research and thought-provoking insights, author of the NY Times best selling book Never Enough, Jennifer Breheny Wallace brings to the forefront the challenges our children face in this high-pressure world.
In today’s episode, we’ll delve into the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the toxic achievement culture infiltrates our children’s lives, and, most importantly, we’ll explore actionable strategies to mitigate its impact.
Whether you’re a concerned parent seeking guidance on how to nurture a more balanced, healthier environment for your children, or an educator looking to make a positive change in the lives of your students, you’re in for a thought-provoking discussion with invaluable insights.
There is a false narrative that you have to either choose achievement or wellbeing and mental health for your child. That is such a crock. It is through wellbeing and strong mental health that we are able to achieve, that we are able to reach for even higher goals, to take healthy risks, to put ourselves out there to make a really positive impact on the world because we believe that our successes and failures are not our worth.
Dr. Sarah (00:00:40):
Our society’s seemingly relentless emphasis on achievement is undeniable. But what toll does this extreme focus take on our children and our own mental health here to talk about the ways that our toxic focus on achievement is setting up a next generation to be more prone to depression, anxiety, and substance abuse is Jennifer Wallace. Jennie is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Never Enough: How a Toxic Achievement Culture Is Destroying Our Kids and What to Do About It. With her extensive research and insightful commentary, Jennie brings to the forefront the challenges that our children face in this high pressure world where kindergarten is the new first grade and elementary school feels like the start of the college entrance exam, and she provides tangible solutions for parents and educators. In this episode, we will explore the subtle and the not so subtle ways the toxic achievement culture is seeping into our kids’ lives and we’ll discuss actionable strategies to counter its effects. It’s a must listen.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hi everyone. So today I’m very, very pumped about this amazing woman that we’re about to talk with, but in part because she’s written a book that resonates with me so personally as a parent, but also as a psychologist that treats kids who have a lot of anxiety about pressure. So Jennie Wallace, thank you so much for coming on. I’m so happy you’re here.
Oh, thank you for inviting me. I can’t wait for our conversation.
Dr. Sarah (00:02:46):
Yeah, so this book that you wrote, never enough. I think it is such an important book for the world that we are living, especially in this pressure cooker of achievement, emphasis and academics. And I’m really excited to dive into this. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came about? Because you talk about a little bit the evolution of how this turned into the book. It did and I thought that was so interesting.
So I am the mother of three teenagers and I started thinking about this topic when my oldest son, who’s now a senior was in eighth grade and I realized that I had four years left with him under my roof. How did I want to spend my energy as a parent? Because the energy that parents of high schoolers are sort of told culturally, you need to maximize their success. You need to help them find their spike. You need to get them into a good college and all of that. And it felt to me like I did not want to parent for the college application. And so where should my parenting go if I really wanted to give him the skills, give him the support and the scaffolding so that when he left he would really be well-resourced to make it on his own and to thrive.
So that was one thing that was on my mind. And the second thing was in 2019, if you remember the Varsity Blues scandal hit and that’s when parents from the east coast and west coast were caught up in an illegal scheme to get their kids into a highly selective college. And I thought, how did we get to the point where parents were now going to jail to get their kids into USC? What is happening? And I wasn’t buying the narrative that parents are focused on logos. It’s all about the bumper sticker. I felt like there was something much deeper at play, something that maybe even parents themselves weren’t aware of these sort of forces outside of our home that were impacting what we were doing in our homes.
So those were two of the main things happening. And then in 2019, I wrote an article for the Washington Post about a newly named at-risk group researchers, our world’s leading developmental researchers we’re now identifying a new at-risk group: kids attending what they call high achieving schools. Those are public and private schools all around the country where the kids go on to good four year colleges and the school has lots of enrichment and extracurricular activities and advanced placement classes for kids. And those kids were found to be two to six times more likely to suffer from clinical levels of anxiety and depression and two to three times more likely to suffer from substance abuse disorder than the average American teen. And so I wanted to know what could I do in my home to buffer against this excessive pressure?
Dr. Sarah (00:06:02):
Yeah, I mean I see it so much in my clinical practice, and I think you speak to this in the book, this idea of like, okay, we are, this is a group of privileged children more often than not and is what is it that is, and how much do we want to spend our energy and our resources supporting kids who have such privilege? And the reality is, and I think you have a quote in the book that is really aptt, which is one children’s pain is not any more or less valid than another child’s pain and they don’t choose it. And I think I work with kids, I see kids in private practice in my psychology group. These are kids who many of them do go to high achieving schools. They have a lot of resources, they have family support, they’re privileged, and the suffering is very, very, very real.
It is, I think I do lay this out in the book, Suniya Luthar, who is, she passed away recently, but she was one of the world’s leading researchers on resilience in childhood and throughout the lifespan. And I said to her, should I really be devoting so much ink writing a whole book about these kids? And she said, pain is not zero sum that like you said, a child in pain is a child in pain and neither chooses their circumstances. Now to be clear, I am not asking for government support for these kids or policy recommendations or taking any resources away from kids who are living in poverty, who are facing discrimination, who are living amidst violence. Those kids need our collective resources. They need them. What I wanted to do with this book is to raise awareness of a problem that is hidden in plain sight, an issue that nobody was talking about but everyone was feeling. And I wanted to figure out what I could do in my own home and how I can share what I learn with other parents who are going through similar issues.
Dr. Sarah (00:08:21):
And I think that’s so valuable and I think you make a very good point. Yes, you are not advocating for resources being diverted to this group, but I don’t even think that would solve the problem. I think what your book lays out is a solution that is not right based on that, right? It’s saying it’s about awareness, it’s about increasing parental reflection. It’s about looking at systemic construction around our social pressures that it’s not just the kids that are taking on this pressure. Certainly they are. And that’s a big part of the problem and that’s where we see the eruptions of the mental health stuff poke through. But if you really peel back the onion, the parents are struggling with a tremendous amount of pressure. The society at large is creating these, it’s almost like everyone’s getting painted into a corner that makes it feel almost impossible not to, if everybody’s putting their kid in advanced tutoring so they can compete and then the collective bar is being raised, then it’s almost like to not do those things is putting your kid at a huge disadvantage, which isn’t true, but it also kind of is.
So we have to kind of undo so many things. It’s not an easy solution.
It’s not an easy solution. But I think without really zooming out and understanding why childhood has become so competitive to me it is zooming out and understanding the context. Instead of personalizing these pressures and thinking it’s just me and my house feeling this, I think parents need to really zoom out and put into context the world they’re raising their kids in. So when I was growing up in the seventies and early eighties, life was generally more affordable. Housing, healthcare, higher education, even food was more affordable. There was more slack in the system so my parents could be a little more laid back in their parenting because even with some setbacks, even if I was a late bloomer, which I was, they had relative assurance that I’d be able to replicate my childhood, if not do even better than my own parents did. That is the American Dream, not only to replicate what you grew up with, but to do even better.
But modern parents today are facing a very different reality. We are seeing the first generation, the millennials who are not doing as well as their parents. We are feeling the steep inequity that’s been ushered in the last few decades. We are seeing the crush of the middle class. We are feeling the hyper competition that globalization has brought in. So parents are up against a very different economic landscape than our parents were. And they are, whether they’re aware of it or not, parents are betting big, that early childhood success, getting their kids into a good school will act as a kind of life fest in a sea of uncertainty. So we don’t know what half the jobs are going to be in the future. We don’t know. Climate change is mixing things up. AI is now on the scene. What are we preparing our kids for?
It’s always been the job of a parent to raise the next generation who can thrive when we’re no longer around. But the world has never felt so uncertain and fraught and the safety nets that we are sensing as parents, fewer and fewer guarantees and fewer and fewer safety nets. So actually that intensive parenting that all of us modern parents are being told by experts that you helicopter parents and you intensive parents, I want parents to zoom out and put into context what they are doing. This is not a parent problem. This is a societal problem.
Dr. Sarah (00:12:27):
And what helicopter parenting is, what intensive parenting is, and it generally falls on the mother, is this idea of weaving individualized safety nets for each one of our kids. This is not to get our kid into Harvard so that we could have that bumper sticker. We are talking about something much bigger that is bigger than one family and anyone’s school and any one community. This is not to take parents off the hook. We have to examine our behaviors. We have to understand, and I’ll leave it at this, but this visual helped me that we are absorbing the macro economic forces on our environments and we are becoming, in the words of researchers, social conduits, passing those fears and anxieties onto our kids in the hope of preparing them for the competitive future that awaits them. So while I don’t want to let us off the hook, I want us to understand it and I want us to see that this isn’t working for too many kids. That life vest that we’re trying to strap on our kids to protect them is acting more like a leaded vest for too many kids and it’s drowning the kids we are trying to protect. And there is a better way.
Dr. Sarah (00:13:45):
And I really, you’re speaking my language because I feel like I get so you spoke of, okay, all these parents and I think your point is so well taken and that it gives parents permission to say, I’m, I’m not trying to hurt my kids. I’m trying to help them and I’m doing it out of a place of deep love and compassion and also fear. And fear comes from love. The more we love, the more we fear because the risks are feel higher and greater. But I also think you talk about parents doing this because they think they need to get their kids to this is how they thrive, this is how they succeed. This is the goal, this is what the outcome of this intensive parenting is. And I wonder if these parents and society at large is asking the wrong question of what is thriving, what is succeeding? And I preaching to the choir, I know this is exactly the point of your book, which is what is success? What is it the Harvard degree, if your child is drowning themselves in alcohol on the weekends because they can’t cope with the feelings of inadequacy that are so deeply embedded because of the way that they have been kind of conditioned to view their worth, which I really think you talk beautifully about in this book.
It makes me so sad. It breaks my heart a little bit.
It breaks my heart. So the way I talk about it with my children about how you say this sort of defining success I have become since writing this book, extremely deliberate in how I talk with my adolescents about what achievement is and what success is. I love achieving. I get so much joy from achieving, I love writing a book that is resonating with people and that is that people are really feeling it and thinking about their lives and that I’ve made a positive impact in some way. And I want my kids to enjoy that feeling. I want them to be ambitious. I want them to enjoy succeeding, but I want them to be ambitious for more than just academic success and career success because that is just one part of a full successful life. So I talk out loud about how I am ambitious about my marriage. I want to have a strong marriage with my husband. I am ambitious in my friendships. I want to have deep, meaningful connections. I want people in my life who know me deeply and relationships that I can feel safe, being vulnerable in. I want, and I’m not great at this, but I want to find more joy in my day, joy that’s away from family and friends and away from my work. I want to find joy in hobbies. That’s one area of my life where I really need improvement, but I want them to see a successful life that is so much bigger than career success, so much bigger. There’s so much more out there in the world.
Dr. Sarah (00:17:07):
And I think the fact that you have those conversations is so important. It talks about creating more breadth in how we define success. But I also think you do something else but you just did right now, I dunno if you noticed, but you’re like, there’s this thing I want and I’m not quite there yet. It’s not happening for me. I’ve got to work on it. I want more joy in this area. And it’s hard, the fact that you are narrating the process rather than the outcome and saying, I’m not there yet. I haven’t achieved this. And that’s still part of the conversation about what does success look like? What does achievement look like, that iteration and failure and keeping going when things are difficult, that that is actually also a huge predictor of achievement. And I think that’s so beautiful and most people don’t realize that that’s a very important piece of this.
I like to say that I live my life out loud, which I think you can hear in the book, but I also live it appropriately out loud with my kids. I don’t burden them with my struggles, but I certainly point out when I make mistakes, when I’m being too hard on myself, I’ll sometimes say out loud, okay, that’s enough. I’ve beaten myself up enough. It’s time to go on. It’s time to move on. My daughter was I think in fifth grade and she considers herself a good writer and she got back a paper and she was so disappointed by all of the marks that her teacher put on the paper. And so I walked her over to my computer and I pulled up the first article I wrote for the Washington Post science section, and it was a bloodbath. There were red marks everywhere. And she was like, she had a very dramatic response to seeing the paper, the draft of my article.
And she’s like, I can’t believe they let you write for them after an article like this. And I said, you know what? Initially I was embarrassed. I’m a professional writer. I was embarrassed to need that much guidance. But then quickly I realized that this seasoned editor, and she really is a legend at the Washington Post, was investing in me that she saw in me a writer that she wanted to work with, that she wanted to show how I needed to write to be able to be successful in her section. And so in our home, getting feedback is talked about as and criticism from people that we respect from people that we believe have a knowledge that we don’t yet have. So critics on a random chat who I don’t know or critics to an article I write who I’ve never met before, those are not people whose criticisms I take to heart, but people that I have in my circle who I really respect that criticism I relish.
I am grateful for it. I don’t put up a wall, I suck it in because these are the people who are investing in me. And what I have come to realize is, and I didn’t know this in the beginning, but since researching the book, when you depend on people and getting feedback is a way of depending on someone you are and you’re thanking them for investing in you, you are also reflecting their value that they have made a positive impact on your life, which then feeds their own sense of value and worth. So anyway, we talk a lot about failure. I talk a lot out loud about what I think about my values, about when I feel like my values are in conflict. We talk a lot in our family. We were extremely verbal, which could also be annoying. I’ll be honest. It’s not all unicorns and rainbows.
Dr. Sarah (00:21:00):
Oh my gosh, I’m the same. My kids are. Sometimes I’ll be talking and they’ll be like, mom, can you be quiet now stop. And I’m like, I was teaching you something so valuable.
There she goes again, is what my third child will say when I bring up things. Research, research shows. There she goes again.
Dr. Sarah (00:21:19):
But going back to this idea of okay, achievement, I think we can all agree, like you said, you want to teach your kids that you value it, that it does have value, but that it’s also multidimensional. And I think, and this is where, this is where I think my hangup is with it, is that yeah, we want it, but we think it’s an outcome when actually it’s a byproduct. I think it’s like we are looking at point A and thinking A to B is the path from A to B is exactly this. When in fact I think there are moderating variables at play, right? And so the way I kind of talk about it with parents a lot of the times is that yes, we want achievement, but if we think the goal is achievement and we have this sort of linear vision of how we get there, we’re not likely actually to get there as well as we think we will or at a great cost. And in fact, instead if we focus on self-actualization and if we give our kids all the tools necessary for that, which requires something much different, often achievement is a byproduct. And I think that that is lost on a lot of people. It’s not really explained in that way. I don’t think our school systems are built to promote that. I don’t think our jobs and economy is built to promote that. But I do think that is ultimately a more accurate way of describing what happens.
I totally agree with you. So the way I talk about it in the book is that we can motivate our kids or educators can motivate students with either healthy fuel or what I call dirty fuel. So dirty fuel is something a tired parent or a overtaxed educator might use to hit a short-term outcome. So if you’re exhausted as a parent working, you get home, your kid is watching TikTok, instead of studying for the math test tomorrow, you could just be at the end of your rope and you could use dirty fuel. You could say, my God, why are you so lazy? Your brother never did this and that’s why he’s doing well. You need to focus. You need blah, blah, blah, blah. A tired parent might use criticism and social comparison to incentivize a kid to shut down TikTok to please them and study for the test that might work in the short term.
But what happens with that kind of dirty fuel is that over time, and I saw this time and again in my interviews with students and actually with many parents, is that over time that dirty fuel of criticism becomes internalized and it will clog the engine over time. It will appear as burnout. It will appear as anxiety, depression, or substance abuse disorder. So when I talk about in the book is giving kids a healthy fuel that will fuel achievement for life. So we are not just looking for the quiz on Friday. We are looking for what are my kids’ strengths? What is it that they are naturally good at? What do they get joy from doing? Where do they light up? Where does their mind? And you can almost see it in your kids if you take time, what lights them on fire. A friend of mine when her kids were really little, like age four or five, and I thought this was so clever, she would take them either to the library or she’d take them to a toy store and she’d put out a bunch, like four items and she would see or four books at the library and she would see where her child gravitated towards even before they were one, where would they crawl?
What attracted them? And she watched this over time. She watched this natural inclination. And in the words that I use in the book is getting a PhD in your kid, what is it about them that uniquely makes them tick? And so when we are looking to create that healthy fuel, we have to know, there’s a phrase that a psychologist I interviewed gave me and it really transformed my thinking as a parent. And it was the self becomes stronger less by being praised than by being known. So how can our kids be known if we can have our kids be known, if they can identify their own strengths and we can scaffold them to help them use those strengths to drive achievement, to overcome obstacles, that is where we can start instilling the healthy fuel. Another way of instilling that healthy fuel is separating their self-worth from their achievements.
And in our culture, it is something, the reason that achievement becomes toxic, as I say in the subtitle, is when our sense of self is so tangled up in our achievements and our successes that we live this very woo woo up and down life. We feel good like we’re worthy, then we crash down when we fail. And so that is an exhausting way to live. That is not what we want to do with our kids. It sets them up for substance abuse disorder. It sets them up for depression and anxiety. So how do we uncouple what society wants us to believe? Capitalism frankly wants us to believe that our achievements equal our worth. The way we do that is by sending messages in our home day in and day out that you are worthy for who you are deep at your core, deep inside. And one mother I met.
This could be something that maybe, I don’t know what age you tell me, maybe around age eight or nine when kids start to understand the value of money. This mother did it with her two adolescents when they would have a setback, when they wouldn’t do as well as they’d hoped on a test, she’d reach into her wallet and she’d grab whatever bill she had in there. Let’s say it’s a $20 bill. She’d hold the money up and she would say, do you want this $20 bill? And I’d say, yes, of course. And she says, okay, hang on. She’d wrinkle it up, she’d throw it on the floor, squash it with her foot, and then very dramatically dunk it in a glass of water and hold up the $20 bill. And she would say, do you still want it? Do you still want this bill? And she says, like your worth, worth doesn’t change.
Whether you’ve been knocked down, dirty, wrinkled up or soggy inside your worth is your worth no matter what. And that is a message that I call it making the thinking visible. That is a message that we need to hammer home daily. Home needs to be a place where a child’s sense of worth and value is never in question. A place where they can recover from the messages they’re getting from social media, from their peers at school, et cetera, et cetera, that their worth is contingent at home. Your worth is your worth. It doesn’t mean that anything goes, it doesn’t mean unlimited TikTok. It doesn’t mean as a parent you don’t have standards or a bar. But when you get a PhD in your child, you know where that bar should be and the bar should be for each unique child and it should be adjustable depending on where that child is, what they’re going through at the time. So real attunement is getting a PhD in your kids.
Dr. Sarah (00:29:07):
I love that. That was the word that kept circling in my head as you’re talking. I’m like, it’s attunement is that ability to be curious. I think so often, and again, I don’t blame parents for this at all, I think it’s really, really very much a part of our parental indoctrination is to think it is my job to fill this empty vessel, to carve this mold, this child. That’s my job. That’s my responsibility. That’s this internalized pressure I hold as a parent. And I really feel it’s so important to help parents shift out of that perception and into a place of actually when my child is born from day one, my job is not to be a teacher or a sculptor, but to be a detective, to be a holder of space and someone who says, I recognize that you are fully, you already the minute you’re born. And my job is to try to figure out who you are and allow you conditions to best show me and to be paying attention to what you’re showing me and valuing what you’re showing me more than what other people are telling me. And I think that that leads to such completely different thoughts and goals and pressure for a parent, it takes a lot of the pressure off, but I think it also, it doesn’t take all pressure off, it just moves it to a thing that has more value. I think long-term for the child, it’s like now the pressure is actually to create an environment in which my child can show me who they are versus to make my child something.
And that is a new cultural pressure. So when I was growing up, I mean people would say to my parents, you must be so proud. And actually a sociologist I interviewed made this distinction as well when he was raising his kids, people would say, and they were very good at sports, people would say, you must be so proud of your children. They’re such great athletes. He was on the sidelines of his grandchild’s sports team and he heard parents saying to his son, how did you make them such a success? How’d you make them into these athletes? That is actually, I would love to read something to you. So as part of my research for the book, I surveyed 6,500 parents around the country from Alaska to Florida. I did a survey with a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and I wanted to understand the hidden landscape of this achievement pressure.
What was it that parents were really feeling and getting caught up in? So I asked them whether they from strongly agreed to disagreed, how much did they agree with this statement? I feel responsible for my children’s achievement and success. 75% of parents strongly or somewhat agreed with that statement. Then I asked others think that my children’s academic success is a reflection of my parenting. 83% of parents somewhat or strongly agreed that other people, other educators, other families, coaches were pointing to us and holding us responsible for our children’s success. And then the last one I’ll read you is I ask parents, I wish today’s childhood was less stressful for my kids, 87% of parents somewhat or strongly agreed. What has struck me the most in going out and speaking about this book is that I get no pushback. When I sold this book in 2019, I thought this is going to be a hard sell to tell parents to be ambitious for more than just this narrow path of achievement. I have spoken now to thousands of parents. I have yet to get pushback. I have yet to hear from a parent who says, I love how things are going. This whole achievement culture, it’s working for us. We love it. We are connected as a family. We love our lives. Not one family is happy. Not one, not one.
Dr. Sarah (00:33:33):
Right. And there’s something else, another statistic you said in the book that really struck me, which I can’t quite remember it, but it was like parents were saying, if you really wanted to say what your really most important thing is for your child, what is it? Is it achievement or happiness? And they all would say happiness. And then they say, what is it that you think is making you focus on achievement instead? And it was like, well, it’s everyone else. And I was like, it sounds so, and to the other stats you’re citing, it’s like we all know what’s going on. We all don’t feel good about it, and yet we don’t sometimes recognize that we then therefore could be a change in it. I don’t even know if I can articulate this quite well, but like…
You’re saying you don’t feel like parents don’t feel like they have agency.
Dr. Sarah (00:34:30):
Or to me, I guess it’s like this is a highlighting to me is a person who supports parents that I’m failing parents at helping them feel either permission or to your point agency or even just the competency of how to, I don’t want to do this, so how do I not do this? How do I actually do it different? And I think a lot of it is actually not about the kid. It is about, I think it’s about us being able to contain and tolerate our own anxiety and not project it onto our kids and to act kind of incongruent with our own anxiety. Our anxiety is driving us to then do things that are not in alignment. We have to figure out a way if we want to change this for our kids, and if I think we change it for our kids, it could have a ripple effect to change it societally. Not that this should all be on the parent, but I do think if we can move in alignment with what we feel is most important in spite of the immense anxiety that it does elicit, I think that’s the thing is we as parents or anyone who feels anxiety, it’s very, very counterintuitive to not listen to that.
Dr. Sarah (00:35:50):
And yet that’s critical.
I will also tell you that there is a false narrative that you have to either choose achievement or wellbeing and mental health for your child. That is such a crock. It is through wellbeing and strong mental health that we are able to achieve, that we are able to reach for even higher goals, to take healthy risks, to put ourselves out there, to make a really positive impact on the world because we believe that our successes and failures are not our worth. So when we believe that we are worthy, no matter what, we can reach for high goals. And I have to say, I have seen this in my own life. I grew up and I just came to the realization that this was a thing. I was wondering why for so many years I ran for student council and never won. At some point you’d think stop running.
You ran in fifth grade, in sixth grade, in seventh grade, and eighth grade did not work out for you. You never won. But I got to tell you, it didn’t bother me. And I think it is because I had this sense that if I won, great, if I lost fine, it wasn’t who I was. My sense of self was not wrapped up. And so for my whole life, I have reached for really high goals because even if I don’t make them, my parents were my safety net as a child, and now it is my friendships that are my safety net that loves me for who I am at my core, that I can take these risks because I know I have my people who will catch me and who will remind me of my worth. So I guess what I want to say to parents is, you don’t have to make this choice. These two things work together. We have been sold a bill of goods, and honestly, this is a much bigger conversation, but sadly, I think many of the adults, the adults in this world are perversely incentivized to sell this idea that you need to push your kid in fifth grade to travel soccer. You need to join this tutoring company or they’re going to fall behind. You need to give them this Russian.
Dr. Sarah (00:38:11):
Well, there’s a huge industry behind this.
There is a huge industry that is, and don’t even get me started with the US News and World Report. And they’re very shoddy research that is driving parents of high schoolers and high school students to the brink with these stupid rankings that literally, I break it apart in my book. What a fallacy. These rankings are how they are manipulative at best. They are misleading. They don’t matter. When you look at the research of what leads to midlife happiness, career and financial success, and these are very robust studies that have been done, and I outlined it in the book, it is not the rank of your college. It’s not the prestige. It’s not whether it’s a big university or a small, private or public. All of those factors are negligible. What matters is on that campus is how you go to school, not where you go to school.
Are you out on a campus? And this is true of elementary school, this is true of high school. It is not where you go. It is how you go to school. Is your child feeling valued in the classroom by their friends, by their teachers? Are they relied on to add meaningful value back to their peers and to their larger community? Do they have this healthy level of mattering, which has been around, this idea has been around and studied since the 1980s, but it’s been locked away in an ivory tower. And mattering to me is the solution to toxic achievement. And it is the fuel that we need to instill in our kids so that they can be healthy achievers. So anyway, this is all to say it starts early. What gets in early, gets in deep. If you have a young child, if your child is a toddler, start now getting curious, not furious about their behaviors and noticing what their strengths are and what does that mean to notice what their strengths are.
It means what do they naturally gravitate towards? What lights them up? What comes easy to them and what do they like to do, help them. I honestly believe preparing our kids for the 21st century is not about getting them a trophy or getting them into some static college, some static marker of success. It is teaching them how to use their strengths, problem solve, cope with the ups and downs of life, know how to lean on others and have others rely on them in healthy ways to give them that protective shield of mattering to get them through life.
Dr. Sarah (00:40:54):
Yeah, I mean, I could not agree more with every single word you just said. I fully, fully, fully believe that to be true in as a psychologist, as a mom. And it’s funny you were saying at the beginning you used that metaphor of parents feeling as though they have to create this safety net for their kids. And you were talking about it in terms of the economic safety net and the status safety net. But then you switched over and you were talking about that same metaphor, but in terms of an emotional safety net, like you said, I had my parents as a safety net, not as a, well, I have trust fund, I can fall back on, but if I fall, they’ll catch me. If I stumble, they will see the good in what I’m doing. And that I think is the critical shift. If we can move into this place of being a safety net for our kids’ emotional health and sense of self as mattering, as being capable, as being resilient, then we’re still moving towards that sort of self-actualization model rather than the achievement model.
And what happens is you have a byproduct typically of achievement because like you said, what matters more? A bunch of static things or memorizing a bunch of random facts. So I do well on a test to then immediately forget it all because it’s served me. It’s like a means to an end education as a means to an end. Does nobody any good education as a way of teaching our kids how to think, how to learn, how to be citizens, how to be scientists. And not because they have a degree, but because they know how to think like a scientist, how to experiment, how to iterate, how to test hypotheses, how to be excited about things in your book. And you gave this amazing example of your son was interested in architecture, so you like, I’m going to get him, I’m going to find the best architecture extracurriculars. And he says to you, mom, I love architecture. Please don’t ruin this for me. And I think that’s so profound, especially coming from a child’s mouth.
You can get in the way. You talked about how can parents sit with their anxiety and fear, which is, as we talked about in the beginning, it’s real, right? These macroeconomic pressures, the unknown future is real. So how can we sit with them? The thing that I found most surprising in my research, and this is according to decades worth of resilience research, is that the number one intervention for any child in distress is to make sure the primary caregiver most often the mother, that her wellbeing, her support system is intact because a child’s resilience rests fundamentally on the resilience of the adults in their lives. And adult resilience rests on the depth and support of their relationships. So we are often told in our self-improvement individualistic society that download this meditation app, do this, do that, drink the tea like the candle, and you’ll be resilient and you will bounce back a little bit.
That’s not how resilience works. And what research finds is that our resilience rests on our relationships. So what I would say to parents and what has helped me throughout my entire life is to have people in my life that I can turn to regulate my emotions, to co-regulate with me when I’m feeling low, when I have doubts, when I’m going for something that feels out of reach when my child is struggling, I have friends outside of the home, not just my husband. Those relationships are overtaxed as it is. So I have friends that I invest in and I will say, since doing this work, I’ve become even more intentional with where I let them see me. I let them know when I’m struggling, I reach out for support and they reach out for support for me. So it’s not even about putting your oxygen mask on first, which is the popular narrative.
I’m not telling mothers they need to add another to-do on their to-do list. I am saying have people in your life and it doesn’t take much one or two people that you can connect with once a week for one hour so that they can see when you are struggling, they know you deeply. They know when you are gasping for air, and they will reach over and put that oxygen mask on for you. So that is a very different level of relationship than we often feel like we have the mental bandwidth or capacity to invest in. But I am telling you the way that you can sit with distress is to find people in your life, not that many. You just need one or two people who share your values, who know you, who allowed to know you, so that they can be your oxygen mask.
Dr. Sarah (00:46:11):
And because then to your point about mattering, if we feel like we matter in our relationships with the adults in our life, it’s lot easier for us to then show our children that they matter. Because it takes attunement to do that. And it takes bandwidth to attune.
Yes. So it is how can we be the first responders in the words of Suniya Luther, how can we be the first responders to our kids’ struggles? The way we do it is by investing in our relationships outside of the home. That’s how we do it.
Dr. Sarah (00:46:48):
Yeah, I love that.
Dr. Sarah (00:46:51):
I had one other question that I wanted to talk to you about before we end. Obviously, I have a lot of people who are listening to this podcast have young kids. They’re not dealing with college admissions right now. They’re dealing with kindergarten and maybe even kindergarten admissions, which is a whole nother problem we could talk about for another podcast episode, I’m sure. But this idea that increasingly, I’ve heard this phrase thrown about a lot, kindergarten’s a new first grade. And I have seen that every time there’s back to school night, it’s like I have a four year old and a six year old. And in the nursery school for years, I’ve seen parents talking like, well, what are we doing for school readiness? What are we doing for preschool readiness? What are we doing for kindergarten readiness? And I’ve been fortunate enough to have the privilege to choose schools that actually say to the response to that question they play, and that is how they get ready. All of the learning that a child needs at that age is going to come from play. And the rest, it will evolve. And our children are so capable at learning, they’re built to learn. And I think sometimes because of all the societal stuff that trickles down, even to the youngest of kids, we have so much pressure as parents to feel as though we must teach them so many things and then we get in their way of learning.
We feel like we have to maximize every opportunity for them. I have a story in the book of a kindergarten principal who canceled the kindergarten play because the faculty was really focused on career readiness for their children. For the kindergartners, so…
Dr. Sarah (00:48:49):
You’re missing the whole point.
The whole point, you’re missing the whole point. There is achievement creep. Middle school is the new high school, elementary school is the new middle school. I mean, it’s really getting younger and younger, I call it in the book professionalizing childhood. It backfires for families. It backfires on parents, it backfires on kids. And I think parents, there is a silent majority of parents that this achievement creep does not feel good and they don’t want it, but they’re afraid of being the first one to disarm. And I’m here to tell you that I went in search for this book in search of the healthy strivers. I wanted to know who were the kids who were doing well despite the pressures in their environment. And I outline it all in the book, but it boils down to this idea. I wanted to see what did their parents focus on?
What was school? What were their relationships like with their peers? And it boiled down to this idea of mattering that the kids who were doing well, despite the pressures doing well, both academically doing well, socially and emotionally, felt like their worth was not contingent on their performance. The other important factor that I think young families can really lean into is the other finding that these kids who were doing well were dependent on and relied on to add value back to their families, to their peers, and to their communities. So feeling valued and being relied on to add value created this kind of protective shield of mattering. The kids who were suffering the most were kids who either felt like their mattering was contingent on their performance, as in they only mattered one. But the other group were kids whose parents told them that they mattered.
They felt valued and significant, but they were never depended on to add value to anyone other than themselves in their own resume. And so what these kids lacked was social proof that they mattered. They heard it in words, but they didn’t see how their life could make any impact on anyone else. So I get into it in the book, but I would really implore parents to figure out a way to roll out chores without calling them chores, because that is a lesson learned in my house. Find another way of talking about it. Find another way of engaging your kids to problem solve problems in the family, things that you need help with at home, and how can they help? How can they problem solve even at a young age to figure out how things can get done and move more smoothly in the family home.
So what I would say to young families is find a way to make your children feel like they can make a positive impact in your home. Because family is the first form of society for a child. That’s when they learn how to be a contributing member of society is being contributing member at home. Give them that make room in their calendar to give back to the family. Let them know that you rely on them. Let them know you depend on them and let them know that they make an impact on the wellbeing of your family. That is how we make our kids feel like they matter.
Dr. Sarah (00:52:25):
I love that so much. And I feel like that also gives parents a new way of thinking about just the concept of saying, even the concept of doing chores and having it oftentimes be related to some extrinsic motivator. If you do the chores, then you get to have this. Or if you don’t do the chores, you are going to get a punishment. So it’s some sort of extrinsic motivator, whether it’s positive or negative motivation, just moving out of that framework. It’s such a hierarchical, patriarchal, capitalistic framework and this idea of this more collective contribution based value-based, participation based schema of inclusion. But we all work together because we’re a team and your contributions are valued and my contributions are valued because we talk about their value.
And that it’s so funny because little kids, I get parents asking me a lot of times, how do I get my kids to do chores? And I have a complicated love, love, love, actually love, hate, hate, hate relationship with rewards charts and stuff like that. I think they have utility for certain kids in certain situations, but truthfully, I feel like there’s so many other ways that I prefer, but ultimately I’m like, you throw that away. If you want your kids to do chores, include them. Make them feel included. How many four-year-olds would just delight at the opportunity to play a game with mom? That happens to be about folding laundry, right? It’s about togetherness. The more we talk about it as chores, and the more we talk about it as like, you need to do this because I said you need to do this. The less they don’t, they’re not going to want to fold laundry. But if you invite them from the beginning to participate in tasks in the home with you to give them a duty, to give them a purpose, to give them a job, little kids love to set the table.
Dr. Sarah (00:54:48):
They’re like, thank you for giving me this job to be with you in the kitchen when you’re making dinner. I want to participate. And having, I can’t even think of the word, like the plates and the stuff at an accessible location where they can get their bowls and their cups and their spoons. And it’s a very Montessori kind of model of the home is built to invite children to participate in part because it’s accessible to them. And I think that is this idea of you are creating culture. You are creating social, societal, civic frameworks. That’s where the real, that’s the seeds that will blossom into it.
The seeds of democracy.
Dr. Sarah (00:55:41):
The seeds of democracy. Power with instead of power over doesn’t mean parents give up their authority, but it’s saying, dad is making dinner, so who can set the table? We are all contributing here. You make an impact on our world. That’s what you are saying. You are saying you little person can make such a positive impact. Look at how you did that. Look how you helped the family. Mom is working on a project. I appreciate you straightening up the family room while I work on my work here. And just appreciating them, making them feel significant and actually giving them responsibilities where they feel significant. Not just lip service, but actually doing things that to the family and the family wellbeing.
Dr. Sarah (00:56:26):
This is such an empowering message for parents, I feel like, and I feel like your book is as well. It’s like, oh, we name this thing and we also give so much permission to not continue to move. Sort of the kid in the beginning of your book running with their eyes closed. We don’t have to keep running in circles with our eyes closed. We can open them. We can do something different. We have a lot of agency as parents and even in a system where there’s a lot of stuff you don’t have agency over. A lot of public school systems are going to teach to the tests and the regent exams and all these standardized tests. And if you can’t get out of that system, you are going to have to work on a way to work within it. And that’s a hard thing for parents to have to navigate. And it’s not fair that they have to, which is a whole nother podcast episode. Maybe we should do a series. I feel like there’s so much to say about this, but there is stuff we can do. And I think that’s the most important message.
Absolutely. And you are not alone. This is a silent majority. And I’m glad that my book is giving voice to it, and I think it’s why people are responding to it. And find your people. Find your one or two friends who are in that public school with you who are suffering through to remind each other, why you’re not buying into that narrative, to remind each other, why family time matters just as much as homework. And find people who can be there to help build you up as you are trying to be a little bit counter cultural in your own home.
Dr. Sarah (00:57:59):
And I should even add, because I said public school, but honestly this is happening as much if not more in private school too. If you’re in a private school, chances are you’re electing to be in that private school, and chances are it’s possible to elect to be in a different kind of private school.
Dr. Sarah (00:58:13):
If you start to think about this, if you feel like it’s toxic, the possibility for opting out and finding something different is more available to you. But it exists everywhere. It is very, very ubiquitous, unfortunately. Yeah. But on a hopeful note, go get this book because it will give you tools to support your kids in your home, which has great value. Like you said.
Thank you. There is a path forward. It has already been taken by many, many, many parents around the country. I met those families. I met their healthy strivers. There is another way, there is another way.
Dr. Sarah (00:58:55):
If people want to find out where they can get their book or get in touch with your work and learn more about you and everything, where do we send them?
Dr. Sarah (00:59:13):
Awesome. We’ll put it in the show notes and we’ll link your book as well. And thank you so much. This was a wonderful conversation. Appreciate it.
Thank you so much. Thank you for this.
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