Overcoming Toxic Achievement Culture and Why Mattering Matters

Graduation cap and diploma being handed over

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Oct 2, 2023

by Katherine Martinko

Many families feel overwhelmed by the pressure to perform and achieve. We live in a culture that says grades and trophies matter greatly, and yet this can be a hollow and unhealthy way in which to raise a child.

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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an award winning journalist who began her career at 60 minutes on CBS. Jennifer Wallace is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. She’s also an author and a mother of three. Her first book is called Never enough, when achievement pressure becomes toxic, and what we can do about it. Jennifer joins us today from New York. Thank you so much for being here.
Thanks for having me. I’m looking forward to it.
Well, it’s such a timely, resonant, relevant, important topic for the times we live in, it seems like you hear a lot about the competitive world, we live in the achievement pressure as as you’ve termed it, being applied on our children. So I wonder what was the tipping point for you, as a mother of three and as a journalist to say to yourself, I need to write a book about this.
So I think it started a few years ago, when I began writing, well, 10 years ago, when I began writing for The Wall Street Journal about a lot of topics that were personally interested, interesting to me as a parent of three teens. And I was trying to figure out, why was my children’s childhood, so different from my own? Why, you know, why? Why was I seeing the pressure building in my own home and in my kids, friends lives. And then in 2019, the varsity blue scandal hit, and I’m not sure if you remember that. But that was parents on both coasts, who got wrapped up in illegal schemes to win their kids spots in places like the University of Southern California. And I, at that point, I really thought, well, this is extreme. Now, what is it that’s causing parents to risk going to jail to break the law, to get their kids into a brand name school, a highly selective school, and I wasn’t buying the narrative that was popular in the media, that parents just wanted the bumper sticker on the back of their car, they wanted bragging rights. I just didn’t believe that I my gut instinct as a reporter was that there was something deeper going on. And so I spent three and a half years digging into the deep roots of our achievement culture to see what it was in our environment that had changed from my own upbringing to my kids.
That is a very interesting journey you set yourself up for and I’m curious, where did you start? What was your starting point when you talk about digging into the roots? And then what have you discovered are some of the root causes of this achievement of a culture that we’re talking about?
Yeah. So I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just pressure that was being felt on the east coast or the west coast. I wanted to make sure it was that this was actually a thing. And so I worked with a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to conduct a first of its kind parenting survey. So the researcher and I wrote the questions, and I can read you a few of them. And some of the answers which were surprising to me. And he said to me, we need to get a sample size of 1000 in order to really see patterns. And I thought, okay, great. Within a few days, the over 6500 parents had had filled out the survey it had, in the words of a researcher had a snowball effect. So parents were sharing it on social media, sending it to colleagues in their office, parents on the PTA sending it out to classes. And we discovered that the pressure that I was finding was not an East Coast and West Coast problem. It was being felt in Alaska, in Canada, in Washington State in Maine, in Texas, in Louisiana, we heard from almost every state, England and also Canada. And I’ll read you a couple of questions. That I found that were interesting. So I asked parents about the burdens and expectations of parenting, did it did it leave them anxious, stressed or unhappy? 62% of parents that I surveyed strongly agreed that today’s parenting left them stressed. When I asked them how much they agreed with this statement. I feel responsible for my children’s achievement and success. 75% of parents agreed that they felt responsible for their children’s achievement and success. And then I’ll read you one more. I wish today’s childhood was less stressful for my kids. 87% of parents agreed with that statement. So I The end of the survey I asked parents if they’d be willing to be interviewed either anonymously or with their names attached to please reach out and over hundreds of parents reached out. And so I went on the ground before COVID. And then I stopped during COVID. And then I got vaccinated, I went back out again. And I interviewed hundreds of families. And I also interviewed historians, and economists, psychologists, researchers, to find out what like you were asking me what these roots causes were. And there were a few threads, but the one that resonated the most with me, and the most with the researchers who are studying these, this population of youth said that it was the macro economic forces that had changed so dramatically from the 1970s and early 80s, when I was being raised to today. So back in the 70s, and early 80s, life was generally more affordable, housing was more affordable health care in the United States was more affordable, higher education in the US was more affordable. And then over the last several decades, we have ushered in, specifically in the US, but also being seen elsewhere in the world, a steep inequality, a crush of the middle class, the pressures of globalization, hyper competition, and what researchers are finding is that parents are absorbing these fears and anxieties about our economic future. And it is coming out in their parenting behaviors. So this is not to blame parents. This is just to say that parents are absorbing the pressure and doing what we have always done as parents, which is try to set us our kids up for a successful adulthood when we’re no longer allowed around to guide them. So this the pressures that I found, you know, as I’m saying, are bigger than any one family, any one school in any one community.
When you break it down that way, and when you share those questions and those statistics, which, by the way, jump off the page, so I can only imagine, you know, how you process them as a sort of being the leader of this of this exercise? You know, it stands to reason, right, like economics tying in. I’m curious as to in what specific ways, when you talk about parents absorbing this information? In what specific ways does this achievement culture manifest itself in households, both from a child’s perspective and from parents? Yeah, so
from a child’s perspective, you know, I would say what I was noticing with my own children’s schedule was, you know, how much freedom I had how much more of a relaxed childhood I had versus my children. And, you know, their schedules are very much akin to busy executives, we resisted that as much as I could in my house, because I valued family time. But if you’re if you want your kid to play soccer in high school, well, they’d like you to start at age five and six now with intensive soccer four days a week and weekend tournaments. And so I’d say for kids, it manifests in really busy schedules, little downtime, compromise a family time. And also that the bar of what achievement looks like today is ever rising. You use to compete against the kids in your neighborhood, or the kids in your school now with social media, kids are competing at these huge, enormous levels for a parent’s life. You know, it looks as though in many cases we work for our kids, right? We we go to work so we can afford the extra curricular activities, the education costs. And then we spend our weekends shepherding them around to soccer games to debate tournaments to chess tournaments. So it is a culture where we are incredibly busy. And it is taking time away from things that as a society we used to think were important, like closeness as a family, one mother I interviewed in Alaska, told me that her children never knew what it was like to gather around the family table on Thanksgiving, because her kids always had sports tournaments that weekend. So they never knew the extended family and what it was like to have a traditional American Thanksgiving. That’s a lot of change. And I would argue and the research finds that change is not good for families. It’s not good for parents and it’s not good for kids.
The natural follow up question to that Jennifer is how do you stop? How do you stem the tide of the of being part of that competitive world of being part of the achievement culture as a parent, noting, as you did that we live in uniquely challenging times as parents, seeing things that we’ve never seen before. As moms and dads and the world we live in today. How do you go about saying, You know what we’re gonna do things differently in our household based on, for example, the statistics that you shared.
So for the book, I went in search of the healthy strivers. I wanted to know, what what did they have in common, if anything? What did their parents focus on at home? What were their relationships? Like? What was school life for them, and I found about 15 common threads that these healthy achievers had in common. And as I was looking for a framework to present to parents and to educators, I came across a psychological construct called mattering. mattering. It has it’s been around since the 1980s. It is the idea of feeling valued, for who we are deep at our core, and being depended on to add meaningful value back to our families, to our schools to our communities. So what the parents of these healthy achievers did were several things. Number one, they prioritized the message at home, that they that they mattered. Aside from any of their external achievements, that their mattering was, it didn’t ride on the ups and downs of their lives. So one, I’ll give you just a really tangible example. One mother I met of these healthy achievers, as I define them, told me about something she does when her kids come come home with a failure, or when they don’t do well on a test or if friends aren’t being very kind to them. And they’re feeling kind of iced out socially. She goes into her wallet, and she takes out a $20 bill. And she says to her adolescent, do you want this money? And they say undoubtedly, yes. And then she crinkles it up, dramatically puts it on the floor, dirties it up, picks it up, dunks in in a glass of water, and then holds up this $20 bill again, it’s soggy, it’s dirty. And she says to her child, do you still want this? And the child says yes. And she says like this $20 Bill, your worth never changes whether you get an A on a test or an F, whether you make the a team or you get cut from the team, your worth is your worth no matter what. So one of the things that I would start in my home, which I did do in my home, after doing the research was to spend as much time as I could buffering against the toxic messages that our kids are receiving, you know, in school among their classmates on social media in the media, that their worth is contingent. And i i as much as I can I remind them and it is a daily, it has to be a daily reminder, because the messages in our culture are strong, and they are absorbing them. So the researchers find that for parents to act as buffers, we need to do we need to focus on two things, minimize criticism, and prioritize affection. So minimize criticism doesn’t mean that you don’t have standards, it doesn’t mean that you don’t you know, when it comes to standards, for example, I asked psychologists Lisa d’amour, how could I, you know, encouraged my child to achieve without overly pressuring them. And she told me to focus on how work gets done at home, not the shiny outcome. So in our home, we have a rule of how work gets done. It gets done after you come home after a short break with a snack and maybe a few minutes on your device. And then you buckle down and you sit at your desk, and your phone goes in my bedroom charging so that you’re not constantly interrupted. And you do your work for 2030 minutes at a time. And then you can get up and stretch and check your phone and then go back. So what I’ve done at home is I’ve really focused on the work habits to to help scalpel to scaffold my child with achievement and that is sending a different message than you need to get an A.
And we’ve heard that so many times as adults definitely and certainly children that the process is far more important than the destination or the you know, the finished product. I guess a lot of parents who watch and listen to this interview are going to say to themselves, you know what? The sounds reasonable. You’ve got the evidence to prove it in those statistics. But it’s a fine line between helping your child support your child to pursue excellence and then potentially Lee damaging them, because for many people, you know, you’re doing it out of love. So how would you respond based on what you found? In the course of writing your book? How would you respond to a parent who is struggling with that?
So I would, you know, I would first say, get an awareness of the messages you are sending it home, what is the environment like in your home, and Tina Paine Bryson, who’s a psychoanalyst, gave me four questions that I found helpful in my own home. So first, she said, take a look at your child’s calendar, see how many hours a day they are doing things outside of school that have an achievement bent, then look at how you spend your money as a as a parent, how much money is going towards achievement type activities? Then, reflect on what you ask your kids about every day? What are the things when you get home from work? Or when they get home from school? What are you asking them about their day? Is it what they ate for lunch? You know, who they who they sat next to? Or is it? How did they do on that quiz? And then the last question, which I found really helpful, as well as, what do you argue with your child about? She said, If you answer those four questions, it will give you a sense of what you are prioritizing in the home. So I would say start with reflecting. The next thing I would do is to get really clear on your personal values. So I interviewed this wonderful researcher who’s the leading researcher on how values impact mental health His name is Tim Kassar. And he talked about how we all have, you know, roughly a dozen common values, no matter where we live in the world. And it’s the environment that we surround ourselves in, that activates certain values. So if your kids are going to a competitive school, you live in a competitive community, those values of achievement amid of materialism of external rewards, those are going to be activated. And what his research and other research finds is that that is heavily linked with negative mental health outcomes. People who who are overly consumed with what he calls materialistic values, not just logos, but career status, you know, salary status, they are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and have substance abuse disorder than people who live their lives pursuing more intrinsic values. And that means being a caring member of the family, being a caring member of society, being you know, caring about the greater good hearing about things other than your own self enhancement. So at home as a parent, I would get clear about my values. And I have, and I would make sure that my schedule, my kids schedule, reflect those values. And so just to underscore this values operate like a seesaw. It’s a zero sum game, when it comes to values, the more time and energy you give towards pursuing materialistic goals, the less bandwidth and time you have for pursuing the intrinsic ones, like being a good relationship partner, being a good friend, being a good member of the community. And those are the things that actually lead to greater mental health and well being. So at home, I would be very mindful to be a balance keeper of your children’s values, really trying to drown out the heavily materialistic values that are in our culture today.
Another pain point for parents, let’s say you, you know, you’re solid on your values, and you’re very clear on that. But another pain point in many households and with many families is the fear of missing out, if they are cutting back on things for their kids, to again, you know, adhere to the values that everybody’s agreed to, etc, etc. But everybody else out there is doing X, Y, and Z. Now my child is missing out. How would you say that a parent can counter or not be impacted by that?
Yeah, so I think about motivation, motivating our kids in two ways, I think of dirty fuel, which is you know, getting them to hit those those goals, you know, trying out for the travel team, getting an A on the Spanish quiz on Friday, all these kinds of short term things. A parent can motivate, with dirty fuel to get those short term things like with criticism or comparing a child because the stress of trying to meet all of those goals weighs on a parent. Or you can look at the longer term gain, and motivate with what I call a healthy fuel a clean fuel. And that fuel is by shoring up our children’s mattering. Making them feel like no matter what, they are valued at home, and their value does not rest on their accomplishments. And what happens when you do that paradox, you know, it feels congruent. You heard it. But when you do that you set a child up to achieve to not be afraid of failure, because they don’t think they’re going to be criticized, they don’t think their whole worth is on the line. So for parents, I would say, start thinking about how you can implement long term clean fuel. Because the more your child believes in themselves and their own self worth, as separate from their achievements, the greater chance they have to achieve it. And I found this among the high achievers I met, that the kids who were willing to go for it, who were not afraid of failure, who reached for higher goals, believed that their worth was not contingent on their performance, those parents had instilled in them a healthy kind of fuel that drove them. The kids I met, who had this real contingent sense of mattering, which was, I only matter when they were less likely to reach for the high goals, they were also more likely to burn out. So that’s what I’d say to parents is to get clear on the kind of fuel you are focusing on at home.
What would you say surprised you most in the course of conducting the research that you did and putting together your book? Yeah,
I would say the number one takeaway for me is that for any child in distress, decades of research, research on resilience, focus now on one thing, that to protect a suffering child, you need to make sure the primary caregiver, most often the mother, that her well being, or mental health is intact, because a child’s resilience rests fundamentally on their caregivers resilience. And a caregivers resilience rests fundamentally on the depth of their relationships. And it’s not that the parents I met, didn’t have friends, it’s that living in our busy achievement culture, they didn’t have time, to invest so deeply in friendships so that they could be a source of support when they needed it. And so many of these parents were suffering alone. And because of that, they had less bandwidth to act as a first responder to their children’s struggles. So I would say the, the, the big takeaway for me, which really, you know, I had to change my ways was to focus on my prioritize my own well being and resilience, not just for myself, but for the well being of my entire family.
You talked about the research that you conducted, you talked about the people you tapped into for their expertise, all of it helps you to build a framework and a toolkit is never enough. Can you take us through some examples of the toolkit that you’d like to share with parents?
Yeah, so I just as to zoom out quickly. So the book is really, it offers practical tools and in a shifting mindset, but I’ve gone even further, because I had so many parents, early readers read the book and say, Oh, my gosh, you’ve convinced me, now I need more. And so with a group of co founders, I have started something called the mattering. movement.com, where parents can have, you know, super practical toolkits that they can use at home. So you know, one of just thinking of a few things like it’s about, you know, one of them is the messaging that we give to our kids, messages of mattering versus messages that over prioritize achievement. So just one little small tweak you can make today is when your child comes home from school, you could lead with lunch, you could say what you know, what did you have for lunch today? Where would you sit? Who’d you sit with, they are going to tell you about the quiz. Rest assured, they are going to tell you, they are getting messages in the environment, from their teachers, from their classmates, from their classmates, parents, that achievement is so important, they will tell you and do what you can to satisfy your own anxieties so that you’re not putting them on your child. So anyway, lead with lunch is something that I would strongly recommend. One other thing, the kids that the healthy achievers that I met who had this strong sense of mattering felt valued for who they were at their core, but they were also depended on to add meaningful value back to their families, to their schools to their communities. So these healthy achievers, these, the parents of these healthy achievers relied on their kids, they gave them meaningful ways to give back to the family, whether it was through with chores, or, you know, helping with younger siblings, they were depended on and what, you know, our kids are so busy today, as parents, you know, we want to alleviate that stress. But actually, that dependence and reliance offers a child social proof that they matter, they could hear that they matter in your words. But then they also need proof that they matter. And so as a parent, I would say, really focus at home on what you can do to add meaningful value to your children’s lives. And so I’ll give you one example, my son was in charge of taking his little brother to school. So even if he had, every Friday, he had a late start at school, he. And he had to go early to bring his little brother to school, because we needed it in the family. So and when he had a day off, because he was in middle school, his brother was in Lower School, he would still have to take his little brother to school, because that’s how he was contributing to the family. And that was a meaningful way to contribute. When I was writing this book, I needed a tech expert. So my 17 year old became my tech expert. And he, you know, he really knew how relied on he was because there were times where I thought I would, you know, I lost pages and pages, and he would come and he would help me and he’d be patient, and he set up this microphone that I’m talking to you with. He made my office so that it wouldn’t echo he’s. So anyway, I rely on my kids. And I don’t call them chores, it’s more what can you do to help the family thrive?
It’s such an important point. Because when you think about it, how can you expect anyone let alone a child deliver value if they’ve never experienced it or felt that themselves? So it makes perfect sense. there any other ways, Jennifer, that the process of writing this book, the research that you uncovered, deeply impacted you in tangible ways in terms of how you parent your three teams?
Yeah, so I one another big takeaway from me was that, you know, the goal of parenting, we are told is to raise, you know, in independent self reliant adults, and yes, that’s important. But there’s a greater lesson I’ve come to learn if we really want to raise healthy adults, and that is to give them the skills of interdependence. That means being relied on, and also relying on others in healthy ways. And I think in our ever rising competitive culture, a lot gets in the way of healthy interdependence. And so in my home, I model it. So for example, my daughter was struggling with a paper in seventh grade. And she considers herself a really good writer, and the teacher gave her her first draft back, and it was a lot of edits a lot of marks. And she came really upset to me at home to me, and I said, Okay, hold on. And I pulled up my first article that I wrote, eight or 10 years ago for The Washington Post science section. And I pulled it up, and there were, she saw red marks from my editor everywhere. And she was like, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe they still let you write for them with this, oh, in this back. And I said, you know, at first, when I saw all these red marks, I was a little embarrassed to need so much help. But then I thought about it another way. And I thought, Wow, this seasoned editor really believed in me, she was investing in me as a writer. And so I took her suggested edits, and I’ve been writing for The Washington Post ever since. So, what I’ve taught my kids is that, you know, we don’t get anywhere without the help of others. And I try to model that any success I’ve ever had, as a writer or as a human, or as a parent, is directly the result of the help that I the unbelievable amount of help I’ve gotten along the way. So I think we need to point that out to our kids that we are not self made. You know, this is a particularly very American ethos to pull yourselves up, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, they say it. Have you ever tried to do that? Because it’s literally impossible. I mean, just, it’s impossible. I’ve tried. So show your kids. This is not what real life is about. lean on others, ask for help, and never worry alone. That’s the other big takeaway that I’ve taken in my that I’ve brought into my house. The psychologists, psychiatrists, sorry. Edward Hallowell writes about the idea of never worrying alone and I would say it’s true for adults, as well as for kids. If you never worry alone, you will be okay.
Jennifer, how would you go about characterizing the importance of your book Never enough it the importance of the theme him achievement culture and its impact on children, given the time we find ourselves in with the global epidemic of youth mental health issues. Yeah, I
mean, at the root of all of this suffering, of anxiety, of depression, of loneliness at the root of it is this deep unmet need to matter for who we are at our core. And it’s not just our youth, we’re seeing it in adults as well. And as a society, we need to go back to to making mattering front and center in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, and in the larger community. It is a universal human need to feel significant to feel a part of the world around us. And until we feel that unconditional sense of mattering, we will see rising rates of anxiety and depression among our youth and among their parents.
Lots of important food for thought. Jennifer Wallace, journalist and author of never enough when achievement pressure becomes toxic, and what we can do about it, we so appreciate your time in your perspective today.
Thank you so much for having me on.

Jennifer B. Wallace is an award-winning journalist and mother of three whose first book, Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic—and What We Can Do About It, explores this fraught issue and offers practical suggestions for navigating it. She spoke with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from New York.

“As I was looking for a framework to present to parents and to educators, I came across a psychological construct called mattering. It has been around since the 1980s, [this] idea of feeling valued for who we are deep at our core and being depended on to add meaningful value back to our families, to our schools, to our communities.”

Children need to know they matter, regardless of their external achievements. Parents have a responsibility to develop “skills of interdependence” in kids: “That means being relied on, and also relying on others in healthy ways.”

No one is self-made, contrary to the American ethos of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. “It’s impossible,” Wallace says in the video and podcast interview. “Show your kids, this is not what real life is about. Lean on others, ask for help, and never worry alone.”

Wallace, Jennifer B.headshot

Parents can assess whether they’re too deep into achievement culture by asking: How busy is your kid’s calendar? Where do you spend your money? What do you ask your kid about their day? What do you argue about? This helps to clarify family values.

Wallace explains: “We all have roughly a dozen common values, no matter where we live in the world. And it’s the environment that we surround ourselves in that activates certain values. So, if your kids are going to a competitive school [or] you live in a competitive community, those values of achievement amid of materialism of external rewards are going to be activated.”

Book cover. Wallace, JenniferUnfortunately, this takes “time away from things that, as a society, we used to think were important, like closeness as a family.” But it is possible to reclaim that.

In addition to emphasizing a child’s intrinsic worth, Wallace recommends minimizing criticism, prioritizing affection, and focusing on how work gets done, rather than what grades it generates.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Jennifer Wallace also discusses:

  • What tipping point led her to write this book
  • What research she found most compelling
  • How parents can push a child to achieve without damaging them
  • Strategies to counter FOMO

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