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New Book Examines the Effect of Toxic Achievement Culture

A Mercer Island family’s experience is included in the book

Published on: September 01, 2023

a frustrated student sits with head in hands in front of her locker, signs of toxic achievement culture

The overwhelming need to achieve is the topic of journalist and author Jennifer Wallace’s groundbreaking new book, “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — And What We Can Do About It.” While many families can relate to the pressure to keep their kids competitive in an ever-narrowing field, one Mercer Island family shared their experience navigating this world locally; it's woven throughout the book. ParentMap had the chance to sit down with Wallace and plumb the depths of toxic achievement and glean what she learned in her research.

Jennifer Wallace will help kick off the 2023-2024 ParentEd Talks series with a bonus interview available to registrants. Parents and caregivers can register for the entire series with just one click. Plus, the first 25 registrants to purchase a series pass will receive a copy of Wallace's book.

As a parent, what was the most eye-opening aspect of your research in writing this book?

For decades now, researchers have been studying how adverse childhood experiences, such as living in poverty, increase risks to a child’s health and well-being. In recent years, two national policy reports made headlines for including the “at-risk” children at the other end of the economic spectrum. Researchers find that students attending what they call “high achieving schools” — competitive public or private schools around the country — are at a two to six times greater risk of suffering from clinical levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorder than the average American teen. I spent four years digging into the research about how we got here and what parents can do to buffer against these risks at home.  

How did we get to this place, where kids who have golden lives, are feeling so empty? What do you see as the source of today’s high achieving students’ sense of emptiness, anxiety and depression?

Critics like to point to parents saying we bring this stress and anxiety on ourselves, that we are just pushing kids too hard, living vicariously through them, too focused on a narrow definition of achievement. But what I found in speaking with economists and historians is that today’s intensive parenting style isn’t a personal choice that individual families are making alone in their living rooms. Parents are responding to the extreme inequality in our society, the crush of the middle class, globalization and hypercompetition. 

With the help of a Harvard researcher, I surveyed 6,500 parents and asked them how much they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “I feel responsible for my children’s achievement and success.” Seventy-five percent of parents somewhat or strongly agreed. The parents I interviewed said they worried that without their intense guidance and push, their children may be left behind. My parents (and I bet your parents) weren’t lying awake at night worrying about a drop from an A to a B student. Parents are caught: On the one hand they feel responsible for their kids' success. On the other hand, they just want to enjoy being a parent and want their kids’ lives to be less stressful. I asked parents how much they agreed or disagreed with this statement: I wish today’s childhood was less stressful for my kids. Eighty-seven percent of parents somewhat or strongly agreed. 

In the book, I lay out a new framework for parents who want to raise healthy, joyful achievers.

What does it mean to be pro-achievement, while prioritizing and promoting healthy achievement? What do healthy achievers have in common? And what do their parents focus on at home?

For the book, I went in search of the healthy strivers. I wanted to know what, if anything, they had in common: What was home life like? What were their behaviors, mindsets and relationships like? It turns out they had a lot in common. These healthy high-achievers believed that they were valued for who they were at their core by their parents, friends and wider community, and they were depended on to add meaningful value back to their parents, friends and communities. These students had what researchers call a high level of “mattering,” which acts as a protective shield against anxiety and depression. 

The students who seemed to be suffering the most were those kids who felt like their parents loved and valued them only when they were achieving — so they had a contingent sense of self-worth. The other group of kids who weren’t thriving were kids who were never asked to give back to others in any meaningful way: at home, at school or in the larger community. These kids lacked social proof that they mattered, that they were valued by others.

What is “mattering”? What steps can parents take to make “mattering” their mission? How does “mattering” relate to alleviating the potentially toxic pressures of high achievement?

You’ve likely never heard about the specific construct of “mattering,” but you’ve surely felt it. Mattering occurs in life’s big moments, like being celebrated with heart-felt toasts by family and friends. It’s found in everyday moments too, like when you’re sick and a friend calls you to check in or brings over a pot of homemade soup. The feeling that hits you when you pick up the phone or open the door is mattering, that you are deeply valued by your friend and worthy of love and support.

Mattering has many layers. It begins with mattering to parents, but then it extends outwards to family, community and the wider world. The more we feel valued, the more likely we are to add value and the other way around. When we are made to feel like we matter for who we are at our core, we build a sturdy sense of self-worth. We learn that we matter simply because we are. When we are chronically made to feel like we don’t matter, on the other hand — when we are abused or made to feel marginalized or simply ignored — we can act in ways that force others to take notice of us — whether that’s obsessing over performance, working too hard or acting out in a host of ways.

Today we are facing a mattering deficit with record rates of loneliness, anxiety and depression among our country’s youth. Research suggests that as many as one-third of adolescents in the U.S. do not believe they matter to others in their communities. When we don’t feel like we matter, we can turn inward: We give up, drink or use drugs to escape, and self-harm. A lack of mattering, studies find, is a strong predictor of mental health struggles, substance abuse and even suicide. 

To matter we need to feel valued, but we also need the opportunity to meaningfully add value to others. The more we add value to others, the more we feel valued — a healthy cycle that protects our mental health. High levels of mattering act as a protective shield buffering against the stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness so many people are experiencing today. It’s also a wonderful way to go through life: feeling you matter and unlocking that feeling of mattering in others. Imagine what the world would be like if every single person in this world felt like they truly mattered. It wouldn’t solve everything, but it would go a long way to alleviate so much of the suffering we are seeing today among our youth.


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