“Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic and What Parents Can Do About It”

“Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic and What Parents Can Do About It”

Parenting today can feel like a hamster wheel of doing, striving, scrolling and worrying. Filled with anxiety and the best of intentions, we may find ourselves inadvertently making ourselves crazy and putting our kids at risk for a myriad of mental health issues. Looking for solutions to this common dilemma, I spoke with Jenny Wallace — award winning journalist and parent of three — about her book, “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic and What Parents Can Do About It.” 

The title of your book is so compelling, why did you write it? 

I wanted to figure out why my childhood in the 1970s and ‘80s felt so different. In the 1970s, life was more affordable — there was more slack in the system. Parents believed that even with a few wrong moves, their children would wind up OK. Today health insurance, real estate and even food have become unaffordable. Childhood is now seen as a training ground for adulthood and if it doesn’t start early, then we believe our kids will end up on the wrong side of the economic divide. The pressure we are feeling is bigger than any one family, school or community. 

It seems though that the achievement culture doesn’t really train kids for adulthood (cooking, cleaning, managing disappointment and taking care of themselves). It seems like it’s training them to make money.

That’s exactly right. The story we are telling in our homes is that we need to prepare our kids for late-stage capitalism in which you have either a lot or a little. That anxiety and scarcity mindset are creating intensive parenting. Paradoxically, these very kids we are trying to protect are now the newly identified at-risk group for anxiety, depression and even self-harm. One high school student in California said to me, “It’s ironic that adults wonder why there is so much anxiety and depression in my generation when they are the ones who have created this crazy environment for us.”

To counteract this toxic achievement culture, you use the term “Balance Keeper” as part of the parenting job description. What do you mean by that?

Our kids are saturated with materialistic values: self-enhancement; money-making; striving for big houses and expensive cars. It’s crowded out things that we used to prioritize as families, such as creating caring communities, being good members of the family, giving back to your school. In our grind culture, kids think they are valued based on performance and what they produce. A “Balance Keeper” helps kids see their value outside the capitalistic system, shows them that they carry within themselves intrinsic value. I went in search of the “healthy strivers,” the kids succeeding without mental health liabilities.

The parents of the healthy strivers didn’t feed their children’s oversized achievement goals. They put up guardrails, like: “Yes, you can take some AP classes, but you can’t do five in one semester. For most kids. that’s too much to take on, and it will crowd out other things in our family that we value just as much as achievement.” One mom of a family of healthy strivers thinks it’s her job to “take the kettle off the heat” and believes that her kids are thriving — not despite her pulling them back, but because of it. 

You write about the culture of narcissism that we seem to be breeding. What are the results of all this self-focus?

Prioritizing résumé-building gives kids a very self-focused lens. They lose perspective on their place in the larger world, making normal setbacks feel huge and outsized. The research shows that kids who are overly consumed with themselves live a very up-and-down life. They feel good when they are doing well and crushed when they are not. An other-oriented lens provides perspective and a greater capacity to deal with the inevitable setbacks and disappointments of life. Parents can counteract this by giving their kids humility — not having their kids think less of themselves but less about themselves. Several families I met have a “volunteer mandate”: They say to their kids, “I don’t care how you share your gifts, strengths and time with others, but it’s a mandate in our family that you do it.” 

What is it about adult friendships that make them a powerful and essential parenting tool?

Decades worth of research finds that resilience fundamentally rests on the depth, strength, and support of our relationships. That’s how we get through hard times. The multi-billion-dollar self-care industry would like us to believe we can buy resilience with a product or a treatment, but it cannot be bought. Nothing can take the place of friendships, and those relationships need intentional investments. Today’s parents don’t give themselves enough time, emotional bandwidth and willingness to be vulnerable in a way that could make other people a source of support. We all need one or two people outside our home with whom we can be ourselves, be loved, cared for and validated. 

How can a parent slow down, stop pushing, when everyone around them is doing it?

I thought this book would be a hard sell, but I’ve done 20 talks and not one parent has pushed back. They see that what we are doing is not working. This is not an anti-ambition or anti-achievement book. It is encouraging parents to give their kids healthy fuel to reach their academic, career and social goals while maintaining a sense of well-being. Making the change doesn’t involve huge moves, just small shifts in our parental energy and focus. 

How has your research and writing impacted your own parenting?

I have become very intentional about how I talk and model my values. Instead of one big lecture, I pepper it into everyday interactions. I’m intentional about the guardrails I put up: 8-10 hours available for sleep every night, time as family every day and some sort of downtime. My kids are now giving it back to me, and I couldn’t be more pleased. At the end of the school year, my son was studying for exams, and we were invited to a family dinner. I asked what he wanted to do, and he said, “I want to spend an hour with my extended family. It will energize me, I’ll feel better, and I’ll have the kind of fuel that will help me.” 

What can parents do today, right now, tonight?

The psychologist Suniya S. Luthar once advised me, “Minimize criticism. Prioritize affection.” Minimizing criticism doesn’t mean you don’t have expectations, but it means really watching the way we communicate our disappointment with our kids. Prioritize affection by using the “Puppy Dog Principle,” by greeting your child once a day the way the family puppy greets their family — just total joy for the human they are. 

What is the impact of parental disappointment?

Researchers call that “child-contingent self-esteem,” meaning your feelings about yourself rise and fall with your kids’ accomplishments. Obviously, this is not a healthy way to go through life for your child or yourself. Parents need to go into their own psychological attics and unpack the messages around achievement and  people-pleasing they were given as children so they can be more intentional and less reactive. We need to understand parenting isn’t about achievement and productivity, parenting is about the connection with the child.

Tell us about the healthy strivers you met?

The kids I met who were doing well have a deep sense of purpose, a bigger reason to reach for their goals. They understand they need to be better not just for themselves, but for others. Healthy strivers grow their strengths and feed their skills so that they can contribute to others. One inspiring healthy striver, Adam, credited his parents with exposing him to things, but not driving his activities. They didn’t overfunction in his life, therefore Adam was able to tap into what was interesting to him and go deep. Remember, teens have a natural need to want to separate from their parents. They are wired to individuate, to figure it out themselves. 

What is Enough? 

We, and our children, can get to “enoughness” through mattering — through feeling valued by the people we love and by finding areas in the world that have real needs and adding value there. High levels of mattering give us enoughness, that’s the answer to the “never enough” feeling.