Mattering Matters

February 14, 2024

Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It, is jam-packed with data, analysis, and advice around today’s culture of overachievement, what it’s doing to our kids, and what we adults can do to combat the hits our kids are taking on a regular basis.

I found myself highlighting relevant sections on nearly every page as Wallace lays out her claim that today’s kids feel pressured, unseen, and judged exclusively by their accomplishments rather than valued as the unique beings they are. Kids are driving themselves into the ground as they try to distinguish themselves as the best – through academics, sports, or other extracurriculars. At worst, kids are left feeling empty and unworthy – at best, they get so caught up in the chase they stop engaging in vital social and emotional relationships and experiences that will lay the foundation for future happiness and security.

Some facts:

  • A 2019 national report published by some of America’s top developmental scientists identified a new “at-risk” group of kids – students attending competitive public or private schools with high standardized test scores who were negatively impacted by an excessive pressure to achieve.
  • In 2021 U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a rare public health advisory on the topic, noting that the mental health of younger people is shaped by factors from genes to social forces including media messages and popular culture and that living with toxic stress is harming a large portion of our youth – and it’s time for adults to step up and do something about it.”
  • From 2020 – 2023 Wallace conducted a nation-wide parenting survey on achievement pressure and travelled from coast to coast speaking in depth to parents and students who were trying their best to navigate the complex world of achievement. She also looked for kids who were thriving despite all the pressures of our modern achievement culture, searching for what buffers, mindsets, behaviors, family values, school experiences they had in common.

Her takeaway: Kids are absorbing the idea that their worth is contingent on their performance – their GPA, the number of social media followers they have, their college brands – not for who they are deep at their core. They feel they “matter” if they are successful. She defines “mattering” as the feeling that we are valued and add value to others. Mattering is key to positive mental health and to thriving in adolescence and beyond. How we as adults see our kids and communicate to them about their worth, potential, and value to society is critical to their sense of self. Students who feel a high level of mattering set the healthy high achievers apart.

Wallace offers practical advice to parents and educators as to how they can course correct to counter the increasing anxiety, depression, and isolation young people are experiencing and promote behaviors that will protect young learners and launch them into adulthood better equipped to handle life and thrive independently.

Taking action at home includes explicitly telling our kids how much they matter to us and reminding them that their worth does not equal their grades/their trophy/their placing. Embedding unconditional love for children into out parenting styles and adopting what Wallace called “the puppy dog principle,”

by showing kids they matter through micro-practices, is a powerful tool to shift the tide away from an over-dependence on achievement and toward mental health and balance. Lightening up and greeting our kids at least once a day “like a puppy” with total, unabashed joy majorly changes our relationship with our kids and their feelings about their self-worth.

Before you discount this as touchy/feely advice that will stand up like a wet noodle in the face of reality, rest assured that Wallace is a practical realist and fellow parent who wants her children to succeed. But just what “success” means is at the heart of the matter. She advises parents to conduct a “values” inventory to broaden conversations around success and what it looks like to you and your child. She talks about how we can work with kids to reframe the concept of competition away from seeing it as a zero-sum rivalry (your win is my loss) into a healthy constructive experience. She delves into ways we can emphasize the power of relationships and true collaboration to our children, introducing to them the idea of “worthy rivals” from whom they can learn. She offers practical suggestions to help children build deeper connections with family and friends, to build capacity for setbacks and failure, and to recognize the impact their choices and actions have in their lives and the ripple effect of their actions and mindsets.

I found this enlightening book hard to put down for a number of reasons, one of them being the sensitivity, compassion and hope inherent in every page. Wallace does not condemn well-meaning parents who push their children in ways they think will benefit them. Instead she empathizes with all who are raising children in a world that seems to become more competitive by the moment. She stresses the importance of self-care for parents, so that we can better see and know our children, become more sensitive to their needs, and partner with them for solutions. She offers myriad anecdotes and insights to help parents reflect on family values and their own ideas around success. In the midst of the swirl of anxiety many parents and children feel governs them Wallace locates “the calm” and identifies a simple truth. In examining the beauty of family, the reasons we have children, and the strength and importance of our hopes and dreams in today’s world she is steadfast in her belief that mattering is what matters most of all.

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