In November, I attended a webinar with Jennifer Breheny Wallace, author of Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic and What We Can Do About It.  During the hour-long webinar, I typed nearly four pages of single-spaced notes, and while I will do my best to summarize them, I highly recommend watching the webinar recording and/or reading Wallace’s book (which I recently started).

The webinar (and the book) focused on the high-pressure, high-stakes environment that many of today’s teenagers are living and going to school in — an environment where achievement and getting into a “good” college take precedence over everything else, often at a detriment to teens’ well-being and mental health.

Wallace explained that much of the pressure parents put on their kids comes from a place of fear.  She said millennials are not doing as well as their parents were at the same age, and today’s parents are worried that their children won’t be able to have the same kind of lifestyle they grew up with.  She said parents “don’t know what half of the jobs are going to be when [their kids] are out in the market” and added that parents are also concerned about how climate change and AI will affect the future economy.

Wallace talked extensively about values and how they shape parents’ and students’ ideas of success and in turn, their goals.  She said conversations about college are conversations about what families value.  Families should start having these conversations when kids are young, and parents need to check in with themselves about whether their values are actually being reflected in those conversations.

In doing research for her book, Wallace talked with hundreds of families across the country.  She found that the students she called “healthy strivers” had parents who were very clear about their values and what their family’s definition of success looked like, and it didn’t have anything to do with the name of a college.  These parents introduced their kids to adults who were successful and who went to colleges they’d never heard of.

Wallace acknowledged that in many communities, messages about achievement are so pervasive that it can be difficult for parents and students to overcome them.  She said the parents of healthy strivers made a point of having family friends who shared their values and whom they could turn to when faced with “community pressure.”  Additionally, she suggested these families get together so their kids could meet other adults with similar values.

Wallace also talked about what she calls “mattering” and how it can help combat the harmful effects of achievement culture.  First, she explained what mattering means: “Young people who feel like they are valued for who they are . . . away from their achievements and successes and who were relied on to add value back to their families, schools, and communities . . . are thriving.”  Although these teens have setbacks, “mattering acts like a protective shield . . . a failure is not an indictment of their worth . . . so actually they are more likely to reach for higher goals and to achieve more.”  

Wallace offered tips for parents and counselors to help students find ways to matter.  She suggested talking with teens about how they can get involved in their schools and communities in ways that add value, rather than to simply build a resume.  She recommended that adults assist students in identifying their natural strengths and how they can use those strengths to make contributions.  Furthermore, she said that when it comes to academic achievement, parents and counselors should ask students why they want to do well in school and why they want to go to college.  She said, “I think we need . . . to teach our kids why they should want to achieve.  It is not just for them; it is to make a positive impact on the world.”

While Wallace acknowledged that colleges are at least partly to blame for creating such a high-pressure environment, she emphasized what parents can do to reframe their expectations of and conversations with their kids in order to help them become healthy strivers.  She said, “We can’t wait for colleges to change the system.  [We need] to create havens in our homes and our communities where kids can recover from toxic messages . . . where they can have space to figure out who they are and what their strengths are . . . and where they don’t feel like they have to prove their worth.”