When pushing for achievement becomes toxic

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 9 October 2023

Modern kids are getting caught up in the "grind culture" of the adult world and not developing a sense of inherent self-worth, says American journalist Jennifer Berhenti Wallace.

a young girl studying

a young girl studying Photo: August de Richelieu

Parenting researcher and journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace

Parenting researcher and journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace Photo: Supplied

In the new book Never Enough, Wallace explores how rising income inequality and a changing job landscape have led to kids getting caught up in the same kind of "grind culture" their parents exist in.

This problem of supercharged expectations, she says, is not with individual parents – it is cultural and really emerged in the last three decades.

In the '70s and early '80s, when she grew up, housing, higher education and food were more affordable, so there was more "slack in the system".

"My parents could be relatively assured that even with some setbacks and failures, that I would most likely be able to replicate my childhood if not even do better than my own parents did."

Today's parents are facing a different reality, Wallace says, in having to create individualised safety nets for their children.

"I think what a lot of parents are doing, even unconsciously, is that they are betting big [on] that early childhood success, getting your kid into a good college that will act as a kind of safety vest.

"In a sea of economic uncertainty, we don't know what the jobs are going to be like in the future. So much feels unknown  - climate change, the crush of the middle class ... but the life vest that we're using, hoping to protect our kids with, is operating more like a lead vest and drowning too many of the kids we're trying to protect."

Biology also plays a role. 

"When our kids score the winning goal or do well on a test, we get rewarded in our brains, we get a biological reward. And when we sense that our children are slipping, when they are not doing as well, we are punished with a neurochemical cocktail in our brain that is punishing, it's painful. So often, without an awareness, we will act in ways that are not necessarily to our or to our children's advantage"

Most parents aren't aware of the disconnect between what they say their priorities are - such as wanting their kids to be happy and become kind citizens - and what children feel like their parents are prioritising and communicating in the home, she says.

Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-And What We Can Do about It

Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-And What We Can Do about It Photo: Supplied

For any parents wondering if they've fallen into the trap or promoting toxic achievement, Wallace recommends these four questions devised by American psychoanalyst Tina Payne Bryson:

1. Look at your child's calendar: How are they spending their time outside of school? Are they pursuing a lot of tutoring, coaching or extracurricular activities that are really there to bolster achievement?

2. Look at how you spend money in relation to your child: How much of it is towards achievement-oriented activities?

3. Notice what you ask your child about when they get home from school: What's the first thing you ask? Is it how do you do on a quiz or is it something more innocuous like what did you do in gym [PE] class?

4. Notice what you argue with your child: Strong feelings about their calendar, your spending, what you ask about and what you argue about can reveal a lot about the kind of messages you're sending your children around achievement.

An "unhealthy" way of striving, Wallace says, is based on the idea that people are only as good, or worthy, as their achievements.

"When kids or parents or coaches try to tie that child's self-worth to their achievements in order to motivate them, it might help them reach an immediate goal, but over the long run that's going to clog that child's engine."

When striving is "healthy", a person might feel disappointed when they fail to meet a goal or hit a setback but don't view this as an indictment of their worth.

"They might be disappointed. They might be down and anxious and sad. But they are resilient. They are able to bounce back because they know they are not their failures. They matter for who they are deep inside."

This sense of "mattering" is the key to healthy achievement, healthy self-esteem and self-worth, Wallace says.

How can a parent communicate to a child that they matter? By sending them messages day in and day out that you love them for who they are deep at their core.

The Mattering Movement – a non-profit website Wallace founded – has further tools and resources on how to foster a sense of 'mattering' in parenting, relationships and work.

"It's really about seeing and knowing your child for who they are deep inside, away from their achievements. Are they funny? Do they show empathy to their classmates and siblings? Notice who they are and point it out to them, helping them build a sense of self that isn't reliant on their achievements. Ironically, counterintuitively, having that strong core will actually lead to greater success because kids won't be afraid to reach for high goals."