Easing Toxic Achievement Culture: “Greet Your Children The Way Your Dog Greets You”

“No one ever says, ‘I love this toxic achievement culture,'” Jennifer Wallace notes wryly.

Yet it persists.

It pervades Westport. It’s a pernicious, seemingly inescapable part of our daily lives.

Which is why hundreds of parents headed — “on a school night” — to the Westport Library last week.

Earlier in the day, 50 school counselors, mental health professionals and others who work with youth were there too.

Both audiences heard Wallace — a journalist, and author of the best-seller “Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It” — describe exactly the lives they live every day.

More importantly, she offered insights and strategies to lower the toxic temperature.

Wallace walks the talk. The high-achieving mother of 3 teenagers who lives on New York’s Upper East Side, and a Harvard graduate (more on that later), she knows first-hand the daily pressures that young people face.

She knows how adults — wittingly and unwittingly — reinforce those pressures.

And she knows Westport. She sees communities like ours all over the country.

Wallace’s appearances were a joint effort of the Westport Public Schools and Westport Together. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice and several Board of Education members joined the morning and evening audiences, where Staples High school counselor Deb Slocum moderated the discussions.

Among a litany of specific examples and key points, Wallace offered a few main thoughts: Share your values with your kids; build your life around it. Show them people they know who you believe live successful lives, and define that explicitly. Don’t neglect your own relationships and connections either; they matter.

And for kids, “mattering” — the belief that they matter to their friends, their family, their school and community — is the ultimate key to “success,” whichever ways one defines those terms.

A full house packed the Westport Library’s Trefz Forum to hear Jennifer Wallace (right).

Wallace’s audiences nodded knowingly at many points of her presentations. “At least once a day,” she said, “you should greet your children the way your dog greets you.”

That means “not asking ‘how did your math test go?’ or saying ‘get ready, we have to leave soon for your next activity,'” Wallace said.

“They already know that you care about those things. They need to know that you care about them — that they matter to you. They don’t need to feel ‘I’m only as good as my schedule.”

And, she added, “The difference between a 91 and a 99 is a life.”

Wallace said there is nothing wrong with setting high standards and goals. Many high achievers thrive in those environments. The danger comes from making love and acceptance conditional on those achievements only.

Veteran Staples school counselor Deb Slocum (left) moderated the discussion with Jennifer Wallace.

Success comes in ways far beyond acceptance to highly selective colleges, for example. She had harsh words for the US News & World Report rankings, for everything from their subjectivity and secrecy to the effect they have on students, parents, high schools and colleges.

Wallace offered evidence from her research that the rank, prestige, size or type (private or public) of a college has a “negligible effect” on success in life. (Those factors are more important for students of color, and first-generation college students, she noted.)

What does count is whether students feel valued on campus by professors and peers, and through activities.

“It’s not where you go to college, but how you go,” she said. “Invest in the child, not the logo.”

Of course, she went to Harvard. She had strong words for what it does well and poorly, and downplayed the importance of that school in her eventual success.

Wallace said her family does not talk about college at home. And her children have not attended Harvard reunions with her and her husband.

A major source of tension and worry, in many Westport families.

Wallace does not blame parents for the intensity with which they’re raising their kids. A litany of factors fuels parental fears that their children will not have the same opportunities they did.

But the reality, she said, is that students at high-achieving schools are 2 to 6 times more likely than others to suffer from anxiety and depression, and 2 to 3 times more likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol.

A parent’s job, she continued, is to “build a life your kids won’t need drugs or alcohol to escape from.”

Parents want to offer their children “a life vest in a sea of uncertainty,” Wallace said. Too often though, that life vest “is leaded. It’s drowning too many kids.”

Wallace’s parting words resounded with her audiences. “Think about your child in 20 or 30 years. What is the story you want them to tell about their childhood? And what was your role in that story?”

The Westport Public Schools and Westport Together will continue the community conversation that Wallace began. Interested high school and middle school parents are invited to meet on Wednesday, November 29; elementary school parents on Wednesday, December 6. Both sessions are from 9 to 10 a.m., in the Staples High School library.

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6 responses to “Easing Toxic Achievement Culture: “Greet Your Children The Way Your Dog Greets You”

  1. Janette Kinnally

    I think parents in Westport really did show as a community how much they love the kids and the families here after the high school freshman went missing for 36 hours and came back home safely last night. The day before we may have been on our kids about homework, college application deadlines (myself Included) etc.. but when the child went missing my heart sank because it is a parents worst nightmare and all we wanted was that sweet child back home to his family safely. Thankfully that happened and we all cried, cheered, celebrated and hugged our kids a little tighter last night – we truly do love our kids, we don’t have to show it always through their achievements. And that was modeled this weekend by our community and beyond Westport.

  2. Maybe this should have been promoted in the preschool and elementary schools where it all begins.

  3. This is especially interesting when read in conjunction with yesterday’s story on the next destinations of the Staples class of ’23, in which 93% are headed to four-year colleges, a mere 2% to two-year schools and only one student to the military. Apparently nobody is going to trade school, unless that’s in the 2.3% at two-year schools.

    Even though a Staples class is not a statistically representative sample of anything, and even though every family makes its own decisions on its own criteria, 400 kids out of 430 going to four-year schools suggests something might not be healthy here, starting with a lot of pressure to “be” a certain kind of something. A lot of these families will pay far too much for far too little. They will overpay economically and overtax themselves psychologically and emotionally to obtain a credential that likely isn’t worth what they’ve been told it’s worth.

    In 40 years of hiring and managing people, I never cared about where anyone went to university. It might be a topic of casual conversation during a certain sports tournament in March, but I never once weighed it in evaluating a person for hiring and can’t conceive of considering it in evaluating actual performance. Ms. Wallace’s point that it doesn’t matter where you go, but how is excellent, but I’d extend that, or clarify it, to note that some folks just don’t need a four-year degree to have a good career and a good life, and sending them into a pressure-cooker for the next four (or five or six) years is probably not healthy. Not for them, not for their families, and, ultimately, not for the country.

    A lot of people are over-investing large amounts of borrowed money and precious psychic energy in a wasteful pursuit of an illusory happiness.

  4. Elaine Daignault, Westport Human Services Director

    Thank you for covering Westport Human Services 27th Annual Health talk – bringing our youth-serving professionals and parents together to support children and families.

    Kudos to Youth Services Program Director Kevin Godburn for curating the event and managing the Westport Together initiative. Westport parents can join the continuing “Mattering Movement” conversation by registering here: bit.ly/neverenoughconversation

    Space is limited but we hope to offer more opportunities in the future. Learn more at http://www.westporttogether.org

  5. Rich kid problems.

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