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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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