Jennifer Breheny Wallace, NEVER ENOUGH: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-And What We Can Do about It

Jennifer Breheny Wallace, NEVER ENOUGH: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-And What We Can Do about It

Zibby interviews award-winning reporter and New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Breheny Wallace about Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic and What We Can Do About It, an incisive and eye-opening book that every parent should read. Jennifer describes her fascinating research on families nationwide and shares what she learned about achievement, hyper-competition, pressure, and overwhelm. She then reveals the key to raising healthy achievers: “mattering.”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jenny. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Jennifer Breheny Wallace: Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me back. It’s so great.

Zibby: As you reminded me this morning, you were, what, my third guest ever on this podcast? Insane.

Jennifer: I think so. Yeah, I know. I can’t believe how big you’ve gotten, how much you’ve grown.

Zibby: Oh, stop.

Jennifer: No, it’s amazing, the bookstore, the newsletter. Being the number-one advocate for authors, it was a space that definitely needed filling. You found it. You did it.

Zibby: Thank you. Now you’re here with what is sure to be a massive best-seller, but I’m getting in before it hits all the charts. Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic and What We Can Do About It. I remember seeing you in the Starbucks parking lot last summer working on it, or two summers ago. It must have been two summers ago.

Jennifer: Oh, my gosh, Zibby, I have been working and writing this for four years.

Zibby: Four years. Maybe I saw you four years ago. Two years would’ve been too late. Tell listeners about the whole journey of this book. Then we’re going to go into all the things we have to know and all of that.

Jennifer: Okay, great. It probably began — well, it definitely began in 2019 when I wrote an article for The Washington Post about how students attending what researchers call high-achieving schools are now officially an at-risk group. After kids in poverty, kids with incarcerated parents, recent immigrants, children living in foster care, it’s this new group of kids that are considered at risk, meaning that they are two to six times more likely to suffer from clinical levels of anxiety and depression and substance abuse disorder than the average American teen. I have three teenagers who attend these competitive schools. These are public and private schools around the country with, generally, high standardized test scores and rich extracurricular offerings. I wanted to find out what was going on and what I could do in my home to buffer against this pressure. To be clear, we’re not talking about the one percent of kids or the top ten percent of kids. We are looking at this cohort of the top twenty to twenty-five percent of household incomes, so roughly, parents who make a combined income of about $130,000 or more a year. Those are the kids that are now officially at risk.

Zibby: You wrote in the book, you said, “A child’s pain is a child’s pain.” Why should we care? This is all really a “woe is me” problem, but when a child is really struggling, it’s a big deal.

Jennifer: I said to the leading researcher, Suniya Luthar, when I was first researching this, I said, “There is so much childhood suffering in the world. Why should we care about this group that can afford to alleviate a lot of their problems?” She snapped right back at me. She said, “These children do not choose their circumstances. They are in pain. We are not weighing pain on a scale.” I had the same question.

Zibby: You start digging. You talk to people all over the country. You gave us so many examples of people you spoke to, families you spoke to, kids who sound very familiar. I’m trying to do this. I’m on this team. I’m doing that. Why is it never enough? Why am I not happy? Which by the way, sounds a lot like a lot of grown-ups I know too. Does this end? Tell me about some of the things you learned about this whole achievement culture. You gave so many tips and even things you changed in your own house. I was like, I think I should photocopy this and put it on the fridge. This is really great. When you started talking to families, what were some of the things you started finding?

Jennifer: I wanted to make sure before I set out to research this book that it wasn’t just a problem of a few isolated communities or just a problem on the coasts. With the help of a researcher at Harvard, I conducted a first-of-its-kind parenting survey where I wanted to get to where the roots were. I wasn’t buying this narrative that parents just wanted a bumper sticker on the back of their car. I had a feeling that the stress and anxiety that parents were reporting had really deep roots. The researcher that I hired said, “If we get a sample size of a thousand, that’ll be great for finding patterns.” Within a few days, 6,500 parents had filled it out. It had gone viral. What I had realized at that moment was that I had hit on something. As one parent wrote to me, “Thank you for talking about something we are all feeling in our homes but aren’t necessarily talking about.” What I really wanted to do for myself — actually, researchers who study topics that are interesting to their personal lives call it me-search. This book was very much me-search. It was written for me as I’m trying to raise healthy, joyful achievers in a hypercompetitive world. At the end of the survey, I asked parents to email me if they would be willing to be interviewed either on the record or off the record. Hundreds of parents reached out. I hired somebody to help me do some of these preliminary interviews. What I found was that this pressure on parents is felt in Alaska; in Washington State; in Maine; in Cleveland, Ohio; in Texas; in Tennessee; in Jackson, Wyoming; in Michigan. Needless to say, it is being felt everywhere.

What I was hoping to do with this book and for myself was to put into a larger context what parents were feeling. We tend to personalize instead of zoom out and put into context the world around us and why we may be feeling it. I’d love to read you a couple of things that I found from this survey. I asked parents how much they agreed or disagreed with this statement. “I feel responsible for my children’s achievement and success.” Seventy-five percent of parents felt responsible for their children’s achievement and success. Then I asked them, “I wish today’s childhood was less stressful for my kids.” I asked them on a scale from one to four how much they agreed or disagreed. Eighty-seven percent of the parents I interviewed agreed with that statement. I will say, I zoomed out, and I wanted to know, why was my childhood so different than my children’s childhood? Why was I, like these parents that I interviewed, feeling responsible for their achievement and success and happiness and matching their extracurricular activities with their strengths and just all of these things? My parents were very devoted parents. They would drive me places. As I say in the book, they would buy me tennis shoes, but they didn’t feel responsible for making me a great tennis player who made the tennis team.

Why are parents feeling this heavy burden in today’s childrearing? I was zooming out and looking at, why was my childhood so different than the childhood that my kids are living through? I interviewed historians and economists and anthropologists. While there are a few reasons for this, one that really struck me was the macroeconomic forces that we are raising our kids in today. In the 1970s when I was growing up, life was generally more affordable. Parents believed that their kids could one day own a house. Higher education was more affordable. Health care was more affordable. Over the past several decades, we have seen this ushering in of this steep inequality, this crush of the middle class, globalization, hyper-competition. What parents are feeling is that life is much more uncertain than it was back in the seventies. As one researcher put it, parents are, whether or not they’re aware of it, they’re absorbing these macroeconomic pressures. They are becoming social conduits in the way that they pass this pressure down to their kids in order to raise them in order to thrive in this uncertain future. This isn’t to blame parents. It’s just to put into context why we are parenting so much more intensively than our parents did. It’s because we fear for our kids’ future.

Zibby: Wow. The ripple effect of that is the behavior and the pressure we put on the kids and the expectations and all of that. What you’re saying is it’s done out of love, essentially, right?

Jennifer: Essentially. Exactly. The job of a parent is to set a child up to thrive when we’re no longer around. Parents today are betting big that helping their kids get into a brand-name college will work as a kind of safety vest, a life vest in a sea of uncertainty.

Zibby: I have to be honest. Obviously, you’ve interviewed a trillion people and know much more. My anecdotal thoughts on this is that actually, colleges matter so much less than they used to, even though people are striving so hard to get in. I interview people all the time. It means, oh, you grew up this way. You could get into this college. Not, you are so smart. You could be just as smart and go to any college. I feel like the playing field has totally shifted on the professional level, from all the things I’ve seen, at least.

Jennifer: I a hundred percent agree with you. The problem is parents are anxious and sort of fixated. If I could just do this for my kid, it would be a life vest, but that life vest is drowning them. Actually, in the book, I get into, it’s not the college brand. It’s not the prestige. It’s not whether it’s a public or a private institution, big or small. There are, what researchers have found, six factors that actually are very strongly correlated with midlife well-being, financial success, and career success. It has nothing to do with a college brand. Parents are maybe not even aware that they are doing this. They’re parenting out of fear and out of love, but like you point out, it’s misguided.

Zibby: It’s true. Even starting with childhood soccer and travel soccer and all these things, it is so hard to feel like you are the one opting out of a race. You may opt out, but actually, then you’re going to lose the race. If you opt out, what does that mean? Can you ever get back in it if you opt out early? What does that do? All of those conflicting thoughts and then the pressure in the friend groups — what are you doing wrong? Then you have to start to think, am I doing something wrong? I obviously want the best for my kids.

Jennifer: What you’re pointing out is that there’s a social contagion. It becomes almost like this frenzy. To answer your question, yes, you can opt out. It actually may be the best thing for your family and for your kids if you’re thinking about long-term achievement. In the book, I went in search of, who were the healthy thrivers? Who were the kids who are achieving in healthy ways? What did they have in common? What did their parents focus on at home? What was school like for them? What were their relationships like? I found about fifteen things these healthy achievers had in common. As I was looking for a framework to present my findings to parents, I came across this psychological construct called mattering.

Zibby: I read that.

Jennifer: It is this idea that’s been around since the 1980s. It was originally conceptualized by Morris Rosenberg, who brought us self-esteem, so this highly esteemed researcher. He found that the kids who enjoyed healthy levels of self-esteem had a deep sense that they mattered, that they were valued and significant and important to their parents aside from their external accomplishments. There’s been studies over the last several decades that people who are thriving in adolescence and in later life enjoy this high level of mattering. They feel valued for who they are at their core by their family, their friends, and community. They are, importantly, depended on to add meaningful value back to their family, to their friends, to their communities. This high level of mattering, it acted as a protective shield that buffered against stress and anxiety. These kids would still have failures. They’d still have setbacks. What mattering did, it was this kind of buoy that would raise them up.

If we’re looking for where to put all of our energies — I certainly bring a lot of parental energy to my own parenting. What I have found is the parents who are raising the healthy strivers focus on mattering, which is different than achievement. It’s actually different than loving your kids. We all love our kids unconditionally. I have found that in the hundreds of parents I have interviewed, in the hundreds of parents I know. No one loves their kids conditionally. Unfortunately, too many kids today are feeling the love and the regard of their parents as conditional. It is damaging. The kids I found who were suffering the most believed that their mattering was contingent on their performance. The other group, they felt like they mattered to their parents, but they lacked social proof that they mattered because nobody depended on them. They were never depended on to add value to anyone other than themselves. That also creates this kind of lopsided, hyperfocused sense of self, which can be very destructive to a young person or, really, to anybody.

Zibby: I literally went through some of your findings and sat there with my kids last night. I was like, “Okay, do you feel like my love is contingent on your success? Do you feel pressure?” I went through. They were like, “No, no, no, it’s all good.” I’m like, okay, fine.

Jennifer: I do think that’s true about you, Zibby. I think you wrap your kids up in this love that they never feel like it’s dependent on — I know. Our kids know each other, so I’ve seen you up close and personal with your parenting.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, thank you. I do think it would be useful to — maybe you have this somewhere. I know you have discussion questions and all these things related to the book for parents. Even the quiz to give your children, do you have that, a self-rating tool? Did I miss it? Sorry if I did.

Jennifer: No, it’s not in the book. With several cofounders, I’m starting something called the Mattering Movement, which will be the action arm of the book. In the book, I have stories. I have tips. Then for parents like you who want to go deeper, I’m creating this Mattering Movement. We will have things like assessments and interactive things that you could do with your kids and that you could do for yourself.

Zibby: Isn’t it interesting, too, this sort of dovetails on the timing of the Black Lives Matter movement? In terms of mattering movements and the effect of not feeling like you matter, maybe just speak to that for a second.

Jennifer: What I have found among the parents I interviewed and what I have found anecdotally in my own life and what researchers who study mattering have found is that we are really living through a mattering deficit. When we think about the pressures, when we think about — let me back up and talk a little bit more about what mattering is. Mattering, it answers this core human need that we all have to feel seen and significant and understood and valued. Researchers have studied it all over the world. It is a universal need. They say after the drive for food and shelter, it is the need to matter that drives all of human behavior, for better and for worse. For better, when we feel like we matter, we show up to the world in positive ways. We want to contribute. We want to add value to the people around us and to our society. We want to leave the world a little better than we found it. When we don’t feel like we matter, we can show up in the world in destructive ways. The FBI has looked at mattering and how it relates to domestic terrorism. A very sad anti-mattering moment are school shooters who feel like they don’t matter, and they’ll show you they matter. I think what we are seeing is a world in which places where we used to matter naturally, neighborhoods, places of worship, social leagues, bowling leagues, these places where we used to feel valued are no longer around. We are siloed in our individual homes trying to prove our mattering. We prove it through either academic achievements — when we feel like we don’t matter, we can turn inwards. We can become anxious, depressed. We could turn to self-harm. We are in a mattering deficit.

Zibby: I think that’s why, in part, even someone liking a comment on Instagram can make your day, or writing something and having someone else out there say they feel the same way. We need the littlest things to keep us going.

Jennifer: Exactly, a hundred percent. Mattering occurs in life’s little moments. It doesn’t have to be this huge shift in your life. It’s these small, cumulative shifts, like the people in your life, whether it’s online or offline, showing them that what they say matters. It has value. It’s somehow added value to your life.

Zibby: You do have this one part where you talk to one dad who’s like, but what if you do need to push your kids? What then? How do you know? How do you manage that?

Jennifer: That’s also something I asked psychologists that I interviewed. They gave me really good advice. Number one, kids want to do well, so get that out of your head that you have a child who has no interest in achieving or doing well. Kids feel good when they do well, and they want to feel good. One thing to do is think about what’s going on in that child’s life that’s getting in the way. Could it be a learning difference? Could it be that they don’t have close relationships at school and they feel this really low sense of belonging which can really preoccupy their brains and take them away from studying? Get to the root of why they are not doing well. If you’ve gotten to the root of that and you discover that it’s because your kids have no study skills, which I often found with my own sons, not my daughter, but with my boys, what I was advised to do by the psychologists in middle school and upper middle school — I actually wrote an article about this. I interviewed psychologists. They said focus on how the work gets done. Don’t focus on shiny outcomes. Don’t look for the A. Frankly, our kids can get an A by cheating. Instead, what you want to be doing, especially in the middle school years, is to provide a scaffolding showing them you can have rules in your family about how the work gets done. You could say, you know what, after school or after your activity, have a few minutes of downtime, and then we’re going to buckle in. We’re going to get X number of work done. We’re not going to get it done in your room with your phone on your desk so you’re distracted. We’re going to move the phone into the kitchen or somewhere else. You can take breaks, but we’re going to have good work hygiene. Parents can have rules and focus on that. When kids know how to do the work, the grades will come.

Zibby: What about sports? Let’s say your kids don’t want to do anything. They just want to come home and hang out and whatever. It’s really important for us all to move, even just for a health standpoint. I don’t mean they have to be on a competitive team. Although, there are all these studies about the importance of being on a team. There’s that. Then there’s the need to move. Then there’s maybe some kids who would prefer to just come home and lie on the couch and maybe read or maybe do whatever, I don’t know, just chill.

Jennifer: I think it’s a parent’s job to teach a child how to live a balanced life. What does that mean? These are conversations that we should have with our children about what we value as parents. One of the things in our home that we value is we value taking care of our bodies. What does that mean? That means getting enough sleep. That means doing some sort of exercise. It doesn’t have to be competitive. It could be walking around the block with a headset on. We value our work. We value doing good work. We value our relationships. We value time for that. What I have found, there are some families that I interviewed where the kids were hyperfocused and overworking, and so those parents had to put up boundaries around their children’s work. They had to say, you can’t sign up for AP classes. Then there were other families like you talked about whose kids had not found the thing that interested them. I promise you, and every psychologist I interviewed said, your children have interests, you just have to get a PhD in them and find out what their interests are. What makes their brains light up? What do they want to talk about? I talk about in the book, how to encourage this healthy fuel by getting a PhD in them. What are their natural strengths?

If you’re really stuck as a parent, I found this so helpful. There’s something called the VIA Character Survey, which is a free online survey that was developed by two of the world’s leading positive psychology researchers. Really, they were the grandfathers of the positive psychology movement, Marty Seligman and Christopher Peterson. It’s a ten-minute or so online quiz. There’s a version for kids, and there’s a version for adults. Everyone in my family did it. My kids were able to see these were their natural strengths. Actually, it matched up. I wouldn’t have had the words to say these were my kids’ strengths, but they really did match up. When things happened or when they weren’t motivated, I would look back on these strengths. I would say, oh, interesting. For my daughter, it’s humor. What could we do to encourage that strength? She could read funny books. She could write a funny short story. We could watch a funny movie together.

Zibby: Where’s the quiz?

Jennifer: If you head to, you will find the VIA Character Survey.

Zibby: VIA Character, okay. Actually, my son just emailed me last night. He took some survey last night and was like, “You have to take this.” There are sixteen different personality types.

Jennifer: There are lots of these. This one is really scientifically validated and great. It’s good for them to get to know themselves and for us to get to know them.

Zibby: They love quizzes. Stepping aside from all the stuff in the book, how are you managing being the holder of all this precious information that is so needed? I feel like you’re in a buffet line. There are all these starving people. You’re just throwing out plates as fast as you can.

Jennifer: That is a good image. I feel a little bit like a buffet line. I am so grateful. I did write this book for me, but I wrote it for parents. I do feel like the experts that I interviewed, the parents that I met with all around the country gave such great advice that I’ve already implemented in my own home. I am excited. I have lots of talks lined up. If you head over to my website, you’ll see a list of them.

Zibby: You said there are eighty coming up. That’s insane. Oh, my gosh, it’s just getting started.

Jennifer: I have eighty talks. I know. It’s a lot. I’m taking my own advice in the book, and I’m setting some boundaries around how much travel I’m doing because it is my oldest son’s senior year of high school. I had a conversation when I was accepting the speaking engagements — a lot of them are on Zoom. I said to him, “You know, I really want to be there for your senior year.” He’s like, “Mom, you’ve worked for four years. Go. Enjoy this.” I said, “Honey, I’m not staying home for you. I’m staying home for me. I want to enjoy.” This is, as a parent, my Super Bowl. I’m so thrilled with where he is in his life. To be a senior in high school and to really see it all come together, I want to relish it. Yes, I’m going to be on the road a lot in September and October. Then after that, I’ve really limited the travel. I’m accepting Zooms so that I can be there after school for my kids.

Zibby: It’s amazing. This book is really going to impact families on the most intimate, important levels. It’s going to start changing. How great would it be if the whole culture could shift and just take that collective sigh? I feel like people are so desperate for someone to be like, it’s okay if you don’t do all this. They don’t have the confidence. I understand. I chose not to do travel soccer. I’m like, you don’t have to do travel soccer. Then I’m like, maybe I was wrong about that. I think anytime people hear it, you can see their shoulders just kind of fall. Really? Okay.

Jennifer: You know why? Instinctively as parents, we know that what’s happening right now to childhood isn’t right. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel right at home. It doesn’t feel right in our children’s lives. We are all seeing the anxiety, stress in our kids. We’re looking for changes. When I sold this book in 2019, I thought I would have a hard time convincing parents to focus on mattering. I’m not.

Zibby: Wow. You heard it here. Everything is about to matter. Jenny, you’re the one who’s bringing it to the world. How amazing is that? It’s so cool. Congratulations. Really awesome.

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thanks a lot.

Jennifer Breheny Wallace, 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 by Jennifer Breheny Wallace

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