“You Matter!”: Defeating Toxic Achievement Culture While Promoting Self-Motivation

You may have heard about the new book, Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic–And What We Can Do About It, by Jennifer Breheny Wallace. The author has appeared on several podcasts and news shows, which is how she and her book caught our attention.

In Never Enough, Wallace takes a deep dive into achievement culture and shows how it is negatively affecting kids by increasing their anxiety, depression, and isolation. She also identifies concrete ways families and communities can counter these effects and move towards behaviors that will protect kids and send them into adulthood better equipped to manage life’s ups and downs (xxi). We were super excited to hear this as it is exactly what we are addressing with our newly launched StressWell offering right here at GetzWell!

According to Wallace’s research, the antidote to toxic achievement culture is “mattering.” You’re probably thinking: OK, but what exactly is mattering? As Wallace defines it, “mattering” captures feelings of being valued (such as belonging, community, and attachment) in addition to emotions generated by adding value (like self-determination, mastery, and competence) (51).

Parents agree that they want their kids to know they matter, but untangling feelings and expectations around achievement can be complicated. As one mom remarked, “I want my kids to know they matter for who they are, but I also don’t want to be raising entitled lumps!”

Fortunately, mattering does more than buffer kids from the toxic effects of achievement culture; it also helps kids to become self-motivated contributors in life. In The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives and What Do you Say: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home, authors William Stixrud, Ph.D. and Ned Johnson emphasize the importance of autonomy, which is one important aspect of mattering. They have found in their years of practice and through research on stress and motivation that “a low sense of control is enormously stressful and that autonomy is key to developing motivation” (2019, 2).

But how do we cultivate mattering? In this article, I briefly explore the problem kids are facing regarding achievement culture. Next, I offer some solutions drawn from all three of these books as well as key concepts from other authors and thinkers. My goal is to suggest ways forward with kids, especially with tweens and teens, that will promote mental health and family harmony in a world that often seems to prioritize neither.

What’s the problem?
Kids are facing overwhelming pressure to achieve and excel, and it’s everywhere–at school, in sports, and often in parents. Research has shown that what places a child at risk for clinically high levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse is growing up in an environment of unrelenting pressure, and that pressure can come from poverty, trauma, discrimination, and “excessive pressure to excel” (Wallace 6). Additionally, “students who are marginalized because of their race, class, ethnicity or identity can feel an additional formidable layer of stress making it even harder for them to thrive” (Wallace 6-7). Despite the economic advantages that kids who attend competitive schools may have, “[i]t is not a family’s income but rather the environment a child is raised in that can harm development and impact overall health” (Wallace 7).

In the context of competitive, high-achieving schools, sports, and families, kids can quickly start to feel as if their worth as human beings is directly tied to their achievements. Kids can reach this conclusion based on what parents say (and what they don’t say). Additionally, the difference between what parents say and what kids hear can be significant because perceived criticism is magnified during the teen years (Wallace 57).

Kids can also be really sensitive to what psychologists call “conditional regard,” which is a psychological term for parental affection that depends on a child meeting certain academic, athletic, or behavioral expectations. Conditional regard undermines a child’s self-esteem because instead of figuring out who they really are, children focus on pleasing others. Conditional regard is determined by parents’ behavior and a child’s interpretation of it. For example, you will still love your child unconditionally if they bomb a test, but you may pull back all the same, and that expression of disappointment can signal conditional regard. To kids, this coldness feels like being loved less (Wallace 60-61). While parents obviously can’t control how their child will interpret behavior, they can endeavor to engage with warmth, regardless of the circumstances.

Perceived parental criticism is linked to poor mental health outcomes and the mental health struggles do not disappear once kids go away to college (Wallace 8). High stress levels put young people at risk for poor long-term physical health and the increased risk of substance abuse lasts well into adulthood. According to one study, by age 26, former students of high-achieving schools were two to three times more likely to struggle with addiction than their middle-class peers (Wallace 8).

What is “mattering?”
According to Wallace, mattering expresses the real and profound need we all have to to feel seen, cared for, and understood by those around us. For example, we feel like we matter when people take interest in us and what we have to say, when they share in our triumphs and support us when we have setbacks, and when they count on us for help and guidance (Wallace 50). We can think of mattering as layers. Mattering starts with parents and can grow deeper as children extend themselves out into the community, and it can grow deeper still as they go into the greater world (Wallace 51). Mattering also builds on itself: when we feel like we are valued, we are more likely to add value (and vice versa) (Wallace 51).

When kids know they are loved and appreciated regardless, they tend to get less caught up in the stress of collecting achievements, and this shift leads to better mental health and ability to function in the world. Additionally, they are more likely to feel like it’s worth the effort to try hard, because every kid wants a good life.

Where can we start?
As with so many aspects of parenting, it’s an “inside job,” and mattering starts with ourselves.

Friendship and community are key components to mattering (Wallace 96). Modeling these values and priorities for kids is important, of course, but that’s almost secondary to parents’ real, deep need for support and connection. As you have likely experienced yourself, parents need support and community to raise kids–perhaps even more so if you’re stepping outside the norm of achievement culture. It really does take a village.

Sometimes, the communities we find ourselves in as parents work beautifully for the support we need. Other times, it’s useful to introduce some intentionality. Here are some supportive community-building ideas that author Mia Birdsong presents in her book, How We Show Up:

  • Be part of friendship circles: Groups of people can meet regularly to share deep conversation, a meal, or even just enjoy a safe place to be themselves (33-38).
  • Cultivate self-awareness: Discover who you are, the things that bring you pleasure and joy and give you a sense of purpose. With that awareness, you can be more clear about your boundaries, saying yes to people and activities that you align with, and saying no others (39-45).
  • Interdependence outside coupledom: Couples can be many things for each other, but it’s unlikely that they can be excellent at all of those things. If you’re in a couple, consider relying on other people for certain things. As Birdsong puts it, “Let’s dismantle the primacy of the conventional romantic couple for the benefit of all of us”  (46-48).
  • Friendships can buck convention: Consider additional ways friends can be caring for one another and whether parameters that have been set for us by society and convention are actually helpful. We each get to define friendship however we want (55-56,175).

How do these practices help to defeat toxic achievement culture?
If you as a parent feel supported, you may feel more comfortable getting curious about your own beliefs around what “success” is. At the root of grind culture is a foundational belief that a good life is secured by admission to a “good college” (Wallace 125). But college rankings and the data associated with them are not reliable–there are so many ways that they can be manipulated (Wallace 125-129).

Moreover, when we chase materialistic goals, we typically do so at the expense of our basic needs to feel autonomous, competent, and connected to other people, and we end up experiencing more stress and less joy. Regardless of age and socioeconomic status, those who favor status-driven goals, on average, tend to be more anxious and depressed, have lower self-esteem, and drink and smoke more. If, instead, we consider that there are many paths to success, which is itself defined in terms of mattering and well-being, we can better guide kids forward (Wallace 122,130).

When making this type of course correction, it’s normal for feelings of uncertainty to arise. Perhaps notice how those feelings affect you, and then endeavor to find ways to make peace with being uncertain. Broadening  the definition of success and getting comfortable with uncertainty can also help to lower stress and allow you to be present for your kids in a less anxious way. When parents are not burdened by excessive worry or fearfulness, are not highly emotionally reactive, and have a courageous attitude toward dealing with life’s challenges, kids have a greater opportunity to grow and mature in a sustainable way (Stixrud & Johnson 2002, 67-94). In contrast, when we push children, in that moment it may help us feel more in control, but it can often backfire, fueling kids’ depression or anxiety, or by eroding their motivation.

How can we cultivate mattering day-to-day?
There are so many ways to show kids they matter. Some include: greeting kids at least once a day like the family puppy with total unabashed joy and physical affection, responding in warm and sensitive ways, explicitly telling kids how much they matter to us, expressing unconditional acceptance, particularly after a failure, and showing warmth through affection (Wallace 70-71).There are other ways, too, especially as kids get older. Here are some examples you may choose among:

  • Communicating empathy: (1) Stay calm and think of your kids’ strong emotions as a great opportunity to connect; (2) endeavor to understand and accept rather than judge–be genuinely curious rather than accusatory; (3) reflect and validate their feelings; and (4) explore by asking follow-up questions (Stixrud & Johnson 2002, 7-36).
  • Engaging as parent consultant: Offer help (like tutoring or psychotherapy) but don’t push it on them unless they are seriously depressed, abusing drugs or deeply in denial about their problems. Offer to share your knowledge, experience, and wisdom but get buy-in before you lay it on them. So long as they are willing to consider other perspectives, encourage kids to make their own decisions, and go with their decisions (unless almost any sensible person would say that they are truly off-base). Offer to help them solve their problems if they need it and provide emotional support when they’re upset, but do your best not to rush to rescue them (Stixrud & Johnson 2002, 37-65).
  • Discussing values, including well-being: Values may differ from family to family but for well-being, consider talking about how we can increase positive emotion with fundamentals like exercise, sleep, and meditation. Support learned optimism by discussing what went well, voicing gratitude, and reframing negative incidents. Help your kids notice how good it feels to find a flow state. Engage your kids in conversations about the importance of relationships and ask questions to learn where your kids find meaning and purpose. (Stixrud & Johnson 2002,187-216)
  • Pep Talks: Emphasize the value of working hard to get better; provide positive feedback for persistence, progress and the strategies kids use to solve problems; embrace the word “yet” (“It’s true, you haven’t learned to play that song … yet”); dig into specifics that empower (“I love the incredible detail of the hand creases in your sketch”). Use these tools in moderation–remember that the end goal of a pep talk is not to get your kids to do well, it’s for them to want to do well (Stixrud & Johnson 2002, 95-126).
  • Volunteering, helping, and chores: You can frame it as, “How am I going to choose to contribute to the family today and make our home a little happier?” When kids are overscheduled, some of the first things parents take off their plate are chores and helping. But that move diminishes mattering. Chores cement our place in our immediate community–our family–and equip us to add value to those around us. Chores make children feel depended on, and there is power in feeling useful. Kids thrive when they’re adding value to others because it makes them feel valuable themselves (Wallace 187).
  • Encouraging rest: Consider that a parent’s role can be to wisely challenge endeavors (rather than supporting all of them), to create guard-rails that tell our kids they are not cogs in a machine but people worthy of rest and preservation, and to help them reimagine their ambition in an environment that tells them constantly to secure and acquire more. Kids need to be taught explicitly that true success comes from finding healthy ways, physically and psychologically, to excel. Sometimes that means doing less. Teens should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep a night but fewer than 25% are getting the minimum. Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together. Rest means they decompress, and results in lowest levels of moodiness, feelings of worthlessness, anxiety and depression. They are worthy of rest because they are cherished humans (Wallace 135).

We can do this work together
All of these practices honor the importance of a “love ethic,” as discussed in bell hooks’ All About Love. And while there are various definitions of love, I particularly appreciate the one hooks uses: love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s life force or soul (10, 13). Love is more than a feeling: “Love is as love does, and it is our responsibility to give children love. When we love children we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights–that we respect and uphold their rights” (hooks, 30).

Leading with love in this way naturally gives rise to mattering. At the same time, parenting can be incredibly difficult, and making counter-cultural shifts like the ones I’ve mentioned here can feel close to impossible if you’re trying to do them on your own. If you’re seeking support as you make these or similar changes, please schedule an appointment with our StressWell providers who specialize in helping you navigate these challenges.

Here’s to cultivating mattering and a love ethic!

Works Cited
Birdsong, Mia. Hachette Books 2020. How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community.

hooks, bell. William Morrow-HarperCollins 2001. All About Love: New Visions.

Stixrud, W. & Johnson, N. The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.

Stixrud, W. & Johnson, N. Penguin Books-Penguin Random House (2022). What Do You Say?: How to Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance and a Happy Home.

Wallace, Jennifer Breheny. Portfolio-Penguin Random House 2023. Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic–and What We Can Do About It.

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