It’s no secret that kids are under more pressure than ever these days to be highly motivated students with a well-rounded curation of sports, hobbies, and extracurricular activities in order to – at least theoretically – get into a top college and set themselves up for future success.
But is all of this emphasis on achievement doing more harm than good? On Wednesday’s show, Megyn was joined by Jennifer Wallace, author of Never Enough, to discuss the realities of today’s competitive culture and education system and why it is crucial to create a stable, supportive household for kids to thrive in.
The Fallacy of Achievement Culture
Megyn lives in Connecticut now, but, once upon a time, her kids went to private school in New York City. She recalled attending a seminar for parents who had children in the ‘independent school system’ that featured insights from students at various parochial schools in Manhattan.
One high school student got up in front of the assembly and shared a frank message that has stuck with Megyn about why kids are, in her words, “so f-cked up.” As Megyn explained, he said it’s “because we have to get straight As, we have to join 10 clubs, we have to be the captain of three sports in order to get into the school you [the parent] went to. That’s why we’re boozing on the weekends… and getting stoned. You’re not looking at us.”
It was a lightbulb moment of sorts. “I remember being like holy sh-t,” she said. “Because all of that pressure that we put on them comes at the expense of their mental health, and it will come back to haunt them.”
The question is: For what end?
In researching her book, Wallace said she learned that if you take the valedictorians and salutatorians from every high school in the United States, there are enough of them to fill the freshman seats at the top 10 to 20 colleges and universities. So, even if your child is a top performer, getting into a top school is essentially a lottery. “Your kid can be perfect 4.0 [GPA], captain of… all the teams… and, still, the odds are he or she’s not getting in,” Megyn added.
And it probably doesn’t matter anyway. A Pew Research survey Wallace cites in the book compared life outcomes between graduates who had attended large public universities and those who attended smaller private schools. The study found no statistical difference between the two groups. The majority of each cohort reported about the same levels of “life satisfaction” with their family, economic well-being, career, etc.
Megyn said the results are eye opening. “You stressed out your kid, you drove him to booze, and drugs, and God knows what else so he could get you into a school he’s not going to get into for what,” she asked. “If you would just let him have a nice, normal childhood, he would have wound up with the same level of economic well-being and satisfaction with his job and with his family life… no one talks about that.”
Wallace said that in interviewing hundreds of families and experts in the field, she found there is a pervasive belief that “early childhood success” leads to, in their eyes, a “good college” that will act as “a safety vest, a kind of life preserver in a sea of uncertainty.” In reality, it’s “working like a lead vest and drowning too many of the kids it’s trying to protect,” Wallace shared.
How to Raise a ‘Healthy Striver’
But there is an alternative. Wallace also spent time getting to know what she calls “healthy strivers.” These children reported that their parents often “created guardrails and put limits on how many extracurricular activities they could have or how many AP [classes] they could take.”
As Wallace explained, it was because those parents “saw it as their job to teach their kids – while they are living in their home – how to build a life that the kid will not have to escape from… they saw their [job] as the balance keepers of their kids.” It’s not about being “anti-achievement” or “anti-ambition” but rather about creating a stable and supportive environment that helps kids realize the “bigger picture,” which is that “achievement is [just] a slice of a good, successful life,” she said.
To nurture that understanding, Wallace said that children (and adults for that matter) need three things built into their day: play time, downtime, and family time. “The parents of the healthy strivers insisted on it, and they held their kids accountable,” she said.
As it relates to play time and downtime, Wallace noted that adult relationships play a tremendous role in bolstering resilience and instilling confidence in children. “The most surprising thing I learned was that the number one intervention for any child in distress is to make sure the primary caregivers… their well being, their support system, their relationships are intact because a child’s resilience rests on the resilience of the adults in their lives,” she explained. “And adult resilience rests on the depth and support of their relationships.”
That means that parents – despite how overstretched and demanding their schedules may be – need to find at least one hour per week of what Wallace calls “intentional time” to “connect with a friend or two outside of our home.” Primary caregivers often feel like they are”performing as these one-person villages,” but, in reality it’s about building a community.
While the parents she met in more “competitive communities” had friends, they “rarely had the time or bandwidth to invest in those friendships,” Wallace said. As a result, those acquaintances could not be adequate “sources of support when that adult needed it.”
The “biggest takeaway” if you are trying to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids is to prioritize yourself and your relationships. “You don’t need a lot of friends, just one or two people that you can be vulnerable to,” she concluded. “That is what bolsters resilience.”
You can check out Megyn’s full interview with Wallace by tuning in to episode 618 on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen. And don’t forget that you can catch The Megyn Kelly Show live on SiriusXM’s Triumph (channel 111) weekdays from 12pm to 2pm ET.