Catherine, a mother living in the New York City suburbs, has a son who flunked out of college. Her story is one of the cautionary tales offered up in Jennifer Breheny Wallace’s Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It. Catherine left the workforce to raise her two children. The elementary-school years went just fine, but then “she began to feel a duty to make sure her older son was living up to his potential.” Catherine and her husband are both Yale graduates and wanted the same for their kid.
She and the other parents around her “ensured that their kids were enriched outside of the classroom: that weekends were spent learning and that summers were maximized with skill-building camps.” She said, “I began to really second-guess what I knew to be true about being a parent” and spared her son from doing chores as part of an effort to ensure he would devote his time to studying instead of taking time to hang around with friends. Most of her interactions with him were about school and college admissions. By senior year, her son stopped going to school entirely and his relationship with his mother was “in shambles.” He managed to enter college “with the help of medication and intensive therapy” but couldn’t make it through freshman year.
Never Enough is Wallace’s effort to understand what is going wrong with our children—why they seem to be plagued with anxiety and depression when they seem to have all the advantages in the world. A freelance journalist raising her own three children, Wallace sets out to avoid making Catherine’s mistakes. Some of the diagnosis will sound familiar. Parents feel a sense of insecurity because they want their children to achieve at least the same level of success they have. They are living in a culture that emphasizes status above all else. “Our brains,” she writes, “aren’t great at distinguishing between a real threat, like someone with a gun, and a perceived threat, like our child getting cut from the A team, denied a scholarship, or rejected from their first-choice college.”
They are living in a country where every family is expected to be self-sufficient. (Never Enough wouldn’t be a book about modern parenting if it didn’t mention that there’s no government-funded child care like there is in Norway.) But even within communities there is little feeling of, well, community. One mother tells her that she felt “warm and fuzzy” when a neighbor called to ask for a cup of flour and she was able to help. But she felt as if it were a “slap in the face” when the neighbor left a bag of flour leaning against her door the next day: “It felt like you can’t owe anyone anything, have any kind of dependency on someone else.”
This sense that each nuclear family is on its own really does have an impact on children and adults. Families believe they are in competition with one another—and that message is filtered down to children, who don’t feel that they have any other source of support and that their parents are depending on them alone to succeed.
This is a strange sentiment for families that are so well-off. But if you believe that your kid should get into Yale because you did, you haven’t noticed how much harder it is to get into Yale these days. It’s also possible that these parents have achieved a level of material wealth that would be impossible for their children to sustain unless they went into particular professions from particular schools. And then there is the fact that these children are living with parents who delayed having kids for a long time. As a result, their offspring are growing up with a level of wealth unknown to previous generations with kids still at home. It all seems unsustainable.
Wallace describes how the answer to the pressure cooker we’ve created is not simply for kids to be granted more time off or for mothers to take more “me time” at the spa. Rather, we need to stop treating our children instrumentally, as a vehicle for college admissions and status, and show that we love them unconditionally. She quotes one psychologist who advises that at least once a day we greet our children “like the family puppy: with total unabashed joy.” This would include “being physically affectionate with them and playing with them.”
Wallace does not recommend being “soft” with children. This is not a book about forgetting discipline. Some of the teenagers and young adults whom Wallace most admires are those with the most chores—kids who grow up on farms and for whom schoolwork is not the only priority. Children need other kinds of challenges beside honors chemistry. And while helicopter-parenting is no doubt part of the problem, she notes that there are times when parents need to intervene in order to save their children from a toxic culture. Even if your child wants to take five AP classes because she believes it will get her into college, it is sometimes incumbent on a parent to cut back and even to make her go to bed.
Twenty pages before the end of Never Enough, Wallace describes a visit to Saint Ignatius, an all-boys Jesuit school in Cleveland. “What these priests undoubtedly knew, and what research shows us,” she writes, “is that living a life according to a value system that balances other’s needs with our own boosts our well-being.” Wallace, who has made no mention of faith or religious communities before this point, says that “part of the reason religion has been found to enhance mental health is because it reduces self-centeredness and creates a sense of belonging to a larger whole.”
For Wallace, who lives her life among the secular elite, this comes as a revelation. She’s not wrong, of course. The intense pressure we are putting on kids to take a dozen AP classes, participate in high-level athletics, pursue several extracurricular activities, all in the hopes of getting them into the right college, encourages a level of narcissism probably not seen before in human history. Every hour of the day is focused on self-improvement (in the college-admissions sense, not the moral one). Wallace wonders how kids can get outside of themselves in order to combat some of this problem. But volunteering too has become part of the narcissism. Students are tasked with doing a certain number of hours of community service, and those need to be difficult or special enough that they too attract the attention of a college administrator.
In fact, what makes Saint Ignatius and other religious communities different is not merely an emphasis on community service—one that has been replicated by schools across the country—but a fundamental idea about the human person. That is, that human beings have inherent worth, no matter how they perform in school or what college they get into. Wallace writes: “We are in a crisis of the self. The formative years are when a child builds a stable foundation for a secure, sustainable adult identity. What we are doing instead is sending a devastating message: In order to be valued you must audition for it, work for it, and keep earning it. Only then will you matter in this house, at this school, in this world.”
Teaching kids that they matter is hard to do in a vacuum. You can tell them that they are loved, of course. But as children get older, they will inevitably wonder what makes them worthy of love. That they are nice? That they are smart? That they are attractive? Only by offering them an overarching theory about human dignity will they be able to understand their own value. But that is not the subject of this book. And most of the prestigious colleges to which they might be admitted will never tell them.