Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic-and What We Can Do About It
“Making changes in the individualistic, hypercompetitive society is indeed a major enterprise. Perhaps the thoughtful proposals for action in Never Enough will enable families to take meaningful steps toward that end.”
“Our kids are absorbing the idea that their worth is contingent on their performance—their GPA, the number of social media followers they have, their college brands—not for who they are deep at their core. They feel they only matter to the adults in their lives, their peers, the larger community, if they are successful.”
The excessive pressure to succeed “has not come without a cost.” It is one of the many factors underlying the serious rise in childhood sadness, anxiety, low self-esteem, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation and behavior. “The past several decades have given rise to a professionalized childhood, in which seemingly every minute of a child’s life is managed to maximize their potential. Academics, athletics, extracurricular activities have become increasingly competitive, adult-led, and high-stakes. These kids are running a course marked out for them, without enough rest or a chance to decide if it’s even a race they want to run.”
While many young people thrive academically, athletically, and socially, many others suffer from trauma-related emotions and behaviors because of the high expectations parents, teachers, coaches, and the child themselves have. Wallace’s focus is on “high-achieving schools—generally speaking, competitive public or private schools with high standardized test scores.” It is here where researchers have found “high levels of adjustment problems, likely linked with long-standing ubiquitous pressures to excel at academics and extracurriculars.”
“Worrying about the well-being of high-performing students can feel awkward, even absurd. After all, most of them come from families who don’t have to worry about housing or healthcare and can afford to spend money to alleviate their problems,” says Wallace. Is this a question worth investigating? Wallace and the many parents she interviewed and surveyed resoundingly want answers. Wallace quotes researcher Sunia Luthar, “No one is putting pain on a scale: a child in pain is a child in pain, and neither chooses their circumstance.”
Wallace draws on the latest psychological data, a survey of 6,000 parents, and interviews with parents, psychologists, and students to inform her writing. The book includes many vignettes shared by parents that vividly illustrate the issues facing young people today. While the role schools play in creating, promoting, and maintaining a toxic achievement culture is not a specific focus of this book, its omission is obvious and unfortunate, but opens the door for future analysis.
Wallace’s remedy for the toxic achievement culture is not so much that society change the intensity of the high expectations but rather that parents help their children better negotiate their choices so that they achieve a more healthful balance in their lives. In addition, adults need to examine the messages we give children about their worth to the end that kids realize they matter. Matter as an individual, as a worthy member of the family, the school, the sports arena—and they matter as individuals more than their winning, their scores on a test, their popularity among their peers.
“According to data collected from a representative sample of high school and college students, young people are shifting away from more social values, like caring about community, and moving toward more self-enhancing ones, like pursuing money, fame, and image.” Wallace proposes helping students become more engaged with action projects where the child is actively contributing to the betterment of the community. Children today need to see a purpose in their lives beyond their achievements and need to feel they are important to others in the full range of ways, not only that they scored a touchdown.
Making changes in the individualistic, hypercompetitive society is indeed a major enterprise. Perhaps the thoughtful proposals for action in Never Enough will enable families to take meaningful steps toward that end.