Society's achievement pressure is increasingly harming our kids. As a journalist and mom of three adolescents, I wanted to understand the pressure kids and parents were feeling, and where it came from.
So in 2020, I conducted a first-of-its-kind national parenting survey with help from a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
One of the most fascinating things that followed had to do with a particular parenting style that hurts children's confidence and self-esteem.
Critical parenting can lead to a 'false self'
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The most successful parents don't follow a critical style of parenting.
When a parent is critical ("Why can't you be more like your brother?") or when love feels conditional ("I expect all As this semester!"), a child begins to feel defective.
To cope with those painful feelings, they learn to hide who they truly are in order to become the person they believe their parents want or need them to be.
This can lead kids to develop what psychologists call a "false self" — an artificial persona that serves as a coping strategy to get the love and support a child needs to survive. The consequence is that they feel ashamed, unknown and unloved.
Over time, a false self can lead to them choosing the wrong friends, partners or careers, because they are essentially living someone else's life.
What successful parents do differently
Parents who raise the strongest and most resilient kids create an environment that allows them to make mistakes and not fear failure.
You can still love the person, but you don't love the action. When we're able to clearly separate the two, a child doesn't link their worth to their behavior, whether "good" or "bad."
This doesn't mean you can't have expectations about your child's behavior. You just have to be mindful about how you express those concerns. When a kid acts in ways that are inconsistent with our values or hopes, we still need to signal warmth even while expressing disappointment.
How to show your kids you value them
So much of our lives as parents consist of getting our kids to do things they don't want to do, teaching them lessons, setting them up for future success. But something gets lost when our relationships don't include enough time just enjoying each other, delighting in what is inherently lovable about our kids.
York University psychology professor Gordon Flett says it's important to pay attention to the "micro-practices" you use with your kids. Do you light up when your children walk in the room or do you pepper them with questions ("How'd you do on that test?") to relieve your own anxiety?
To that end, psychologist Susan Bauerfeld recommends greeting your children at least once a day like they are the family puppy: with total, unabashed joy. This includes being physically affectionate and playful.
NYU professor Scott Galloway agrees. In his book, "The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love and Meaning," he writes about his mom: "For me, affection was the difference between hoping someone thought I was wonderful and worthy — and knowing someone did."
And children who were raised in a physically affectionate household reported less depression and anxiety and higher levels of compassion as adults, according to a study from Notre Dame University.
That's why playtime as a family is so critical. When we don't carve out time for play, we lose out on some of the highest-quality interactions we can have with our kids — getting immersed in something together, as equals.
Jennifer Breheny Wallace is an award-winning journalist and author of "Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It." After graduating from Harvard College, Wallace began her journalism career at CBS "60 Minutes," where she was part of a team that won The Robert F. Kennedy Awards for Excellence in Journalism. She is a Journalism Fellow at the The Center for Parent and Teen Communication at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Follow her on Instagram @jenniferbrehenywallace.
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This is an adapted excerpt from "Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It," by Jennifer Breheny Wallace, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Jennifer Breheny Wallace, 2023.
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