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ParentingHelp Your Child Become a Healthy Achiever: Q&A with Expert- Motherly

Help Your Child Become a Healthy Achiever: Q&A with Expert- Motherly

In an age where kids and teens are experiencing record rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness, what children need now more than ever is to feel like they matter. It’s this concept of “mattering” in social psychology that spurred Jennifer Breheny Wallace, an award-winning reporter, to research and write about the importance of mattering in adolescence, and how it can serve as an antidote to both loneliness and the extreme pressure many kids feel to excel in school. 

In her new book, “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It,” Jennifer delves into the pressing issue of how toxic achievement culture has permeated the lives of children and families, highlighting firsthand accounts of how detrimental it can be to feel like you’re never measuring up. With a look at the competitive pressures faced by students and the toll it takes on their mental wellbeing, she investigates the root causes of this harmful phenomenon and highlights the need for change. Jennifer reveals the critical importance of mattering and intrinsic self-worth in nurturing resilient and thriving young adults—and outlines the keys to helping teens become healthy achievers. 

Listen to Liz Tenety interview Jennifer in an episode of The Motherly Podcast.

In an exclusive Q&A session below, Jennifer shares additional insights and practical solutions for parents to foster a balanced path forward for their children—starting even before preschool. 

Q&A with Jennifer Breheny Wallace, author of “Never Enough”

Q. What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching this book? 

I was surprised to find out that the #1 thing that promotes resilience in our kids isn’t a list of things to do or not to do. Instead, what makes the biggest difference in a child’s mental health and wellbeing is that the adults around that child are not struggling with high-stress levels, anxiety or untreated depression themselves. In other words, a child’s resilience rests fundamentally on the resilience of the adults in their lives, most importantly their primary caregiver. Decades of resilience research make this clear: to help the child, first help the caregiver. So, the best thing a parent can do for a struggling child or any child is to make sure they themselves are supported, that their wellbeing and mental health is intact. Parents need to take care of themselves first. 

Q. You went in search of “healthy achievers” to understand how some kids can thrive despite the pressures of our modern achievement culture. What did you find that healthy achievers had in common?

It turns out, they had a lot in common, and I detail it all in the book. But in short, it boils down to this: These healthy strivers felt like they mattered for who they were at their core. “Mattering” is a psychological construct that has been studied since the 1980s. It captures the feeling of feeling valued by family, friends and community and being depended on to add meaningful value back to family, friends and community. The kids I met who were thriving emotionally and academically had a deep feeling of mattering that acted like a protective shield buffering against stress, anxiety or depression. The kids who were doing the worst felt their mattering was contingent on their performance—that they only mattered when they got a good grade or did well in a game. The other group of kids I met were so focused on building their own resumes and getting ahead that they were never asked to give back to anyone other than themselves. Because no one depended or relied on them, they lacked social proof that they mattered to others.

Q. Why is it so vital to teach kids the importance of rest? How can parents of young children start doing this now?

Monitoring limits sends a strong signal to your kids that they are worthy of rest and nurturing, that their physical and mental health matter. When we help our kids learn how to manage their energy—by saying no to a playdate after school because as their parent, you know they’re going to be exhausted and cranky, or only allowing them to sign up for one after school activity in preschool or kindergarten—we help them learn how to respect their limits and how to build a manageable life that they won’t have to escape from with drugs or alcohol one day. We can start having these conversations early with our kids: “We aren’t going to do that today because we’ve been running around and now our body needs quiet time to rest.” 

Q. You write about the power of getting a PhD in your kids. Can you tell us what you mean by that? 

Yes, this was a lightbulb moment for me. I interviewed Rick Weissbourd of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  I asked him about how a parent’s praise can feel like pressure sometimes. He told me, “Kids develop a strong sense of who they are less by being praised than by being known.” That was a profound moment for me. What my kids needed was for me to see and know them intimately: what they were good at, what character traits did they exhibit. So, I’ve taken to getting what I call a PhD in them. Instead of looking for what they’re not doing well, I look for the things that come easy to them, their strengths. In fact, my kids and I all took something called the VIA Strengths Survey, a scientifically validated survey that helps us to name our strengths. They have an adult version and a kid version. Most of us aren’t fully aware of our innate strengths. This can help you identify them. It’s eye-opening. And knowing our kids’ strengths helps them feel known by us and seen for who they are. 

Q. What’s something you wish you’d known when your kids were younger? 

I wish I’d known how to be a “selfist.” In her book “The Sacrificial Mother”, psychologist Carin Rubenstein writes about how quickly she fell into the modern trap of denying herself for the sake of her children. To remedy this, she developed the idea of being a “selfist”—not to be confused with selfish—whose needs are just as important as her family’s needs. It really requires being intentional and thoughtful. It requires asking ourselves everyday: what do I need today so that I can show up as my best self for my family?

Q. After researching and writing this book, are there things you might have done differently if you were raising young kids today? 

I would have started chores at a really young age. And I wouldn’t have called them chores. Chores don’t just build a work ethic. What chores do is that they tell a child: you’re needed here, you’re someone who can help this family. It makes a kid feel like they matter. My kids are pretty busy these days, so I have to make time in their schedules for chores. In my head, I count chores as an extracurricular activity. We schedule them into our family’s weekly calendar right next to baseball practice and dance. My husband and I also try to save our chores for when the kids are scheduled to do theirs to promote family bonding in a we’re-all-in-this-together kind of way.  Also, we don’t tie chores to punishments or praise. We make them just a part of life, like going to school, doing homework and going to sleep. For the same reason we don’t link chores to punishment or praise, we don’t pay our children to do chores because it sends the wrong message. No one pays me for making dinner, right? Chores are what you do when you’re part of a family. I wish I had sent this message to them when they were 1 and 2 and started them early!

Q. What conversations do you hope parents will have with their kids after reading this book?

I hope parents will better understand how the pressures around achievement can and must be buffered against at home. We sometimes think it’s our job to push our kids to reach their full potential—and others judge us if we are not doing everything we can to make our kids a success. But what the researchers who study these kids told me is that our kids are getting pressure to be better, do more, from every direction, even at very young ages. They’re feeling this pressure at school, from coaches, from their peers and their peers’ parents. Home needs to be the place where kids can recover and unwind from the pressure. My hope is that parents will try to make their homes a haven from this pressure—a place where mistakes and setbacks happen and we don’t love our kids any less. They need to know our love is never conditional on their achievements. My hope is that parents will be explicit with their kids: You are worthy right now, just as you are. 

Pre-order “Never Enough” now and receive a list of “The Secrets of the Healthy Strivers,” as well as the first two chapters of the book for immediate email delivery after entering your order number on jenniferbwallace.com.

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