My kids probably aren’t going to cure cancer. They probably aren’t going to be professional athletes or billionaire CEOs or world-famous singer-songwriters. They probably aren’t going to be the first to land on Mars or the first to climb Mount Everest while doing a handstand or even the first to read the terms and conditions all the way through. Sure, they could do any (or all) of those extraordinary things, but chances are they won’t. Instead, they’ll most likely grow up to be ordinary adults with ordinary lives. Like me. And like you.
It sounds like a horrible thing to say. How dare I shrug as my children drift toward mediocrity? I should push them harder and further and faster at the earliest possible age to reach their “full potential.” Lucky for my kids, that’s not my style. Of all the things my kids probably aren’t going to do, there’s only one I’m certain of: They aren’t going to give up their childhoods to chase “success.”
At some point, the early years of many American children shifted from a time to grow and learn to a time to get on the career fast track. The road to becoming a partner at an elite East Coast law firm doesn’t start when a high school junior first thinks about colleges. It begins when their parents enroll them in violin lessons at age 5 so they’ll seem well-rounded on their Ivy League applications. The pressure is real and well-documented, and it begins earlier and earlier. Tiny designer briefcases as baby shower gifts can’t be too far away.
It’s never been more apparent than now — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, when many parents are doing all their normal duties while also working from home and guiding their kids through online classes that work about a third of the time — that we need to take another look at our standards for success. It’s hard to parent, teach, and work simultaneously, even though the myth of the super-mom and -dad has taught us to expect ourselves to be all things to all people at all times. If you thought kids would take it easy on parents due to something as minor as a worldwide quarantine, you’ve never met a real-life child.
Parents probably assume everybody else is still pushing their kids toward pre-pandemic standards for success, and they feel like they should be, too. The popular advice for how to do it all has no connection to reality: Set a schedule. Maintain normality. Limit screen time and get your kids hooked on books. They might as well recommend that you permanently give up sleep and grow fairy wings. I’ve never been a fan of limiting screen time, but now, I don’t even pretend to feel guilty when my kids finish their schoolwork and move straight to YouTube for the rest of the day. Whatever keeps them from killing each other is fine in my book. I don’t want my kids to be perfect, just alive. I was parenting apocalypse-style before it was cool.
I understand the culture of overachievement that got us here, even if I don’t agree with it. Growing up, my parents never put any pressure on me, but I fell in with a group of academic overachievers, and I hated to lose. As far as peer pressure goes, I could have done worse, but not by much. I was constantly stressed out as I pushed myself to succeed at everything, at least academically. I was valedictorian of my high school class, and I was miserable. I was valedictorian in college, too. (Don’t be impressed. I majored in English.)
But coming out ahead in high school and college didn’t make any difference in my life, and if I didn’t bring it up as an example of what not to do, I wouldn’t even remember that it happened. And that was just me putting pressure on myself to meet the ways in which society defines success. I can’t imagine what would have happened if that pressure came from my parents. I never would have had the free time to discover and pursue my real passions, like comedy writing or taking long naps. I would have been too busy going to therapy.
Today I have four young kids. I don’t want them to feel the pressure I did, from me or from themselves. I want to give them space to become their own people without pushing them toward a career path while they still have their baby teeth. That’s a weird thought in today’s world. Nobody thinks of children as having agency over their own lives. To many people, children are just a reflection of their parents’ decisions. Yet anyone who has actually spent time around kids knows that they have distinct personalities, with their own goals and preferences, pretty much from day one.
My oldest, age 9, still doesn’t play any sports (by her own choice), which is enough to get me locked up for neglect in some parts of the country. But she recently joined a robotics club she thought sounded fun, and she likes it so far. Maybe she’ll stick with it and turn it into a lifelong pursuit. Maybe she’ll drop it next year to focus on choir, or join a running club, or stand around our yard and poke things with a stick. I’m letting her explore her own interests because that’s what’s best for her. The fact that it lets me be lazy and not fly around the country for sports competitions is just a bonus.
Parents today feel as though they’re letting their kids down if they don’t give them every possible advantage, no matter the cost. You might worry that if your kid doesn’t get into the best preschool, they won’t qualify for advanced classes in elementary school and junior high and high school. Then they won’t get into their (or, more likely, your) dream college, so they’ll never land that high-paying job you always wanted. You know, for them. That’s why young couples jump on waiting lists for “top” preschools as soon as they find out they’re pregnant. It’s never too early to start raising those math and science scores.
It’s not just that parents are expected to push their kids toward success. It’s that they’re expected to push their kids toward one very specific kind of it. They feel pressured to move to expensive neighborhoods so their kids can attend “good” schools to get into “good” colleges so they can get “good” jobs. But in almost every case, “good” is just a euphemism for “well-funded” or “high-paying.” Parents who are seduced by the system expect a very measurable payout when their kids become high-powered doctors or lawyers or corporate executives, and they’re willing to pay top dollar to get them there.
It’s not a fair standard. Low-income people can’t afford to move a few miles down the road to a house that costs three times as much because of the school district. But those who can afford it aren’t doing themselves (or their kids) any favors, either. Kids internalize that pressure. If a family uproots itself solely so a child can have better opportunities at school, that kid better perform at the highest level — or else. Nobody triples their mortgage payments so their child can get Bs and Cs.
But isn’t a focus on excellence a good thing? Not for kids. The world may be physically safer than it’s ever been (current pandemic notwithstanding), but kids today are more depressed and anxious than ever, and the extreme pressure to succeed can be a contributing factor. A 2014 review of 16 scientific studies found that burnout, which had previously been documented among professionals and university students, is now clearly present in high school populations, increasing the risk for anxiety and depression. Kids feel pressured by their parents, society, and themselves to never slip up. Perfectionism among students has been rising since the 1980s, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The result is a generation of kids on target to be equal parts wealthy and unhappy. There’s nothing less perfect than that.
I get why parents feel pressured. Income inequality is the highest it’s been in 50 years, and as a new recession looms, it can seem like winning in today’s competitive job market is the only way to feel secure. A college degree can mean a better life, so it makes sense that parents, especially those who are working- or middle-class, push their children so hard to get one. (For families that are already winning in the current economy, it seems like less of a necessity and more like running up the score.) But regardless of a household’s income level, the negative effects of academic pressure are the same. Pushing kids too hard too early can hold them back in ways that never show up on a standardized test score. More and more, “excellent” and “damaged” go hand-in-hand.
Am I really saying you shouldn’t do everything in your power to make sure your child makes as much money as possible one day? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Take a deep breath. I have only three goals for my own kids, none of which have anything to do with becoming the richest people in the world. I’ll consider my kids to be successful adults someday if: 1) they can support themselves, 2) they’re not serial killers, and 3) they don’t blame me for all of their problems. There are so many other perfectly good scapegoats in the world. I just want them to leave me out of it.
Ultimately, you can’t control your kid’s future, whether you take a laid-back approach to parenting or read SAT prep questions to them in utero. What you can do is give your child the mental and emotional tools to not define themselves by their test scores or salary. The greatest thing you can teach your kid is how to find meaning and fulfillment on their own. Kids who grow up understanding that are the ones who really come out ahead in life, regardless of their class rank or tax bracket.
Recently, I took my 9-year-old to the park and taught her to play wiffle ball. We made it through all nine innings and had a great time together, even if it was a little cold and windy to be out. Nothing we did that day will lead down a road that will impress a college recruiter. Not everything has to be an organized sport or competition with the possibility of a scholarship dangling at the end. My dream for my oldest daughter isn’t for her to attend a top school that lands her a prestigious 80-hour-a-week job and puts her in the top 1 percent. It’s for her to one day have the free time to play wiffle ball with her own kids, if she decides to have them. There’s nothing mediocre about a life like that.
I don’t actually think I’m raising mediocre children. In fact, my kids might even be above average, which is what every parent thinks about their offspring. But I’ll never burden them with unrealistic expectations to become the smartest, richest, most famous, or whatever else is considered #goals on Instagram this week. I want my kids to be happy and healthy, with the freedom to pursue their passions.
That might seem ordinary to some, but to me, it’s the most extraordinary kind of life.
James Breakwell is a professional comedy writer and amateur father of four daughters, ages 9 and under. His book, Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child, can be purchased wherever books are sold.