Madeline Levine may have been the Cassandra of the one-percenters and those aspiring for their kids to become one. Way back in 2006, she sounded the alarm on the harm caused by the increasing pressure affluent parents were putting on kids with her book, “The Price of Privilege” (Harper Collins).
Today, Levine is coming out with a much-anticipated follow-up, “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success” (Harper Collins).
She and I talked about her new book, about how the parenting world has changed (and not changed) since “Price of Privilege” was published and about what “authentic success” means.
Below is the first excerpt of our two part Q&A:
JD: Recently there’s been much talk about the crisis of over-parenting; that parents, especially more affluent parents, are too scared to let their children fail at anything, so they sweep in, solve problems, finish homework, argue with teachers, etc. The theory goes that their children have lost a sense of self-sufficiency and experience intense anxiety when they are forced into the “real world.” Is this what you were predicting back in 2006?
ML: Absolutely. When I was writing “The Price of Privilege,” researchers were beginning to publish studies that were clear that something was amiss with kids from affluent families. Rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and psychosomatic disorders were all much higher than anyone anticipated. Why these privileged kids, who had so many advantages, including some of the factors known to advance healthy child development such as a good education and involved parents, looked so miserable was unclear. At that time, the research was that this group of kids were highly stressed and feeling disconnected from their families.
I had been treating kids, mostly teens, like this for 20 years in my clinical practice and knew that they simply weren’t developing a “sense of self.” They knew what everyone else wanted from them, but they had no idea what they wanted themselves. Well-intentioned parents were extremely anxious about their kids, at levels I had not seen before, and were intervening in misguided ways; arguing with teachers, bringing in tutors for kids who were already good students, going over every math problem and every written assignment as if they were matters of life and death. Psychologists have a pretty good idea, both from experience and from research on both parenting and child development, that parents who intervene unnecessarily in their children’s lives are preventing the development of the exact kinds of coping skills that kids will need when faced with the inevitable challenges of life.
And that’s what we’re seeing now — kids with high GPAs and limited coping skills, a minimal sense of who they are and little resilience. Every study on child development stresses the value of falling on the side of your child’s autonomy. Instead we’re encouraging them to rely on the side of dependence. To trust others more than they trust themselves.
No child ever learned to walk without first falling down dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Every failed attempt brought them closer to becoming a competent walker. Children grow when they are willing to take risks, fail, and try again. This is how resilience develops.
Has anything changes on this front since “Privilege” was published?
“The Price of Privilege” was published in 2006 and then the economy fell apart in 2008. Parents who had been anxious about their child’s future prospects went into hypergear. Everyone feared that resources (i.e. good schools, good jobs) would start to vanish. So, competition to be the best was ratcheted up. And, since the easiest way (not necessarily the most accurate way) to know what is “the best” is to measure it, we became increasingly dependent on metrics — GPA, SAT scores, prestigious college acceptances and starting salaries.
In fact, we do have reason to worry. On many fronts, our performance in the world is slipping. However, talking to CEOs around the country, there is far less concern about “hard” skills and far more concern about “soft” skills like collaboration and communication and what the business community likes to call “grit” — a combination of motivation, persistence and resilience.
While we are busy measuring children on standardized testing that frequently just interferes with really engaged learning, we are also neglecting the very skills that are likely to serve our children well in the largely unknown future that they face. Many of the most desirable jobs today didn’t even exist a mere six years ago.
Why did you decide to write “Teach Your Children Well”?
I decided to write [the book] about two and a half years into speaking around the country. What was so surprising was that no matter where I went or what the socioeconomic status of my audience was, the questions would always tumble out in predictable sequence. “My kid just doesn’t work hard enough. What should I do?” “My daughter’s a really good tennis player, should I send her to a specialized camp?” “Colleges say that they want to see that applicants have chosen a rigorous program. Shouldn’t kids take as many AP course as they possibly can?”
I couldn’t get over how much anxiety parents had — not about the kinds of issues that used to bother parents, like illnesses and learning disabilities, but about absolutely normal vagaries of growing up ...
I had two feelings about all the anxiety about grades and being on top. First of all, many of the questions had already been answered by researchers. For example, “My child is in the seventh grade but has three hours of homework a night and it’s a homework battle every night. Is there anything I can do about this?” The answer is yes, that researchers have looked carefully at the amounts of homework that are of optimal benefits for most kids and find that about an hour in junior high school brings benefits that do not continue if young teens keep working past that amount of time. So yes, there are things to do, starting with talking to the school your child attends in order to bring homework in line with known benefits and avoid known harm.
The second thing that seemed clear to me was, while I could answer these questions one by one, it seemed far more efficient to help parents set up a system that eased the difficulty of considering all of their questions individually. I thought if parents could clarify their own values, their own notions of success, then they would have more of a paradigm that would allow them to come to conclusions more easily and with less turmoil.
The subtitle is “Parenting for Authentic Success.” What’s your definition of authentic success?
I spent an awful lot of time thinking about the subtitle. At first I didn’t like “authentic success” because it felt kind of forced and unclear. But the more I tried to pin down exactly what I wanted to say about success, it all came back to authenticity.
Kids have become very good at presenting a polished facade. They can get straight A’s, be the captain of the lacrosse team and one of the popular kids and still paradoxically feel depressed and empty. This is because their success simply feels superficial; a result of other people’s motivation and intervention. If your parents are very motivated for you to become an outstanding student, then they can bring in all kinds of tutors and enrichment experiences designed to up your grades. But ultimately this is not integrated into the child’s sense of self because it comes from the outside, it’s someone else’s idea and it just doesn’t “sit right.” The kid who chooses academics or athletics or whatever and feels the internal drive to excel is likely to feel that his accomplishments are authentic — that is, really his.
There are CEOs with fortunes who don’t feel authentic or happy or that their lives are meaningful. There are waitresses who feel just the opposite. Our performance, the things that others deem important, are not necessarily the things that will matter most to us. Authentic success is an “inside job.” It comes out of each child’s particular skills, interests and capacities. When those things are cultivated, then children experience their success as “authentic,” as grounded within themselves.
Our interview will continue in a post later today. In the meantime, what do you think of Levine’s premise?
Has the economy prompted parents to become too involved in their kids lives? If so, can the extra support ever be helpful?