The Achievement Curse: How US Culture Sucks the Fun out of Childhood
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
I want to write today about something that weighing on my mind heavily. It's October, which for child psychologists like me means it's the time of year when parents are most likely to bring in their children to be screened for ADHD, a learning disability, or some other school complaint. And although some parents, some teachers, and some schools have different values than others about what to expect from students in the classroom, there is always a consistent mantra of feedback focused on whether the child is achieving or not, either in school, in extra curriculars, at home, or all. What I am seeing in my practice is that children are being asked to achieve at increasingly higher levels, much more presently than I have seen before, and certainly more than I was expected to achieve when I was a kid.
Don't get me wrong, though. Pressures to achieve have been around for millennia. The Achievement Curse, as I'll call it here, is not a new thing, nor is the debate I'll present in this blog post new. Educators and child specialists have argued for centuries about striking the right balance between educating children towards successful adulthood while still preserving the essence of what it means to be a child - that is, allowing to children freedom and opportunity to play and to live relatively carefree of major responsibilities. Childhood, after all, is the time to experiment, to make mistakes, to explore, and to seek joy in even the most benign, mundane activities. I can remember my own daughter, when we played outside together when she was about 8 months old, discovered what a leaf was. In this case, it was a dried leaf, and it made a delightful crunching noise in her hands. She picked up leaf after leaf, crushing them in awestruck wonder. When she had enough of the crushing, she decided she wanted a taste of the leaf, which she didn't like nearly as much, and which her dad responded with a simple "no." The bitter taste and the correction from her dad was enough - she didn't taste leaves anymore after that. But this little activity, for her, was a perfect representation of what it means to be a child, where you are almost constantly discovering something in the world for the first time, taking it all in.
As developmentalists have observed children over the past few centuries, we have noticed a pretty reliable progression of key milestones that children meet as they age. These range from classic milestones like rolling over, crawling, babbling, walking, talking, running, etc. to more advanced, complex milestones, like moral development, achieving a consistent sense of self, and "self-actualization" (reaching a point of total satisfaction and optimal mental health in life). As we've documented these milestones, we (and parents too) have also become more alert to children who do not meet these milestones. Classically, these kids are often called "delayed," and most times there is good reason to catch any "delays" early, so that they can be corrected to optimize development. But such categorization is also a double edged sword. Categorization suggests achievement - you either meet the expected goal, or you don't. And so with such an emphasis on achieving expected goals also comes pressure, from parents, from doctors, from educators, from everyone to meet developmental expectations.
There is a quote from the movie Men in Black (starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) that says something like "A person is smart, [but] people are dumb, dangerous, panicky animals..." The idea behind the quote is that as individuals, humans are pretty rational creatures with good problem solving skills. However, there is a concept of group or mob mentality that means that groups of people tend to swing toward extreme ideas, even if those ideas are irrational. In other words, an irrational idea spreads through a group. I mention this quote here because I think it captures what happens when developmental ideas like those I mention above seep into a broader culture and become the focus of an entire population, rather than individually focused. In other words, if you ask most individual parents, teachers, doctors, or other child-focused people about what's important in childhood, most will not include achievement as a top priority. However, if you look at what is expected today of children as a whole (not as individuals, but as a group) achievement moves to the top of the list. Why?
Well, I think one reason is because collectively, US culture has placed such a high emphasis on "The American Dream" (working hard to build (usually financial) success) that we all want our children to start early in building habits that will help them achieve that American Dream. In education, that means getting high grades, going to college, and earning enough money. At home, that means doing everything we can to get our child "ahead," so they're not playing "catch-up" their whole lives. The recent college admissions scandal is the epitome of this, the thought that somehow going to an elite school makes your child "better off" than everyone else. This is the Achievement Curse at work.
As a clinical psychologist, here's what I see the Achievement Curse cause in my clients:
They sleep less. Many children get involved in extracurricular activities, like sports, arts, or other similar activities. On top of these, kids also get quite a bit of homework, up to 4 hours per day in some settings! With all this going on, children don't sleep as much as they need, which in turn leads to a host of other problems, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive.
They are stressed. Kids are putting a lot of pressure on themselves too. They are also seduced by the Achievement Curse and they want do well. The stress to achieve is enough to cause real anxiety, depressive, or other behavioral disorders to occur. In some, it pervades everything they do.
They constantly compare themselves to others. Jealousy is one of the "7 deadly sins" for a reason, and it's certainly not a new human emotion. So, it's not unique, but jealousy only drives the Achievement Curse further as children long for what their peers have or do that they do not.
So what should you do about the Achievement Curse?
Teach your kids to slow down and have fun. Recognize that achievement-related happiness does feel good, but is impermanent and can never be fully sated. Teach your children about more persistent keys to joy. A great 2016 book by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (and Douglas Abrams) called The Book of Joy, outlined the eight pillars of happiness outlined from thousands of years of wisdom and tradition. They are perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Notice achievement has no place among these 8 pillars. In fact, achievement could be argued to be an antithesis to some of these pillars - humility, perspective, acceptance, gratitude. Though most of us don't achieve these 8 pillars at all, and those that do usually only do so late in life, children are never too young to get started on living out these pillars in their every day life. In the next section, I'll suggest some ways that parents can work to instill these notions in their children.
You can teach children to take a broad view of the world and of others. When steeped in the pressures of the Achievement Curse, it can seem like every choice might impact the rest of your life. By encouraging your children to view an issue from multiple angles, you can show them that in reality most of the individual choices we make in life really don't matter. Rather, it's our collective choices that matter more. If your child has a pattern of doing well, help them refocus on that pattern. If something seems groundbreakingly important now, remind them that the world is an enormous place and the human life is long; in the grand scheme, achievement doesn't matter as much as other things.
Humility is found in the recognition that each human has the same potential as all others - "I am simultaneously as special as everyone else and no more special than anyone else." Humility is focused on placing children on the same playing field as each other. School-aged children all know that they and their peers all have different skills - some kids are great at academics, some great at sports, some great at making friends, etc. Children may need help, though, seeing that a person's worth is not found in their skill, but in their humanity. This is humility.
One of the beauties of childhood is that children can afford to take life less seriously, as a whole, than adults. In reality, we could all afford to take ourselves less seriously from time to time, but kids should be afforded some humor more often than adults. When your kid makes a mistake, teach them to laugh it off when they can, and move on. Understand, though, that humor doesn't replace responsibility. Humor isn't just about making a "joke" of things; it's more about working to bring "lightness" to your life and understanding than one can be responsible without being heavy all the time.
Teach your kids to accept what just is, to connect with the realities of the world. Importantly, acceptance is more of a cognitive and emotional state than it is behavioral. Acceptance does not mean that one is "frozen" into inactivity - "I can't do anything about it so why try?" Acceptance is more focused on balancing the idea that the world is not going to be always positive, and that is okay. We have to accept our negative emotions, those of others, and what those negative emotions cause us and others to do at times. Acceptance focuses on common humanity - we all have good and bad parts - and becoming "one" with that fact in meaningful ways. Once we accept that reality, we can then act to move toward meaningful goals.
Forgiveness is straightforward. Forgiveness is about truly putting behind us our own mistakes and the mistakes of others. Forgiveness is about letting go of the burdens of guilt, shame, anger, and related emotions. If we can teach our kids forgiveness, they can go easier on themselves when they don't achieve their own goals, and from a place of forgiveness, they can then make a plan to readdress their goals if those goals still make sense.
Gratitude is about being thankful for what one does have and letting go of the burdens of "desire." Sure, it's okay to want things, but constant wanting breeds dissatisfaction, which gets in the way of happiness. Learning to be grateful for what one already has helps still the "sin" of constant wanting and helps us see that true happiness is not found in our accomplishments.
Compassion refers to the ability to fully see others and then act toward their betterment. Compassion is said to be the "action" of empathy. Where empathy is an emotion, compassion is an action. By focusing on compassion, children learn to care for others at least as much as the self, if not more. By having compassion towards others, the Self suddenly seems less important, and thus, the Achievement Curse can be broken, because "doing well" is no longer about "me," but it's about others.
Generosity is founded on the tenet that it is in "giving" (to others) that we truly receive joy. It is important to teach children to give themselves in service to others or to the completion of tasks. Chores, homework, practices, and so forth are not tasks toward winning awards or other accolades. They are acts of generosity to the self, to a task, or to others. To teach kids generosity, help them see how tedious tasks are selfless acts of giving, and help them find joy in the fact that they have given a part of themselves toward a greater good.