Teach Your Children Not-So-Well: When Success Means Failure

A couple of weeks ago on Slate, Allison Benedikt lamented, “Parenting Hate-Reads: When Will They […]

David Zahl / 7.30.12

A couple of weeks ago on Slate, Allison Benedikt lamented, “Parenting Hate-Reads: When Will They End?”. She recalled a friend of hers who had become so turned off by the ever-escalating online ‘mommy wars’ that it made her not want to have children, period. And Benedikt realized that she couldn’t blame her friend for her hesitancy to wade into such outrageously judgmental waters: on top of the real and perceived exhaustion of bringing up little ones, parents are subjected to the inescapable voice of condemnation and criticism wherever they go on the Interwebs these days. In fact, all this talk of doing right by kids may itself be perpetuating the very “performancism” it’s decrying, just shifting the onus of perfection from the offspring to their parents, who are just human beings after all. Thankfully, Benedikt was not so naive as to paint parents as unwitting victims of social scrutiny; in fact, her chief lament had more to do with the fact that parents themselves are the ones who are creating and indulging this “Bad Mother” culture. The complicity is unnerving, in other words.

All this brings me to Judith Warner’s remarkable review of Madeline Levine’s remarkable-sounding Teach Your Children Well that appeared in yesterday’s NY Times Book Review. It’s not so much that Levine (or Warner) exude a new compassion for parents or educators, because she doesn’t; double-talking moms and dads and teachers get their due. It’s more that her consternation is both more extreme and more comprehensive than usual. It may be precisely the kind of polemic we need, the sort that inspires us not to adjust our technique and/or tweak our personal performancism, but to give it up altogether. Which would be something, wouldn’t it? You might say Levine seems less interested in fixing a broken system than demolishing it, AKA she lays down the Law about the Law in such a way as to bring us to our knees.  I suppose I should read the book… HT TB:

It would be easy, on first glance, to dismiss Madeline Levine’s “Teach Your Children Well” as yet another new arrival in a long line of books that have urged us, in the past decade or so, to push back and just say no to the pressures of perfectionistic, high-performance parenting. But to give in to first impressions would be a mistake.

For Levine’s latest book is, in fact, a cri de coeur from a clinician on the front lines of the battle between our better natures — parents’ deep and true love and concern for their kids — and our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences, all of which she sees played out, day after day, in her private psychology practice in affluent Marin County, Calif. Levine works with teenagers who are depleted, angry and sad as they compete for admission to a handful of big-name colleges, and with parents who can’t steady or guide them, so lost are they in the pursuit of goals that have drained their lives of pleasure, contentment and connection. “Our current version of success is a failure,” she writes. It’s a damning, and altogether accurate, clinical diagnosis.

Levine’s previous book opened with the image of a “bright, personable, highly pressured” 15-year-old girl with wealthy parents, who seemed, on the surface, to have it all. But a glimpse at her forearm revealed that she had also carved the word “empty” into her flesh with a razor. Teenagers like this, and adoring if preoccupied adults like her parents, haunt the pages of “Teach Your Children Well.”

One academically talented girl in Levine’s care is knocked off her feet by self-loathing and grief after she’s rejected from a particularly desirable college. She “lies in bed for days,” Levine writes. “She will not get up, and when I visit her at home, all she can say through her streaming tears is: ‘It was all for nothing. I’m a complete failure.’ ”

Other kids cheat, take drugs, drink, shut down or, worse still, keep up their tightrope act of parent-pleasing, Ivy-­aiming high achievement while quietly, invisibly dying inside. “The cost of this relentless drive to perform at unrealistically high levels is a generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims,” Levine writes. “They become preoccupied with events that have passed — obsessing endlessly on a possible wrong answer or a missed opportunity. They are anxious and depressed and often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Sleep is difficult and they walk around in a fog of exhaustion. Other kids simply fold their cards and refuse to play.”

Levine has spent 30 years with these unhappy children, as a therapist and a mother of three sons who attended high-pressure schools. And now, it would seem, she’s had it. She’s had it with schools that worship at the altar of high achievement but do everything they can to undermine children’s growth and well-being: eliminating recess; assigning mind-deadening amounts of homework; and ranking, measuring and valuing kids by narrowly focused test scores, while cutting out other areas of creative education in which large numbers of students who don’t necessarily test well might find success and thrive. And she’s had it with parents who profess to want nothing more than “happiness” for their children (“Kids laugh when I tell them that their parents don’t mention money as a measure of success; they think I’ve been snowed,” she divulges) while neglecting the aspects of family life that build enthusiasm and contentment, and overemphasizing values and activities that can actually do harm.

With vastly increasing numbers of children now showing stress-related symptoms, it’s more urgent than ever, Levine argues.. “There is little question that our children are living in a world that is not simply oblivious to their needs, but is actually damaging them.”

Levine is correct to say that, as parents and as a society, we’ve reached a tipping point, in which the long-dawning awareness that there’s something not quite right about our parenting is strengthening into a real desire for change. Families, their fortunes tracking the larger economy that encouraged so much of their excess, are crashing after bubble years in which they spent their every penny, and then some, on cultivating competitive greatness in their kids. Now exhausted, often disenchanted and (conveniently enough) broke, they’re reconsidering whether the mad chase was worth all the resources that sustained it.

After all, as Levine notes, the inconvenient truth remains that not every child can be shaped and accelerated into Harvard material. But all kids can have their spirits broken, depression induced and anxiety stoked by too much stress, too little downtime and too much attention given to external factors that make them look good to an audience of appraising eyes but leave them feeling rotten inside.


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