The Squiggly Line of a Successful Life

Our Q&A with psychologist and parenting expert Madeline Levine

Mockingbird / 5.11.22

This Q&A appears in the Success & Failure issue of The Mockingbird magazine.

At the end of her 2012 book Teach Your Children Well, Madeline Levine concluded, “Our current version of success is a failure.” At the time it seemed as if good grades amounted to good kids, and that parents’ success could be judged by their children’s extracurricular performances and/or admission to a high-profile college (even one they could not afford). To meet these standards, kids were being “relentlessly pushed, overloaded, and tested.”

Ten years later, little seems to have changed in that regard. Who really thinks of success as kindness, a willingness to serve others, or composure in the face of change? Today all the typical markers — wealth, prestige, intelligence, one’s number of online followers — guide the pursuits of both parents and adolescents. Yet Levine’s diagnosis remains crucial, and even more so as we proceed further into this era of social isolation, political division, and unprecedented levels of mental illness. In her newest book Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain World (2020), Levine reports that anxiety is now the most prevalent mental health disorder in both adults and children. “Anxiety is nothing new,” she writes. “Historically, it has hummed along in the background. But our anxiety is no longer background noise.”

Ready or Not was published three weeks before the pandemic would force millions of us to socially distance, to shut down our businesses, and to begin the exhausting process of refreshing newsfeeds for updates on a public health crisis that none of us could quite wrap our minds around. That the world was “uncertain,” as Levine’s subtitle suggested, became all too evident. Unsurprisingly, rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and loneliness have continued climbing to new heights over the last two years.

A psychologist with forty years of clinical experience, Levine has treated both adolescents and parents trying to get their footing in shifting sands. She invites us reconsider our deepest held values and to question what success might look like in the context of certain uncertainty. In 2007, she cofounded Challenge Success, an initiative that aims to equip families with research-based tools for raising healthy kids unconstrained by narrow, metrics-based expectations. Most people’s life paths, Levine writes in Ready or Not, follow an indirect route, full of trial and error, grief, rejection, and triumph of various stripes. Life’s paths are “winding and squiggly…with many false starts and detours.” To Levine, these “squiggly lines” are not mere diversions from an ultimate destination; they are crucial elements of a full, successful life.

In January, we spoke to Levine over the phone. It was a delightful conversation, lightly edited here for length. Levine highlights the importance of compassion and empathy, the value of trial and error — and why she loves being a grandparent.

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When it comes to raising kids, how does our society broadly define success, and how have you been challenging that?

There is a resilient myth about what constitutes success, and that myth says: If you go to the right school, and you get the right grades, and then you go to the right college and choose the right field, and make a certain amount of money, then you will be successful. But if success really was about how much money you made, then you ought to find very low rates of emotional problems or mental illness among the wealthiest people. But that’s not the case.

I’ve been a psychologist for 40 years, and I’ve ended up treating some of the wealthiest people in this country. And what I take away from those experiences is that success has a limited relationship to the amount of money you make, the school you went to, those kinds of things. You know all those bumper stickers on the backs of cars that say, “My kid is an honor student”? It’s like, shoot me. That’s how I feel when I see those bumper stickers, because what the parent is saying is, “Not only is my student an honor student, but I’m an honor parent.”

At this point, I’m 70 years old, and I have grandchildren. I love this life-phase, because now it is so clear to me that the things I worried about as a parent — Would my kids make money? Would they do better than my husband and I? — are not at all critical; they’re absolutely incidental. Now when it comes to my kids, what I care about is their relationships, the way they parent, the kind of friend they are, the kind of spouse they are, their commitment to doing something of service in the world.

I can remember being concerned whether my kid made the select team or didn’t, whether he got an A or didn’t, whether he took an advanced placement or didn’t. Raising children that way is very problematic, because you can get lost in any one of those things. And people do, particularly about what college you get into. But raising children is a movie; it’s not a snapshot.

Why do you think we haven’t pursued values of compassion and empathy to the same degree that we’ve pursued metrics-based success?

The easy answer would be, because how do you measure compassion? It’s very easy to measure your geometry grade.

I think part of it came with the wide appreciation of science, the idea that you could measure anything. When you want to know something about a bunch of kids, what do you do? You give them grades. But in life, when you want to know who to hang out with, to marry, to work for, you don’t really care who got the highest grade. You care about being with a kind, empathetic, knowledgeable person.

My three boys all did well in school, particularly my oldest boy, but my youngest was not as much of a student. One day, I get a phone call from his calculus teacher, and she says, “This call has absolutely nothing to do with math, nothing. I just want you to know that I think your son is one of the kindest kids I’ve ever taught.” That phone call was the most important phone call I ever received about any of my three kids.

And my personal opinion is that we have lost community. We have lost faith. That’s “faith” in the very broadest sense of the word — faith that there’s something we’re sent here to do. Faith that our values matter. We’ve lost that, and as a result, we turn toward things that are easier to measure.

And I want to be clear about one thing, because every once in a while, somebody will write to me and say, “Madeline Levine, you’re just trying to lower the bar, to dumb down our kids,” which always makes me laugh, because I’m a Jewish PhD, married to what even my own children call “a real doctor.” So we’re not known for low academic bars, right?

My point is not to lower the bar. I don’t want to be seen as saying that performance doesn’t matter. I think it does, but kids are much better positioned to perform when somebody is not looking over their shoulder, insisting that they be at the top of the class all the time. My point is to shift emphasis from the things that matter less to the things that matter more.

At the end of Ready or Not, I was pleasantly surprised to read about the importance of religion in your life. Why did you include that in this book?

That’s in there because of a strong belief that all the timeless values are what make for a successful life.

I was just taking a quick look at how people did in COVID, depending on the degree of religion in their life. And the studies say basically that religion is a really good thing to have, because it gives you a center for values, a sense of moral commitment to do something in the world. It’s not driven by these mythical ideas of what success is.

My one true regret is that I didn’t spend more time at my synagogue when my kids were growing up. If there was one thing I could do over, it would be that. My kids were quite involved, but I wasn’t. They went to the synagogue and got bar mitzvah’d and went to Hebrew school. We tend to think, “Do these things, because it’s good for your kids.” But I should have done it because it would’ve been good for me too.

The book is partially a response to escalating rates of anxiety and depression, especially among teens and younger people. How can we help the younger generation through this extraordinary crisis?

During these last unbearable two years, the most useful thing I did for young adults was to help turn their attention from their own challenges to the greater challenges that were out there. They would come in and talk about how depressed they were, or anxious (but more depressed). They would say things like, “I’m never going to be able to date,” or “My life is over.” And I wasn’t going to give them the usual list — you know, take up a foreign language, or bake, or do yoga, or breathe. Those are all good things. We know that breathing and meditation are good. But I made them a list of organizations in need of service — Jewish family services, Catholic family services, the local food bank, Meals on Wheels, that kind of thing. I had the kids choose something to do, and they reported back to me — and those kids got better. Making them responsible for getting back to me was also about building connection and relationships. Everything, at the end of the day, comes down to relationships.

The kid-parent relationship is also important, because when it comes to anxiety, kids and their parents co-regulate. So when your kid comes home from school, you’re not standing at the door saying, “How was it? Are you okay? Did everybody wear their mask today?” That’s not a good environment to come home to. Because your anxiety will become your kid’s anxiety.

And the last thing is a significant switch away from performance toward questions like, “What was interesting for you? What’s exciting? What are you looking forward to?” And really hearing kids’ stories.

What are some values we can be highlighting for our kids?

I’ll tell you two stories from my own family. First, I recently had my three-year-old granddaughter over to the house, and we were working on something together — my husband, my granddaughter, and myself. And she said, “Great teamwork.” Again, she’s three years old. That is a value to start with early on, right? Not, “You’re so special and great,” which we’re all going to say to our children. But something more like teamwork, collaboration.

The other story is about a time when my youngest son was in college, and I went to refinance my house. My son says, “Can I come along?” And I say sure. This is the same son whom the teacher said was so kind. So I’m sitting there negotiating a mortgage, and he’s being very quiet. He looks at his watch and says, “Hey Ma, I think the meter is going to expire. Can I put in a quarter?” And I say sure. We’re there for over an hour, so he asks that twice. And my voice sounds a little scratchy, so he says, “Hey Ma, I saw some tea and honey out there — can I get you some?” And I say, “That would be great.” Then he turns to the head of the mortgage department and asks if she would also like some. This is maybe a 90-second exchange in a 90-minute period. And at the end, she turns to my son and says, “I want to hire you.”

My jaw drops. She doesn’t know a thing about him — whether he has any income, or is a pottery major, nothing. She says, “I don’t care what he studies or what his grades are. He is the person I want sitting next to me when I have a sore throat, who notices and offers to get tea for me.” So he became one of her righthand people.

That was pretty much when I started writing this book, because it became clear to me that, in life, people are not looking for good grades, they’re looking for compassion. They’re looking for conscientiousness. They’re looking for creativity. They’re looking for resilience, self-control, integrity. The big firms that used to recruit only from the Ivy Leagues… none of them do that anymore, because now they understand how much talent they’ve missed due to that singular focus.

The first edition of Ready or Not came out three weeks before the pandemic. How did the pandemic illuminate, or underscore, your work?

The pandemic shifted our focus toward resilience, which is a big theme in the book. It was kind of hard not to say, “Look! I told you!”

People use the word all the time — “resilience.” It’s good to be resilient, but people really don’t know what that means. We tend to think of resilience as something you have or don’t have. But that’s not how it works; there’s no gene for resilience. There is no doubt some predisposition to it. But resilience is a skillset. And if you think of resilience as a toolbox, then you know you can always add more to it.

As a personal example, my dad died when I was a teenager, and that’s when I started writing. When times are tough, I write. When COVID hit, I wrote. Writing is something you can do for a month or two, or you can do it for a couple of years, part-time, but you can’t do it all the time every day. And at the point when it became clear that COVID wasn’t going to be a matter of months, I realized I needed to add a few more things to my toolbox, to make it through.

Nobody is resilient in all situations. And nobody sees this more clearly than a psychologist treating a kid whose parents were divorced and who managed through that pretty well — and then she didn’t get into the college of her choice and she’s ready to kill herself. So every time you allow your child to face something without interference, you’re helping them build resilience. And every time you interfere unnecessarily, because it makes you anxious to see your kid upset — every time you alleviate their normal developmental anxiety — you have robbed them of an opportunity to learn to manage it on their own.

In the book I tell the story of a kid who comes home teary-eyed after a dog barks at her. Her parents can do one of three things. They can say, “Don’t be such a wuss; go walk past that dog.” Or they can say, “I’ll walk with you.” Or they can say, “We’re going to take a different route to school tomorrow so you don’t have to walk past the dog.” Too often parents say, “We’ll avoid it.” Avoidance is what makes anxiety robust.

The right answer is, “I know you’re anxious, and I’ll walk with you for a couple of days, but we’ve known that dog for a long time, and he’s never hurt anybody.” And then your kid might say, “No, I’m afraid. I don’t want to go.” The extent to which the parents says, “You’re right. Dogs are dangerous. We’re going to avoid it” is the extent to which you’ve contributed to what I call “accumulated disability,” which would be problematic for any generation, but is especially problematic for kids today. Because it should be absolutely clear by now that this is not the last pandemic; this is not the last crisis. Allowing kids to experience some anxiety and figure it out on their own is one of the most important things parents can do, and it’s something they have trouble with.

To be clear, I’m not saying let them run out into traffic or do heroin or anything like that. But I am saying that, on what we call normative developmental tasks, like learning how to walk, learning how to sleep, learning how to drive a car, parents are guardrails, but they are not writing the story. We have to learn to tolerate our own anxiety about that.

You use the term “squiggly” to define a certain life trajectory — I love that idea. Can you explain more about that, and maybe talk a bit about why failure can be a good thing?

Sometimes there are super bright kids who have never failed in life. They’re the kings of their community until they go to college, and then they meet a whole bunch of other equally smart kids, and that can be very difficult. I knew a guy like this from Yale, and at 48 years old, he was still talking about how tough it was when he discovered there were lots of other people just like him, or even more competitive; it sent him into a severe depression, because he had never failed at anything. I treated him for two and a half years.

But most of us have had some experience of failure, and most of us, if we’re fortunate, have learned something from our failures. You know, when your one-year-old child starts babbling, you would never say, “Don’t talk to me until you can talk in full sentences.” Because you understand that it’s a process, and you’re going to be enthusiastic even when they don’t get it right.

I think we spend way too much time worrying about what our kids are not so good at. I’ll often get a call from someone who says, “Dr. Levine, I’m really worried about my kid’s grades.” And I know what’s coming. It’s the kid who has four As and a C, and they want to know what to do about the C. Guess what? If your kid is outstanding in a bunch of things and average in something else, my guess is they will do the things that they’re good at. Now if a kid is totally failing in school, that’s different. But nobody’s one hundred percent great at everything, and when you realize that, you can learn about yourself.

Can you share about your own “squiggly” line?

As a student, I was very good at English and very average at math. If my parents had decided to spend time and money to help bring up my math grade — and they couldn’t possibly have, because they had no money — that would have taken away from the work that I really was good at and loved to do, which was writing.

And when I grew up, I became a teacher in the south Bronx, and I was terrible at it — that’s not false humility. I was just not a good teacher. And the south Bronx was a very tough area. And so after school I would visit the home of this one kid and sit around a table with him and his mother, trying to figuring out how to help him get out of that environment. And I discovered I was really good at that. So if you never take the risk of failing at something, you really don’t end up knowing your strengths and weaknesses.

Nobody likes failure, right? It’s very hard to say to an audience, “Make sure your kid fails.” That, even to me, sounds harsh. “Trial and error” — I like that better than “failure.” And if you were to look at your own trajectory, I’d be surprised if you didn’t find some failures in there that you really benefited from. Every grownup has failed at something, and has learned something as a result.

Is there a degree to which failure, or this process of trial and error, can also teach kids to value deeper things, like compassion and empathy?

That’s an interesting question. Is failure a good teacher? Well, without encouragement, I’m not sure that it is.

I think compassion and empathy are all about relationships. So I think what you’re really asking about is how a parent relates to their child’s failure. For example, I have a kid who’s a brilliant math student and is enrolled in calculus. His father graphs every grade he gets, and the kid ends up with something called trichotillomania. He’s pulling out his hair and eyebrows and eyelashes due to tremendous amounts of anxiety, because his father will not let him fail. The kid’s taking calculus, yet his dad feels the need to make the graph! So if this kid fails, or is less than perfect, will he learn empathy or compassion? I don’t think so. He’s just learned to pull out his eyebrows.

But when a parent is welcoming and curious and nonjudgmental — and non-punitive about failure — then that shifts the relationship. The parents says something like, “I’m proud of you for trying. How did it feel?”

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Illustrations by Ollie Silvester.

Get your copy of Issue 20 here!

 

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One response to “The Squiggly Line of a Successful Life”

  1. […] You can check out two interviews, one with musician Bruce Cockburn, the other with psychologist Madeline Levine, to whet your appetite. And if you haven’t yet done so, you can subscribe here! We also have […]

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