Writing recently in the Economist’s bimonthly cultural magazine 1843, Ryan Avent reflected on the intense, achievement-focused parenting style that has become so prevalent among America’s upper class. Fueled by the sense that (a) college admissions have never been more competitive and (b) attending the “right” school has never been more important to one’s future success, well-educated mothers and fathers want their children to start building an Ivy League–worthy CV at a very young age. As Avent explained, he and his wife have largely eschewed this approach in raising their own kids. Yet he confessed to feeling “a tremor of panic” when hearing about the academic regimens and extracurricular schedules of his six-year-old daughter’s classmates.
Such anxieties will sound familiar to parents across America, especially those living in or around status-conscious “power” cities such as New York, Washington, Boston, or San Francisco. (Avent and his family live just outside the nation’s capital, in Arlington, Virginia.) Nobody wants to push his or her children too hard—but nobody wants them to fall behind, either. And when large numbers of kids are meeting with math or reading tutors, taking piano lessons, learning a foreign language, and playing organized sports before they finish kindergarten, it’s only natural to think that your kids should be doing the same.
The obvious upside of “high-pressure parenting,” as Avent called it, is that investing more time and resources in children can help them realize their full potential as students, athletes, musicians, artists, etc. The obvious downside is that excessive pressure can produce unhealthy levels of stress, while heightening the risk of depression and/or burnout. Even Yale law professor Amy Chua—the self-proclaimed “tiger mother” whose 2011 book offered a qualified defense of high-pressure parenting—has admitted that, when one of her daughters stopped playing the violin and took up tennis, she told her mom (in Chua’s words) “not to ruin tennis like I ruined the violin.”
There are at least two additional, hidden perils of high-pressure parenting. First, it implicitly encourages children to value achievement more than character development. As journalist Rod Dreher has written, “Nobody these days feels an obligation to anything larger than their own ambition and desire.” Indeed, when the meritocratic rat race takes precedence over everything else, basic moral standards become negotiable. That’s one lesson of the high-profile cheating scandals that rocked Harvard and New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School in 2012. (The New York Times described the former scandal as Harvard’s “largest cheating scandal in memory.”)
Speaking of Harvard, a few years ago researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education surveyed more than 10,000 middle- and high-school students throughout the country, and asked which of the following three things they considered most important: “caring for others,” “achieving at a high level,” or “being a happy person (feeling good most of the time).” Close to 80 percent chose either achievement (48 percent) or happiness (30 percent), whereas just 22 percent chose caring. The Harvard analysts got similar results when they asked students to identify their parents’ top child-raising priority: More than 80 percent said achievement (54 percent) or happiness (27 percent), versus only 19 percent who said caring. In addition, the Harvard team found that roughly 80 percent of school adults—that is, teachers, administrators, and other staffers—“viewed parents as prioritizing their children’s achievement above caring,” while “a similar percentage viewed parents as prioritizing happiness over caring.”
The study also confirmed, not surprisingly, that “many children in affluent and middle-class communities feel fierce, debilitating pressure to achieve at high levels, resulting in a range of emotional, ethical, and behavioral troubles.” To be sure, parents are not the only source of this pressure, but they certainly contribute to it, in hopes of giving their kids the competitive edge needed to outshine their peers. Yet as the Harvard study noted, “Children who are subjected to intense achievement pressure by their parents in affluent communities don’t appear to outperform other students.”
The culture of high-pressure parenting creates high expectations for parents, too. After all, someone has to pay for the lessons, classes, tutoring sessions, camps, travel teams, and other enrichment programs—while also, in many cases, paying for private school education. That’s why high-pressure parents tend to be high-income parents.
Which brings us to the second hidden peril of high-pressure parenting: It discourages people from having large families—or, at any rate, it discourages them from having as many kids as they might otherwise want to, given the financial costs of keeping up with the parenting Joneses. As George Washington University political scientist Samuel Goldman has observed:
It’s no longer considered enough to pay the bills and provide a stable household. Young parents, especially those of the upper-middle class, think they must also provide exceptional schooling, a culturally enriching homelife, fairly luxurious material surroundings, and on and on.
Doing all that for one child is hard enough. But to do so for two or three is almost unimaginable, particularly because it is almost certain to require two full-time salaries.
Thus, untold numbers of parents reluctantly decide to have one or two kids instead of three or four. Over time, these decisions have contributed to a significant decline in America’s total fertility rate, which dropped from 3.65 in 1960 to just 1.84 in 2015.
In fairness, even moms and dads who reject high-pressure parenting often find that the costs of raising children in the modern age are simply staggering. That’s one reason many Americans are delaying marriage and children longer than they did in the past. “In 1976,” the Census Bureau recently reported, “some 85 percent of women and 75 percent of men were married by the time they were 29 years old. To find at least that same proportion today, we have to look among people in their early 40s.”
Parents cannot control the larger, structural forces that have inflated the cost of child-rearing. But they can control the amount of pressure they put on themselves to turn their children into “overeducated Achievatrons” (in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks). Likewise, parents can control the amount of pressure their kids feel to compile the “perfect” résumé and win the meritocratic rat race.
Because in the end, life isn’t a race at all. As Avent put it:
In life, unlike in education, there are no winners. . . . There is no finish line after which results are compared and winners and losers determined. Parents are investing massive amounts of time preparing their children to win a race that cannot be won. Those children learn to run like mad in pursuit of some elusive end result, until they give up or expire from exhaustion.
High-pressure parents should take those words to heart. Life doesn’t culminate with a diploma from Princeton or a job offer from McKinsey or admission to a country club. There are happy janitors and unhappy investment bankers. Rather than prod children to become hyper-competitive “achievers,” mothers and fathers should help them cultivate the character traits necessary for success in friendship, marriage, and parenting—because that’s the kind of success that ultimately brings the greatest joy and satisfaction.