Why the Needle Isn’t Moving

Well-meaning parents want their children to succeed. For ten frustrating years, my colleagues and I have been telling parents what a monumental pile of studies consistently show to be the keys to a child’s later academic, emotional, psychological, and financial success. The greatest predictor of academic success is engagement; the greatest predictor of workplace success is emotional intelligence; and the greatest predictor of emotional health is self-control. My audiences (often made up of affluent parents and always of aspirational ones, no matter what their socioeconomic level) invariably nod and applaud. Yet despite this highly persuasive evidence, parents today are not just persisting in harmful practices, but doubling down. Why?

Again and again, among the families I treat as a psychologist, I see a disconnect between the skill set that parents are pushing (compete like crazy, get good grades, over-prep for tests, go to a prestigious college, make lots of money) and the assets and attitudes that actually bring young people success in college, at work, in relationships, and in life. When I explain that teaching kids to overvalue external measures of success short-circuits their development as self-regulating individuals — the true foundation of a productive life — a shocking number of parents respond that you can’t undo bad grades and low test scores, but you can always catch up on the emotional stuff later — a tragic misapprehension. No matter what I say, no matter what research demonstrates clearly, I see parents who want the best for their children clinging to a damaging M.O., compelled by their own acute anxiety. Why?

Let’s talk about anxiety for a bit. At Challenge Success we know that levels of anxiety are high among the children we survey. Unlike depression, official measures of anxiety are hard to come by. The best we have from the National Survey of Children’s Health does tell us that anxiety disorders are on the upswing. However, ask any psychologist, psychiatrist, pediatrician or teacher about kids and anxiety and the response invariably confirms a disturbingly high upward trend. My experience tells me that this upswing, for many reasons, is not limited to our children but includes us as well. It is a very uncertain and frightening world right now. The internet and social media have made the most heinous acts of terrorism visible to a public that can’t look and can’t look away. Our economy is unpredictable. The jobs our children are likely to have don’t exist yet. Trust in our institutions is at an all time low. And increasingly the country is bifurcated — politically and economically. For many, life in the United States, consists of winners and losers. A zero sum game in which parents are working overtime to make certain that their children are among the winners. Unfortunately, by clinging to an outdated paradigm of what makes for success, parents continue to set up the circumstances for all those things that actually get in the way of success — anxiety, depression, a fixed mindset, exhaustion, extrinsic motivation and, perhaps most of all, the complete failure to accomplish the mandatory developmental tasks of childhood and adolescence.

The military has a term for this kind of environment. They call it VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), and they have restructured much of military leadership to account for this particularly challenging environment. Corporate America has followed suit. Education, not at all. Parenting, even less. Challenging environments call for collaboration as opposed to individual achievement, creativity as opposed to rote learning, the adaptability to examine new information, to correct course, to reimagine. Good questions can become more valuable than good answers. Leadership and teaching are no longer exclusively vertical, but are often horizontal. Inclusiveness matters.

So what does this have to do with anxiety? Think for a moment about a young child, say seven, who is walking home from school. A neighbor’s dog appears out of nowhere, snarls and bares his teeth. Even though the dog is in the neighbor’s yard, the child is terrified and runs home teary and shaky. Now most of us would shield that child from another encounter with that dog. “Honey I know that dog really scared you, let’s walk home from school a different way.” So the child does, and by staying away from the anxiety-provoking situation, feels less anxiety himself. But here’s the catch. It’s only temporary and the message that has been sent is that the child is too fragile to cope with his own feelings. It’s a vote of no confidence. It goes without saying that I’m not talking about a situation that would endanger a child, just one he or she finds scary. The far better, and more difficult, parental approach would be to encourage the child to confront his fear. Maybe you walk home with him a couple of times. Maybe you say, “I know you were scared, but the dog is never loose and can’t hurt you and I know you can walk past him.”

Because after 30 years of treating anxious kids, I can tell you something about the trajectory of anxiety disorders. There is, of course, a genetic component. But what I see regularly is that, with the best of intentions, parents do not encourage their children to face their fears. A kid is mocked at school and is allowed to stay home the next day because he’s upset. One day becomes a week, and we soon have a full-fledged school phobia. Avoidance works for a while, but then avoidance generalizes and the kid becomes more afraid, more avoidant. After a while, parents run out of patience. The more recent outcome of this is the “emerging adult” who has managed to avoid most of the things that challenge him or her, and parents at the end of their rope don’t understand why, “We’ve given you everything, made it easy as we could, and you don’t seem to want to do anything.” Typically, this kind of young adult is both anxious and deficient in the very skills that would make it possible for him or her to actually participate in life.

Anxiety is born out of avoidance and the continued acceptance of a non-viable strategy. When we cling to old notions about how to cultivate success, we are setting our kids up for not just anxiety (and depression as well) but also for failing at the very things we hope that they succeed at. In these VUCA times, our natural instinct is to hold tight to old ideas, to things that worked previously. It’s what we know. We count on the track record. But it’s exactly at these times that we need to loosen our grip, to think differently, to try new approaches. Teach kids to be agile, to be curious, to work hard at things not just for grades, but for enjoyment and a sense of mastery. Work hard at cultivating curiosity. Ask a lot of questions and then listen. No child has ever sat in my office and said his parents listen too much.

Laszlo Bock, the head of hiring for Google, has stated that, after all the years of looking for the “best and the brightest,” of recruiting from the Ivies and our most selective universities, that all that attention to accomplishment as measured by metrics, has proven “worthless.” “… GPA’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring and test scores are worthless . . . We found that they don’t predict anything.” You’d think there would be a collective sigh of relief and a reordering of priorities at every school and around every kitchen table. There hasn’t been. Anxiety can be a tough taskmaster. But if we want our kids to actually be successful, to find their lives meaningful, to have a sense of control over their own lives, then we have to deal with our own anxiety. We can’t cure our kids’ until we’ve cured ourselves.

Madeline Levine, PhD

Madeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.