Harvard-trained parenting researcher: The most successful kids are ‘healthy strivers’—here’s what their parents always do

Want your child to be successful? Raise them to be a “healthy striver,” says parenting researcher and author Jennifer Breheny Wallace.

Healthy strivers are resilient and self-motivated to succeed, but who don’t believe that their accomplishments determine their value as people. They stand in contrast to most of today’s teens, who’ve been tossed into a hyper-competitive environment in school, sports and other extracurricular activities, Wallace says — boosting their rates of anxiety and depression.

Kids who face that mounting pressure to succeed are victims of “toxic achievement culture,” Wallace tells CNBC Make It.

Wallace wrote about these phenomena in her book, “Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It,” which published in August. The book is backed by interviews with numerous psychologists and a survey 6,500 parents across the U.S., conducted by Wallace and a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. (Wallace herself holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard University.)

During that process, Wallace discovered that parents’ anxiety over their kids’ success — in the face of growing competition — is a driving force behind a growing teen mental health crisis, she says.

And when parents regularly voice their concerns about results like grades or sports trophies, it sends a potentially harmful message to their kids: They’re only valued for their achievements.

Here’s how to raise healthy strivers instead, says Wallace.

How to raise a ‘healthy striver’

In talking to thousands of parents — and in some cases, their children — Wallace found that the healthiest achievers shared a psychological trait called “mattering,” she says.

Mattering is “the idea of feeling valued by family, friends and community for who you are deep at your core, and being relied on to add meaningful value back to your family, to your schools, to your communities,” says Wallace.

Specifically, Wallace found a correlation between healthy levels of teenage self-esteem and feeling “like they mattered to their parents, that they were important and significant,” she says. That’s the feeling you want to enforce as a parent, she adds.

“Mattering acts like a protective shield that buffers against stress and anxiety and depression,” Wallace says. “It wasn’t that these healthy strivers that I met didn’t have setbacks or failures. But mattering acted like a buoy. It lifted them up [and] made them more resilient.” 

Children get more confidence from being known and understood by their parents than from receiving direct praise, according to research conducted by Harvard child psychologist Richard Weissbourd. So, take stock of the conversation topics you bring up most often with your kids. Shift the balance away from grades and more toward the hobbies and interests that seem to actually bring your children the most joy.

In some cases, Wallace came across teens who believed they mattered — their parents regularly told them so — but didn’t have much proof from the outside world that their contributions mattered.

To address that, you might encourage your child to volunteer in their community, for example: not to bolster their college resume, but to give them a confidence boost by putting their skills and interests to use in service of others.

“Knowing their strengths, knowing what they’re good at, and helping them to use those strengths to overcome weaknesses,” Wallace says. “And also how to use those strengths to make an impact at home, at school and in the wider community.”

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