Given all my research and time working with youth, I (supposedly) know exactly what they need to be happy. The problem is, our culture today is working in direct opposition to my effectiveness as a parent. So my biggest challenge is often that I’m not sure I have the strength to stay the course.
Here’s what I believe the basis of happiness to be:
the ability to regularly experience joy and high emotion
the capacity to develop and maintain deep relationships with others
the ability to use one’s life to do things that are important to them
the ability to find and do work that one loves
This is the essence of happiness on one’s own terms, and it’s what we all want for our children.
Here’s the great contradiction, though: our society celebrates people that I believe are miserable. From my perspective, it’s the narcissists of our society, the tortured souls, who are frequently in the spotlight.
No sane parent would ever want their child to be a reality TV star, no matter how much money they could make. These aren’t happy people! But it’s who our children endlessly see on display… and may end up looking up to.
Somehow, we’ve created a world where it’s no longer enough to wake up ready to spend time with people you care about and do what you love. It seems like that simple ideal rarely passes through mind of a teenager.
In this world, scarcity rules. It’s not all the wonderful things we have that we notice first each day, it’s the talent, power, wealth and fame that others possess (and we don’t) that enraptures our youth.
The force of our society is acting in direct opposition to the happiness and success of our youth. No wonder depression is 10 times more prevalent now than it was in 1960, and no wonder the average onset age of depression has dropped from 29 to 14 years old since then.
As parents, many of us (including me) are guilty of promoting this culture. Does a child really need to be a straight-A student, captain of their sports team and proficient with a musical instrument to be a worthwhile member of society? Is it essential that they join clubs, perform in school plays, and undertake service projects in the community?
We have to ask ourselves whether pushing these things is allowing our children to live happier, more successful, and more meaningful lives.
Here’s what’s wrong with overachieving:
1. It fosters perfectionism
The quest for the ideal is unattainable. Worse, it’s built on a complete lack of self-compassion. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves and understand that to fail is to be human. It may be hard to conceive, but vulnerability is what gives us the strength to overcome adversity. It’s essential to the balance and perspective we want our children to have as they grow into adults.
Far too many overachieving teenagers struggle with the implications of failure. They’ve succeeded throughout their entire lives. If they’ve fallen down, loving parents have been there to support them and get them back on track.
Typically in high school, though, a shift happens. They begin failing tests or don’t make the cut for the band, school play or basketball team. Possibly they experience a breakup or the loss of a job.
To us, these are typical hurdles in life, but to the perfection-minded teen, they’re equivalent to irretrievable failure. They can’t deal with the feeling, because they never built the emotional muscles to overcome adversity, and didn’t even know those abilities were necessary.
Unfortunately, in far too many situations, these types of circumstances drive young people to alcohol and drug use, depression, and other self-destructive behaviors.
The greatest lesson our children need to learn is how to accept, handle, and move forward from failure. Believe it or not, it’s the only way for them to figure out how to succeed.
2. It facilitates an inauthentic life
The overachiever is an extrinsically-driven animal, conditioned to seek honors, awards and recognition. These are the measures of success and failure.
By constantly striving for external recognition and signs of success, we find ourselves deceiving others and becoming distracted from who we truly are. But the small portion of people who seek this kind of validation for status’ sake and actually achieve it almost always discover that it only offers temporary satisfaction.
Worse, most reach a point in life when they recognize the lack of fulfillment this status-seeking mindset has yielded, and they face visions of their lives as wasted opportunities to live authentically.
We need to see life as a process of growth. Accomplishments and setbacks contribute to becoming better versions of ourselves, able to achieve more and find greater happiness in meaning. The sooner we can develop this growth mindset, the sooner we can begin our authentic lives.
3. It drives comparison
The opposite of self-compassion and equanimity is comparison. And, in our culture, too many of us refuse to give ourselves a break and allow ourselves to be human.
We see reality TV stars and the children of billionaires plastered across every conceivable media outlet, and feel we have to do something both extraordinary and highly public with our lives or we’re somehow failing. We compare ourselves to external ideals in every aspect of life… our jobs, our bodies, the people we associate with, and the fortunes we amass.
As they say, we end up doing jobs we don’t enjoy so we can spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. These are the ideas our kids are being fertilized with as they grow.
It is important to observe others ― to learn from them and allow them to motivate us to become more.
Competition can be a wonderful thing, both as a motivating source and a process that brings out our best. We just have to take it easy ourselves. Celebrate and acknowledge what’s wonderful about you, rather than what you’re missing. Learn to laugh at yourself and find peace with what you’re not. This is the foundation of fulfillment and inner peace in life.
Parenting is hard. On some level, I want my child to be that kid: the one others look to as focused, disciplined, smart, and talented. The standout, in other words. Which often means I’m guilty of making decisions that push my kids in directions that are more about me than them.
The human ego can be an awful thing if we don’t stay conscious of its impact on how we live, act, and parent. I hope I have the wherewithal to do the right thing by my children. I hope you do, too.
I’ll leave you with a quote I often revisit to support me in my efforts:
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” ― E.E. Cummings