Navigating the Perils of Toxic Achievement Culture: Insights for Parents

Navigating the Perils of Toxic Achievement Culture: Insights for Parents

Navigating the Perils of Toxic Achievement Culture: Insights for Parents

The causes of stress on marriages should be important considerations for any family law attorney attempting to counsel individuals through the early stages of divorce and custody issues. As we counsel parties who may hold out hope for reconciliation, it’s good to have more than an anecdotal understanding the impact of contemporary culture on marriages and families. One area of important consideration is the impact of an increasingly toxic achievement culture on children and parents.

In a world that often places a premium on success and achievement, the pressure on children to excel academically and athletically has skyrocketed, leaving families grappling with the consequences of a toxic achievement culture. Jennifer Breheny Wallace, author of “Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It,” offers profound insights into this pervasive issue.

Achievement Pressure is Detrimental

Wallace’s journey began when she observed a concerning trend that children in “high-achieving schools” were facing elevated rates of behavioral and mental health challenges. This realization prompted her to delve into the issue further, leading to a revelation: the intense pressure parents were placing on their children to achieve success was not only detrimental but also comparable to the challenges faced by at-risk groups such as children living in poverty, those in foster care, recent immigrants, and those with incarcerated parents.

Collaborating with a researcher at the Harvard School of Education, Wallace sought to ensure her findings were not confined to specific regions. A survey was developed, and over 6,500 parents participated, revealing a widespread issue. Wallace discovered that the economic climate and the squeeze on the middle class had created a heightened atmosphere of fear and pressure. This toxic achievement culture was not isolated but prevalent across diverse communities, and the mental health impact on both children and parents is profound.

The Concept of “Mattering”

A pivotal concept that emerged from Wallace’s research is “mattering” – a psychological construct rooted in the idea that children who feel valued for who they are, and important and significant to their parents, develop healthy self-esteem. Mattering, as Wallace describes it, acts as a protective shield, bolstering children’s resilience against external pressures.

Parenting for Mattering

Wallace’s shift in parenting philosophy from solving for happiness to solving for mattering has profound implications. By prioritizing the notion that children need to feel valued and important, parents can navigate the challenges of achievement culture more effectively. Understanding and celebrating each child’s unique qualities and encouraging their sense of belonging become paramount.

Practical Parenting Strategies

Wallace provides actionable strategies for parents seeking to counteract the toxic effects of achievement culture:

  1. Affection and Connection: Prioritize intentional connection and affection with your children, even through small gestures. This fosters a sense of belonging.
  2. Limited College Discussions: Designate specific times for discussions about college to create a home environment free from external pressures.
  3. Individual Recognition: Celebrate your child’s individual qualities, whether it’s their humor, collaborative nature, or other distinctive traits.

Community Involvement

Wallace underscores the crucial role communities play in combating toxic achievement culture. By helping children feel needed and depended upon, communities can contribute to fostering a sense of purpose and value among youth.


Navigating the perils of toxic achievement culture requires a paradigm shift and intentional parenting strategies. By prioritizing mattering over mere success and fostering environments where children feel valued for who they are, not just for what they achieve, parents can play a vital role in mitigating the pressures that have permeated our educational systems and households. As communities come together to recognize and support the unique contributions of each individual, we can collectively work towards a healthier, more balanced approach to success and achievement.

About The Smith Firm

A full-service family law practice located in Oklahoma City, The Smith Firm provides services in the areas of divorce, custody and parenting time, child support, spousal support, property and debt division, paternity disputes, adoptions and appeals. For more information, visit