It has been 14 years since Madeline Levine sounded the alarm in her bestselling book, The Price of Privilege, that over-involved parents and pressure-filled childhoods were creating a generation of unhappy kids. While she followed up with another book, is a frequent public speaker and co-founded Challenge Success at the Stanford Graduate School of Education to address these issues, she is dismayed to see that so little has changed.
"The needle hasn’t moved," says the San Francisco psychologist and mother of three grown children. "This is dire."
In her most recent book, Ready of Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain World (Harper, 2020), Levine outlines how parents’ concerns about their children’s future in a rapidly changing economy and society – and the resulting emphasis on grades, colleges and protecting or rescuing children from failure – is actually hurting kids’ chances of future success. What’s being lost in students’ joyless trudge toward stellar test scores, marquee colleges and high-paying jobs are the very skills that are now most needed and highly prized by employers: critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, flexibility, resilience and collaboration among them.
The path to success and happiness is not a straight line from an A-list preschool to Harvard or Stanford to captain of industry. Instead, Levine writes, it is most often a "squiggly line" full of unforeseen challenges, failures and triumphs.
Levine spoke with Bay Area Parent about her latest work.
You write a lot about parents’ and kids’ anxiety. How big a problem is it?
When I was writing Price of Privilege, it was maybe one in five kids (with anxiety disorders). Now it’s one in three kids, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. The rate of anxiety disorders for parents is one in three. … The environment is very pressured. Social media has been a factor, the economy has been a factor and the degree of uncertainly and danger in the world have made us all increasingly anxious. What’s really happening is that because kids are so pressured in ways that, to me, are kind of crazy, we back off in encouraging the kinds of things that would help them in an anxious environment.
What I’ve been seeing in the last five to 10 years is the kid who goes to college and can’t handle it. The basic developmental skills of learning to deal with anxiety – failing sometimes, mastering it sometimes – is missing. It’s not that they’re spoiled. It’s that they don’t have the skill set to self-regulate or manage a difficult roommate.
(Parents should) back off on the pressure – which we know is making kids anxious – and don’t be so accommodating to normal anxiety. … It’s something we learn little by little by having small experiences or disappointments or anxieties or challenges and having a parent say: "I think you know how to handle that."
What else can parents do?
One of the really important things we can do is make sure we’re aware of our own level of anxiety, and make sure we have a life that is not entirely child-centric. … What happened to parents to make them so incredibly dependent on their children’s success?
What I hear from kids is, "Growing up sucks. My parents work all week long and then spend the weekend watching kids throw a ball around." It doesn’t make adulthood look interesting. … When you show that adulthood is interesting by having a life that is more expansive than your kid’s next test grade, you have greater confidence in your child’s ability to work things out. When you step in prematurely, that opportunity is lost. In order to get through the challenges that life will eventually bring, you need practice.
I’m not saying let your kids suffer, but there is a normal arc of self-realization and resilience that we’re getting in the way of.
Even if parents agree with you, it can be hard to ignore the societal norms and pressures in places like the Bay Area. Any advice?
How do you affect social and cultural change? I think people have to decide whether or not this is critical. What worries me more than the parents are the kids who have bought into this. … It’s their lives, and they’re starting to buy into a system that is very damaging.
At schools, I give kids a 4-by-6 card. On one side, I ask them to write: What do your parents worry about that they shouldn’t? "My GPA, that I’m working too hard, my friends." Then I ask: What don’t your parents worry about that they should? I have thousands of cards, and they are so consistent about mental health: "They should worry about my depression, how anxious I am, that I think about killing myself."
We’re looking at the wrong things. The community can be wrong. Sometimes common knowledge is anything but.
We need to dispel some of the mythology (about success). This is what happens to most people: They fail and then they succeed and they wander around a bit. In life, people are not screening you by the school you went to.
You also write about the importance of instilling a moral compass.
Given what’s happening with (artificial intelligence) and technology and climate change and a million other things, … there are huge ethical and moral questions coming up.
Kids should have responsibility, and part of being in a family is being responsible. I used to go to houses to see how the family (of a client) works. Kids were always excused from chores because they had AP classes to study for: "Since nothing is more important than grades, community comes in second." Being responsible is part of the moral compass.
The other part is what your kids see you do. I used to deliver meals to people who were shut in, and I took my kids with me. Now each does something. See what I do, not what I say to you.
We spend so much time discussing grades and where you’re going to college and how you’re doing on the field and not enough time saying: Did anybody have a problem? Did you help somebody?
Your kids’ character is what will make them successful or not successful. It is not the grades they get or the school they go to. Successful people are liked because they’re generous or kind or helpful.
Sit around the dinner table and shift the conversation from performance to ethics and character. I think that’s not a hard thing to ask people to do.