Review and Summary: Never Enough

Review and Summary: Never Enough

I grabbed Never Enough thinking it would be all about grown-ups who push themselves too hard. But what a surprise! This book isn’t what I expected—it’s about raising kids where everyone wants to be the best. And guess what? I’m not even a bit upset about this mix-up. This book turned out to be so good, offering a whole new look at things.

Never Enough is perfect for parents who can choose where they live or where their kids go to school. It’s also great for people who work with kids every day. Jennifer Breheny Wallace wants us to change how we talk about trying to be perfect all the time. Instead of blaming each other, the book wants us to understand that the pressure to be perfect comes from many places, not just one family, school, or town.

The big idea in this book is about mattering—feeling important and valued. It starts with how much our parents care about us. Then it grows to how much we matter to our community and even to the whole world. The book tells us that the more we feel valued, the more good we can do. And it works the other way too.

In simple words, Never Enough is an astonishing book. It’s a deep look at how we bring up our kids when there’s so much pressure to be the best. It’s a must-read for parents, teachers, and anyone who cares about kids. If you want to think and talk about how we can all feel valued and important, ‘Never Enough’ is the book for you.

Summary

Why We’ve Always Wanted to Be the Best, Since Old Times

Our minds really care about how important we are to others. This started a long time ago, even with our oldest ancestors. If someone was more important in their group, they got the best stuff—like food, homes, and partners. These things helped them and their kids do well. Today, this need to do well still drives us, often without us knowing.

Loretta Graziano Breuning says our built-in urges help us stay safe and have kids. How we see our importance affects everything, including how we raise our kids. When we feel more important, our body gives us a happy mix of feel-good stuff. But, if our mind thinks we’re not doing well, we get worried and stressed. Our body makes stress chemicals like cortisol. That’s why it feels bad when we feel less important.

The Stress of Growing Up in a High-Achieving Area

Living in a place where everyone is doing really well and expects the same from you can be tough on kids. They feel they must keep their family’s good name and one day match the high-cost lifestyle they’re used to.

When kids are told they can do everything, they start to think their whole future is up to them. Having lots of choices, like many kids in rich areas do, can make them think they control everything in their lives. Being able to get extra help, like private tutors and coaches, makes them feel powerful, like they can shape their own future. But this idea—that they’re in charge of their own destiny—adds a lot of stress.

The Impact of High-Achieving Environments on Kids

According to research conducted by Suniya Luthar at Yale in the 1990s, upper-middle-class suburban youth were found to face several challenges. They exhibited worse outcomes on various measures compared to the average teen and even in comparison to inner-city kids. Notably, suburban girls experienced significantly higher levels of clinical depression, while both genders showed a slight increase in clinically significant anxiety compared to norms. Additionally, they were more likely to engage in alcohol, marijuana, and hard drug use.

A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) also highlights that family and school environments characterized by extreme pressure to excel or outperform others can have detrimental effects on youth. These effects include high levels of stress, anxiety, and increased alcohol and drug use and dependence among young individuals.

The Pressure Parents Put on Their Kids

Nowadays, a lot of parents are set on making sure their kids are at the top, even if it means pushing them hard. This pressure comes at a price, affecting both the parents and their children. Being pushed this much can make kids feel like they’re just a project, not a person.

Psychologist Richard Weissbourd points out that the real worry is with parents who base their whole relationship with their kids on how well they do in things like school and sports. It’s like when a parent says they only care about the effort, but then asks how the child’s scores compare to others. For many parents, making sure their kids do really well is seen as the only way to keep them safe in a world that’s always changing.

Caution for Highly Educated Parents

Many highly educated parents often feel the pressure of an express elevator that seems to be heading straight to success. There’s a fear that if their child doesn’t get on this elevator early, they’ll be left behind.

The increase in authoritative parenting is most noticeable among affluent and well-educated parents for several reasons:

  • Affluent and well-educated parents have the resources and time to engage in intensive parenting, which includes hiring tutors and driving their children to enrichment classes.
  • It’s important to note that the “slope of potential social decline is steepest at the top.” Wealthy parents, in particular, may feel a strong urge to protect their child from experiencing a drop in their socioeconomic status.

Society’s Influence on Parenting

It’s not wholly on the parents who shape how they raise their kids; society plays a significant role, especially in the economic environment they’re in, including income inequality.

In 2017, Matthias Doepke, an economics professor at Northwestern, and Fabrizio Zilibotti conducted research and found that:

  • The level of income inequality, social mobility, and the value of education in a country affect how parents behave.
  • A country’s economic conditions are directly linked to how parents approach parenting. For instance, in Scandinavia, where the benefits of investing in education aren’t high, the prevalent style today is more permissive. Back in the years after the industrial revolution, when preparing kids for factory work was crucial, many developed countries had an authoritarian parenting style.

Sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman, in her book “Playing to Win,” points out that today’s kids face real challenges if they delay skill development. They’re competing against kids who have spent their whole childhoods on activities like tennis lessons, math workbooks, and travel soccer teams. This competition drives parents to search frantically for opportunities like architecture classes for sixth graders.

Researchers Thomas Curran at the London School of Economics and Andrew Hill at York St John University in the UK have noted a significant rise in perfectionism among young adults. This isn’t because parents demand it; it’s because they feel pressure from society. The problem arises from the gap between what a child can actually achieve and what parents or society expect. Parents are reacting to a hypercompetitive world with anxiety.

Why Today’s Generation is Seen as Vulnerable

When we look at why young people today are often seen as more fragile than previous generations, it all comes down to one thing: our narrow definition of “success.” It’s not wrong to want to succeed, but it’s how we define success as a society and the strict path we’ve set to reach it that’s the issue.

On the surface, this means that young people might think their worth is determined by hitting certain milestones: where they go to college, their job, their location, and their possessions. On a deeper level, it’s even worse—they might believe they’re replaceable. Their well-being, interests, and needs aren’t considered important. Instead, the ideal is to live a “work hard, play hard” lifestyle, and this is seen as the necessary price for getting ahead.

The Impact of College Ranking on Career and Life Satisfaction

Many of us tend to think that earning a degree from a prestigious college will automatically translate into a well-paying job and a happier life.

However, numerous studies have consistently found that there are no significant statistical differences in the outcomes between graduates who attended large public universities and those who chose more costly private institutions. Surprisingly, the reputation or prestige of the college they attended has little bearing on their current well-being and their professional lives.

It’s About the College Experience, Not the College Name

What truly shapes a person’s success in later life is their college experience, particularly the quality of their relationships and their level of involvement on campus.

Six key types of college experiences have a significantly positive impact on future success:

  1. Taking a course with a professor who ignited their passion for learning.
  2. Having a professor who genuinely cared about the student on a personal level.
  3. Having a mentor who motivated the student to pursue their personal goals.
  4. Engaging in meaningful, long-term projects that span multiple semesters.
  5. Participating in internships that provide practical experience.
  6. Actively participating in extracurricular activities.

The Misconceptions About Growth Mindset

The concept of a growth mindset, popularized by Carol Dweck, suggests that a person’s skills and abilities can improve through hard work and effort.

However, in communities where there’s constant pressure to excel, experts warn that a growth mindset, when misunderstood, can have negative consequences.

People often simplify the idea of a growth mindset. According to UK researcher Andrew Hill, some kids might mistakenly believe that if they’re not succeeding, it’s solely because they’re not trying hard enough. These students may possess a strong willingness to work hard but lack the ability to recognize when it’s time to pause and reevaluate.

In a 2018 paper, Suniya Luthar and Nina Kumar argued that the main issue isn’t a lack of motivation and perseverance but the challenge of knowing when to step back.

For high-achieving, perfectionist students, the pursuit of excellence can become unhealthy. They begin to think that pushing themselves to the limit and making sacrifices, like striving for that perfect grade or squeezing in one more activity, is the key to getting into their dream college. In some cases, this drive can transform into a compulsive and excessive need to overprepare and overextend themselves.

How Parents Can Support Their Children

The most critical task for adolescents is to discover their own identity. However, this process can be hindered when young people feel the pressure to constantly excel or be perfect to earn love and acceptance. When personal worth appears to depend solely on outperforming their peers, it can prevent kids from developing a sense of internal meaning and purpose. This can lead to unfulfilling achievements, burnout, and cynicism.

The parent-child bond is paramount for a child’s mental well-being.

Here’s what parents can do to help their kids:

  1. Make Them Feel Valued: Kids who feel that they matter to their parents tend to have higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression. According to Gordon Flett, a professor at York University, when kids feel valued, they have a sense of security knowing they have strong, meaningful connections and that they’re not alone in this journey. Feeling valued acts as a protective shield against stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
  2. Listen Actively: Listen to your children, ask open-ended questions, and take the time to understand why they might be underperforming.
  3. Recognize Their Strengths: Become a “strengths spotter” by noticing when your kids are at their best. Instead of focusing on their weaknesses, highlight their strengths and find ways to use those strengths to foster growth.
  4. Family Playtime: Spend quality, judgment-free time together as a family. This provides kids with a safe space to be themselves, learn, and embrace their ordinary selves.

Author: Jennifer Breheny Wallace

Publication date: 22 August 2023

Number of pages: 320 pages


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