All I care about is that my kids are happy.
But it’s possible I don’t really mean it.
An article in The New York Times this weekend chronicles the community response to a cluster of suicides by teenagers in Palo Alto, California. Among the factors being examined is the high standard of achievement that is part of the culture in a city sandwiched between Stanford and Silicon Valley, and the role parents play—both overtly and in more subtle ways—in promoting it.
Education expert Denise Pope terms it the “hidden message of parenting,” which is a kind of doublespeak that parents engage in about happiness and achievement. On the one hand, parents tell their children they just want them to be happy. On the other they have a laser-like focus on their children’s achievements that often undermines that message about happiness.
I don’t live in Palo Alto, but I recognized the doublespeak immediately. I love that you love reading, I tell my son, as I take the Diary of a Wimpy Kid book out of his hands and replace it with something harder. I want to hear about what happened at school today, I tell my children, and then interrupt them when they recount the pitched battles that took place in the recess soccer game so I can ask them about their math tests.
I wonder if “I just want you to be happy” has become a verbal tic, like “I’ll love you no matter what.” It’s not that these words aren’t true—of course they’re true—but do our kids hear us, when what we often say in the next sentence undermines them? I love you no matter what, but I’m really disappointed you were caught drinking. I just want you to be happy, but did you get an A on the test?
Palo Alto is one of the most affluent communities in the country, but it’s hardly alone in celebrating—and in fact, expecting—a high standard of achievement for its young people. The anxieties its students face, recounted in painstaking detail in the article—a sense of shame over a B, a feeling that the failure to secure an Ivy League admission letter will result in a lifetime of flipping burgers—echo the ones I’ve heard from high schoolers I know. It’s disordered thinking at best. At worst, it reflects a collective and pathological drive for achievement that sacrifices any concept of healthy well-being.
The good news for parents is that there’s time for us to rethink what our words mean—and how we can encourage our children to be their happiest, best selves, without damaging them in the process. The question is, will we?