In the 1990s, Yale researcher Suniya Luthar began studying the lives of American teenagers affected by poverty, crime, and substance abuse. In search of a control group to compare her findings, she uncovered a shocking truth: affluent suburban teenagers were struggling more with substance abuse and mental health than less privileged peers.1
This surprising outcome led to an insight that the seemingly most privileged group of kids qualified as “at-risk” due to “excessive pressure to excel.”
The book Never Enough examines the toll "toxic achievement culture" takes on all of us while ultimately arriving upon the critical antidote: instilling a sense of mattering in our kids. Many feel they must outperform their parents, yet doubt their ability to thrive in an unstable world. This fuels anxiety in students and parents alike. Families fear that no matter how hard their child works, college acceptance is not guaranteed, jeopardizing their future success. In response, parents over-manage and over-schedule kids, removing opportunities to fail.
At Curious Cardinals we see this anxiety in parents and students every day, which is why Curious Cardinals mom Vanessa Cornell decided to host a discussion between myself and the author of Never Enough, Jennifer Wallace. While we emphasize looking beyond Friday's test to find deeper meaning at Curious Cardinals, it’s easier said than done. Kids need to know they have intrinsic worth and see that they matter in action.
What does it mean to "matter”? To play a role that is mission critical to others, whether that be your family, sports team, or theater group. To realize that life is so much greater than you alone and the role you play is instrumental to others. To know that no matter what grade you get on Friday’s test or whether or not you make it on the Varsity soccer team, your life is important.
At the core of mattering is the importance of relationships, independence, and having a greater why, which is why we at Curious Cardinals felt particularly connected to the thesis of this book.
Mattering doesn't require solving climate change. Start small - cook dinner, volunteer. Find a mentor who will affirm your worth. Realize that your potential isn't defined by college, but by character and values.
Curious Cardinals mentor Jayla Cornelius, a Princeton graduate in civil engineering who will be studying at Harvard Business School in two years, shared a story about how her mom's continual emphasis on effort over outcome went a long way in clarifying their family values. Math came more easily to Jayla's twin sister (who also happens to be a CC mentor), but Jayla's mom made sure that didn't dissuade her from seeing herself as a STEM student. She worked with Jayla to help her realize her other strengths and show her that her mind works differently. Not better or worse than anyone else’s – just different.
This may extend further to taking initiative to address issues you care about, rather than assuming you can't make an impact. As the saying goes, "I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody."
When you become aware of your value, you realize that you can drive change. Your impact, your action matters.
Next time you stress “distinguishing yourself for college,” pause and think why? What are they going to learn at college? And how will that help them for life? And empower your child to think much bigger than college. Empower your child to think about the impact that they can have today or in life. That impact is not contingent upon a Harvard degree, rather it is contingent upon their ability to identify their strengths, look at the world beyond themselves, and see how they can marry their strengths with the impact that they want to have in the world.
To foster intrinsic mattering in your child, here are 3 key lessons from the book that we practice at Curious Cardinals and you can adopt as well:
Lesson #1: “Get curious, not furious.”
We often take for granted the value of simply asking a question. Parents often ask us how we help a student who has no idea what they’re interested in. We say we peel the onion. In the Curious Cardinals consultation call we’ll continue to ask questions until we get to something. For example:
CC team: What do you like to do in your free time when no one is telling you what to do?
Student: Go on TikTok.
CC team: TikTok is a lot of fun (affirm what they’ve said, don’t judge it in any way, make them feel safe!). What type of videos do you like to watch on TikTok?
Student: GRWM vids with different new products.
CC team: as in “get ready with me?” Love those too. Why do you like them?
Student: I love skincare and learning how different people I admire use different products to have the best skin.
CC team: So cool. Would you be interested in learning the chemistry behind skincare or more about how companies market their products?
See how we started with something that parents feel like is “bad” -- TikTok -- affirmed it, and used the content a student is naturally interested in as the launch point for a project? That’s exactly what leading with curiosity can result in!
Every child is different. Some kids seem like they come out of the womb making their beds, signing themselves up for extra-curriculars, and giving you minimal to no stress.
Others feel like everything from getting out of bed in the morning to doing their homework requires pulling teeth. Why don’t they do their homework? Do anything but spend time on TikTok? It pains you.
Ask open ended questions. Let your child explain to you, before you put words in their mouth, why they do what they do. Let them tell you rather than you projecting on them.
Lesson #2: Be a “strengths spotter.”
Researchers estimate that two-thirds of us don’t know what our own strengths are. We tend to lack awareness about the gifts we have to offer the world.
Help your child identify their strengths. We always ask in the consultation, “What is your student’s greatest superpower?” We love asking students this question personally as well.
We all have superpowers. Empower your child to identify theirs and launch from it.
Lesson #3: Empower your child to find a greater why.
Studies show that a sense of purpose prevails as most important for student success. Psychologist Erik Erikson emphasized that discovering personal identity is crucial in adolescence. Constant pressure to achieve undermines this. Students become reliant on external validation, not inner purpose.
A Purdue survey of 30,000 graduates found college prestige had little impact on work-lives.2 What mattered was having:
- A professor who made learning exciting;
- A professor who cared about the student personally;
- A mentor who encouraged the student to pursue personal goals;
- Meaningful projects to pursue across semesters;
- Active involvement in extracurricular activities.
These experiences doubled engagement at work. The takeaway: students can fulfill these at any college. Fit matters more than prestige. Students need to feel valued, like they matter on campus. Success correlates with feeling significant within a community. The key is helping your child find purpose and meaning.
It's easy to lose sight of the importance of purpose as a student's anchor. If you're worried about how they'll do on Friday's test or which internship they'll get this summer, go back to their why. Do they know what they care about and why? Once they have that purpose, motivation for Friday's test and goals for an internship become clear. A greater why provides direction. When students are anchored in purpose, academics and activities fall into place. So first, help them find their why - then the what and how will follow.
1. Luthar, S S, and K D'Avanzo. “Contextual factors in substance use: a study of suburban and inner-city adolescents.” Development and psychopathology vol. 11,4 (1999): 845-67. doi:10.1017/s0954579499002357
2. Gallup, Inc. “Life in College Matters for Life after College.” Gallup.com, 6 May 2014, news.gallup.com/poll/168848/life-college-matters-life-college.aspx.
About the Author
Audrey Wisch is the CEO/co-founder of Curious Cardinals and an emerging thought leader in the K-12 education space. When she's not running an edtech startup, mentoring, teaching parents how to use AI, or spreading the magic of mentorship to audiences across the country, you can find Audrey running, reading, or spending time with friends!