By JUDITH WARNER
Published: July 27, 2012
It would be easy, on first glance, to dismiss Madeline Levine’s “Teach Your Children Well” as yet another new arrival in a long line of books that have urged us, in the past decade or so, to push back and just say no to the pressures of perfectionistic, high-performance parenting. But to give in to first impressions would be a mistake.
For Levine’s latest book is, in fact, a cri de coeur from a clinician on the front lines of the battle between our better natures — parents’ deep and true love and concern for their kids — and our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences, all of which she sees played out, day after day, in her private psychology practice in affluent Marin County, Calif. Levine works with teenagers who are depleted, angry and sad as they compete for admission to a handful of big-name colleges, and with parents who can’t steady or guide them, so lost are they in the pursuit of goals that have drained their lives of pleasure, contentment and connection. “Our current version of success is a failure,” she writes. It’s a damning, and altogether accurate, clinical diagnosis.
Levine’s previous book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids,” opened with the image of a “bright, personable, highly pressured” 15-year-old girl with wealthy parents, who seemed, on the surface, to have it all. But a glimpse at her forearm revealed that she had also carved the word “empty” into her flesh with a razor. Teenagers like this, and adoring if preoccupied adults like her parents, haunt the pages of “Teach Your Children Well.”
One academically talented girl in Levine’s care is knocked off her feet by self-loathing and grief after she’s rejected from a particularly desirable college. She “lies in bed for days,” Levine writes. “She will not get up, and when I visit her at home, all she can say through her streaming tears is: ‘It was all for nothing. I’m a complete failure.’ ”
Other kids cheat, take drugs, drink, shut down or, worse still, keep up their tightrope act of parent-pleasing, Ivy-aiming high achievement while quietly, invisibly dying inside. “The cost of this relentless drive to perform at unrealistically high levels is a generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims,” Levine writes. “They become preoccupied with events that have passed — obsessing endlessly on a possible wrong answer or a missed opportunity. They are anxious and depressed and often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Sleep is difficult and they walk around in a fog of exhaustion. Other kids simply fold their cards and refuse to play.”
Levine has spent 30 years with these unhappy children, as a therapist and a mother of three sons who attended high-pressure schools. And now, it would seem, she’s had it. She’s had it with schools that worship at the altar of high achievement but do everything they can to undermine children’s growth and well-being: eliminating recess; assigning mind-deadening amounts of homework; and ranking, measuring and valuing kids by narrowly focused test scores, while cutting out other areas of creative education in which large numbers of students who don’t necessarily test well might find success and thrive. And she’s had it with parents who profess to want nothing more than “happiness” for their children (“Kids laugh when I tell them that their parents don’t mention money as a measure of success; they think I’ve been snowed,” she divulges) while neglecting the aspects of family life that build enthusiasm and contentment, and overemphasizing values and activities that can actually do harm.
These are parents who run themselves ragged with work and hyper-parenting, presenting an “eviscerated vision of the successful life” that their children are then programmed to imitate. They’re parents who are physically hyper-present but somehow psychologically M.I.A.: so caught up in the script that runs through their heads about how to “do right” by their children that they can’t see when the excesses of keeping up, bulking up, getting a leg up and generally running scared send the whole enterprise of ostensible care and nurturing right off the rails.
This message — that, essentially, everything today’s parents think they’re doing right is actually wrong — is the most noteworthy take-away from the first two-thirds or so of this book, which otherwise spends a bit too much time consolidating and restating (without, unfortunately, adequate footnotes or in-text credits) a great deal of previously published wisdom on the dangers of winner-take-all parenting.
Levine has good, if familiar, lessons for parents about the virtues of teaching empathy; encouraging the development of an authentic self; and making time for dreaming, creating and unstructured outdoor play. But she really comes into her own — and will, if widely read, make an indelible mark on our parenting culture — when she moves beyond child development to concentrate instead on parent development, exploring why we do the misguided things we do, and asking how we might (as we must) change ourselves and behave differently.
Here, her insights are fresh. “When apples were sprayed with a chemical at my local supermarket, middle-aged moms turned out, picket signs and all, to protest the possible risk to their children’s health,” Levine reflects. “Yet I’ve seen no similar demonstrations about an educational system that has far more research documenting its own toxicity. We have bought into this system not because we are bad people or are unconcerned about our children’s well-being, but because we have been convinced that any other point of view will put our children at even greater risk.”
With vastly increasing numbers of children now showing stress-related symptoms, it’s more urgent than ever, Levine argues, that parents learn new ways to express their love and concern, trading their fears of failure for faith in their children’s innate strengths, and prioritizing the joys and challenges of life in the present over anxious visions of an uncertain future. “There comes a point in parenting,” she writes, “where we must decide whether to maintain the status quo or, armed with new information, choose a different course. There is little question that our children are living in a world that is not simply oblivious to their needs, but is actually damaging them.”
Levine is correct to say that, as parents and as a society, we’ve reached a tipping point, in which the long-dawning awareness that there’s something not quite right about our parenting is strengthening into a real desire for change. Families, their fortunes tracking the larger economy that encouraged so much of their excess, are crashing after bubble years in which they spent their every penny, and then some, on cultivating competitive greatness in their kids. Now exhausted, often disenchanted and (conveniently enough) broke, they’re reconsidering whether the mad chase was worth all the resources that sustained it.
After all, as Levine notes, the inconvenient truth remains that not every child can be shaped and accelerated into Harvard material. But all kids can have their spirits broken, depression induced and anxiety stoked by too much stress, too little downtime and too much attention given to external factors that make them look good to an audience of appraising eyes but leave them feeling rotten inside.