If you go back a hundred years, when raising children, parents focused on the development of their children’s character. They recognized that godly character was the foundation of experiencing a high quality of life. All of that has changed as modern parents aggressively push their children to achieve and perform.
David Brook’s book On Paradise Drive describes what he calls “the professionalization of childhood.” From the earliest years, an alliance of parents and schools creates a pressure cooker of competition, designed to produce students who excel in everything. Brooks calls this “a massive organic apparatus . . . a mighty Achievatron.”
Brooks has concluded that the family today has become the place where the pressure to achieve is first cultivated.
This powerful emphasis on high achievement is clearly taking a toll on young people.
Six years ago there was a very sad but intriguing article in The Atlantic magazine examining why so many teenagers with such bright future prospects were taking their own lives in Palo Alto, California.
Palo Alto is located in the San Francisco Bay area. Stanford University is located there and it is headquarters to a number of high-tech companies including Hewlett Packard, Loral, Tesla Motors, and Ford Research and Innovation Center. Not surprisingly, Palo Alto is one of the wealthiest cities in the country and its residents are some of the most well-educated.
For this reason it is so perplexing that in the two high-achieving high schools in Palo Alto the ten year suicide rate among their students is between four and five times the national average. So many of these suicides are cluster suicides, which are multiple deaths in close succession and proximity.
Suniya Luther, a psychology professor at Arizona State is quoted in the article and shares her assessment. She says it is not uncommon for children in affluent families to experience a high rate of anxiety and depression. They feel a great deal of pressure to excel at multiple academic and extracurricular pursuits. They see themselves as catastrophically flawed if they don’t meet the highest standards of success.
The source of all this pressure begins of course with the parents. As one parent asked after a cluster of suicides, “What are we doing to our kids?” Parents are beginning to recognize that they are to blame for putting the pressure on their kids to succeed. Yet they are having a difficult time letting go of their high expectations to achieve.
Parents do not realize that they are deifying their children’s success. This is what the Bible calls idolatry. It is when we allow something God has intended for good, and we grant it a power in our lives it was never meant to have. By deifying our children’s accomplishments we are setting ourselves up for a very disappointing life, particularly if they don’t meet or exceed our expectations. But more tragically, look at what it potentially does to our kids.
I had a man tell me one of the most liberating things that ever happened to him was recognizing he had allowed his children’s success to be a powerful idol in his life. When their lives did not turn out the way he wanted them to, it caused great anguish. Once he relinquished this idol, and let his children live their lives, he experienced a real sense of freedom and peace. And it dramatically improved the relationships within the family.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.