May 10 2017
Writing recently in the Economist’s bimonthly cultural magazine 1843, Ryan Avent reflected on the intense, achievement-focused parenting style that has become so prevalent among America’s upper class. Fueled by the sense that (a) college admissions have never been more competitive and (b) attending the “right” school has never been more important to one’s future success, well-educated mothers and fathers want their children to start building an Ivy League–worthy CV at a very young age. As Avent explained, he and his wife have largely eschewed this approach in raising their own kids. Yet he confessed to feeling “a tremor of panic” when hearing about the academic regimens and extracurricular schedules of his six-year-old daughter’s classmates.
Such anxieties will sound familiar to parents across America, especially those living in or around status-conscious “power” cities such as New York, Washington, Boston, or San Francisco. (Avent and his family live just outside the nation’s capital, in Arlington, Virginia.) Nobody wants to push his or her children too hard—but nobody wants them to fall behind, either. And when large numbers of kids are meeting with math or reading tutors, taking piano lessons, learning a foreign language, and playing organized sports before they finish kindergarten, it’s only natural to think that your kids should be doing the same.
The obvious upside of “high-pressure parenting,” as Avent called it, is that investing more time and resources in children can help them realize their full potential as students, athletes, musicians, artists, etc. The obvious downside is that excessive pressure can produce unhealthy levels of stress, while heightening the risk of depression and/or burnout. Even Yale law professor Amy Chua—the self-proclaimed “tiger mother” whose 2011 book offered a qualified defense of high-pressure parenting—has admitted that, when one of her daughters stopped playing the violin and took up tennis, she told her mom (in Chua’s words) “not to ruin tennis like I ruined the violin.”
There are at least two additional, hidden perils of high-pressure parenting. First, it implicitly encourages children to value achievement more than character development. As journalist Rod Dreher has written, “Nobody these days feels an obligation to anything larger than their own ambition and desire.” Indeed, when the meritocratic rat race takes precedence over everything else, basic moral standards become negotiable. That’s one lesson of the high-profile cheating scandals that rocked Harvard and New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School in 2012. (The New York Times described the former…