Can We Divest Kids from Achievement Culture?
Plus recess, tradwives, and the myth of "bad angles."
Friday Thread: How Many Things Are Your Kids Doing This Fall?
Every September, I do a little anxiety spiral about whether my kids are Doing Enough Things. We live in an upper-middle-class community where Kids Doing Things is the norm, both because parents want their kids to explore passions (and have the resources to do so) and because working parents need kids to be occupied between the hours of 3pm and 6pm because, work. And because upper-middle-class parents care about achievement, asexplored in this great interview earlier this week.
I’m not anti-achievement, to be clear. But I like how author Jennifer Breheny Wallace distinguishes1 between “joyful achievement” (which I’ve certainly experienced and want my kids to experience) and achievement culture, which she defines as “when our kids absorb the message that they only matter, that they're only valued, when they achieve — when they make the A-team, when they get the grades, when they get the followers, when they look a certain way.” There is so much ableism, anti-fatness, classism and other layers of bias embedded in this kind of pressure (plus our old friend capitalism). Achievement culture sounds like yet another way that diet culture manifests without being about diets per se, though if we’re talking about sports and dance, it can also become about diets pretty quickly. And honestly, divesting from achievement culture feels harder to me at this point than the body stuff. I’m a (somewhat recovering) perfectionist and former A student, and I have to regularly sit on myself to not push a lot of that onto my kids.
So! This semester, my girls are signed up for extracurricular activities just two afternoons a week,2 and neither is competitive. (We are just not a team sports family.) My older daughter is also in 5th grade band and chorus, and maybe wants to do the school play this year, so her schedule will get busier as the year goes on. My first-grader enjoys what we’ve signed her up for (horseback riding and piano lessons) but would probably be equally happy to just come home and play after school every day. (And yes, I acknowledge all of the privilege that enables us to pay for those kinds of lessons and to have a parent home after school so the children can be transported to said activities and so “just coming home to play” is even an option the other three days.) Both of my kids are introverted and like their downtime, and as someone who struggles to feel entitled to rest, I
When I write it all out like that, it’s obvious that we’re doing plenty given the current math of our family’s life. But I’m acutely aware that many of their peers do much, much more—multiple sports, travel teams, more intensive music lessons (our teacher is very chill about a lack of practicing, phew!), competitive dance teams, you name it. I wonder if my kids are missing out on some key benefits that kids can get from those opportunities—to bond with peers, to build confidence and skills, to discover deep passions. But I also wonder if jam-packed activity schedules can become an infrastructure that families organize life around to feel—well, all kinds of things. Connected to community. Productive. But maybe also high-achieving and busy in ways that are more performative than purpose-driven?
I’ve also been thinking about how Wallace frames “mattering” as the antidote to achievement culture:
What I found in my own on-the-ground reporting is that kids who felt a high level of mattering — who felt valued for who they were, at their core, by their family, by their friends, by their community, and kids who were then depended on to add meaningful value back to their families, to their schools, to their communities — that this mattering served as a protective shield. It didn't mean that they didn't have setbacks. It didn't mean that they weren't sometimes anxious and worried. But what mattering did is it acted like a buoy that lifted them up. And research has found that mattering is important throughout the lifespan.
Do intensive extracurricular activities help kids feel like they matter? Or do they reinforce to kids that their value is measured by their output? I’m asking these questions truly without agenda. Despite my “are we doing enough” anxiety, I know the answer for my own family. But this is the very definition of a Your Mileage May Vary topic. So I’d love to know:
How do you figure out the right balance of Doing Things for your family?
And does achievement culture feel like something worth divesting from, a la diet culture? Or does it feel like a necessary or even beneficial system in your life?
I’m framing the questions this way because while of course you can just share what your kids are or are not doing this semester, I’m more interested in understanding how we pick the activities (and the amount of them) that we do. I’m also so curious to hear from parents and caregivers of older kids here, because the pressure to do things only intensifies in the middle and high school years. And child-free folks, feel free to reflect on your own extracurricular experiences, and what was great or not so great about that schedule.
To join the conversation, you do need to be a paid Burnt Toast subscriber. Here’s how to join us! And do check out our thread rules if you’re a new commenter. This is the kind of topic that can go SOUTH on the Internet. Let’s be better than Reddit.
Friday Links & Recs
I’ve discussed my love of Lauren Leavell’s workout videos extensively already, but have been sticking to the rivers and the lakes that I’m used to (her barre and strength training classes). This week on a whim, I tried Recess, which is what she calls her 30 minute HIIT class and I expected to absolutely hate it and instead it was delightful? What sorcery is this, Lauren, how are you making tabatas fun!
The most delicious thing I cooked last month (and so fast too!).
Will always read more fromon tradwives.
Some lovely thoughts on “bad angles:”
I might have already linked toon eating alone but I’m worried I forgot so here it is (maybe) again.
I shared my best fat legging and sports bra recs over on Cup of Jo.
This Lisa Damour interview is so, so helpful, especially the part about letting kids find coping skills that aren’t talking to you. (Takes notes.)
Well + Good named me as one of 9 Body Liberation Influencers to follow and oh the list is good.
The brilliant activist and scholar Natalie Boero reviewed FAT TALK for the journal Fat Studies which would be an unbelievable thrill even if she hadn’t described it as “a significant contribution to both the fat studies and parenting literature […and ]a standout example of the power of journalism and social-science research to instigate societal change.” Thank you Natalie!
ICYMI, my It’s Been a Minute interview replayed here. And I also love Brittany chatting withabout skincare as dewy diet culture!