When Jennifer Breheny Wallace set out to write about the perils of achievement culture, she knew things were bad. Mental health data showed clearly that young people were suffering, even before Covid. Being out of school, isolated and losing loved ones exacerbated what was already a bleak picture.
But Wallace found the problem to be even more pervasive than she anticipated. Her student research found that more than 70% of young adults thought their parents valued and appreciated them more when they were successful in work and school. More than half said their parents loved them more when they were successful and a staggering one in four believed that achievement, not who they were as people, is what mattered most to parents.
“For many young people, their sense of mattering is so contingent on their performance, and they don’t feel like they can ever perform well enough,” Wallace writes in Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic–And What We Can Do About It.
‘Mattering really matters’
Researchers and educators know about the importance of belonging, of feeling like we’re part of a larger group that values, respects and cares for us. But mattering goes deeper. Mattering is mutual and creates a virtuous spiral: when we feel valued, we tend to value others.
Morris Rosenberg, the social psychologist who put the subject on the academic map in the 1970s, posed a simple question, which was bold for the time: Do children who feel they matter to their parents fare better in life? He found they did. They were less depressed, less anxious and had higher self-esteem. “Mattering really matters,” he wrote in a paper, explaining:
“Mattering represents a compelling social obligation and a powerful source of social integration: we are bonded to society not only by virtue of our dependence on others but by their dependence on us.”
It’s about feeling valued and developing self-esteem
Gregory Elliot, a social psychologist who teaches at Brown University, describes mattering as:
I am seen. People notice when I walk in a room or speak. They take notice and care.
People invest in me. They care about my successes and setbacks.
People depend on me and rely on me for guidance.
He and others have found that mattering is critically important to adolescents as they forge an identity. To answer “Who am I?” they must ask “Who am I in relation to others?”
“They're creating an expanded sense of self in the sense that they feel valued—valued by their peers, valued by the world, valued by their parents—and feeling that they earned that value by contributing to something larger than themselves,” says Ronald Dahl, founding director of the Center for the Developing Adolescent at the University of California Los Angeles.
Kenny Duncan, Principal at Nord Anglia International School in Hong Kong, thinks making sure kids know they are loved unconditionally, and that they matter, is the most important thing educators and families must do. Why? Because if we focus only on their academic performance, or their sports prowess or musical accomplishments, they come to believe their value lies in their achievements.
Mattering, he said, is as “important as any academic outcome. And if you get that bit right, and the child's self-esteem is strong, they're going to be successful and they're going to be able to cope with the challenges that they might face academically, because they feel secure in themselves.”
Creating meaning - the challenge facing young people
The challenge for young people today is trying to have a sense of “mattering” amidst rising competition, a rapidly changing job market, and omnipresent social media.
A new report published by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education looked at the mental health of Gen Z and found that young adults ages 18-25 are suffering from anxiety and depression at about twice the rate of younger teens. Without the guardrails of parents or caregivers at home, and the predictability of school, they seem to feel adrift. An alarming lack of mattering is core to why this is happening.
“58% of young adults reported having little or no meaning or purpose in their lives,” said Rick Weissbourd, one of the authors and a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “About 44% said they don't matter to other people. It's really concerning to me.” Lacking purpose and meaning was highly correlated in the data with both depression and anxiety.
We need to start earlier and be more intentional about how we help young people find and create meaning. The best way for kids to feel they matter is to respond with things that matter to them, and to have others authentically need them. It means conveying in every way possible—actions as well as words—that kids are more than their performance.
A key message of Wallace’s book is that too often, we are failing to do that, even if we think we are. The problem isn’t that kids don’t matter to parents—most parents love their kids dearly. The problem is the kids don’t feel that love to be unconditional. “It felt like my worth was tied to my grades,” one student says in the book.
“Some of the kids that I met who were suffering the most heard from their parents that they were valued, but they were never depended on to add value to anyone other than themselves,” Wallace said. “What they lacked was social proof that they mattered. They heard it in words, but they didn't see it in action.”
How parents can make the biggest difference
The ingredients of a fulfilling life are not complicated: close relationships with friends, family, community, and romantic partners, and work that’s meaningful. That includes what we do to earn a living as well as other ways we reflect our values like volunteering, supporting a family member or friend in need, and other forms of activism.
We don’t mean to focus on performance, but we do, in a million ways, from asking about a grade as soon as they walk through the door, to monitoring their work and encouraging a relentless battery of sports and extracurriculars to help get them into a competitive college. Kids need unconditional regard—love beyond performance.
Here’s what makes the biggest difference, according to experts and educators:
1) Focus on relationships and not just academic, sports and extracurricular outcomes.
A mind-bending amount of research shows that the best predictor of life satisfaction is related to the quality of the relationships we have. From Harvard’s famous Grant Study, to loads of psychological research, we can say without reservation that encouraging teens to build strong friendships, and good relationships with teachers, mentors, coaches and family, is time well spent.
Acknowledge when your child is a good friend; celebrate when they help others; and model the importance of taking care of yourself and caring for your family and community. Notice when people are kind and think up ways together to build and strengthen relationships, from thank-you cards for teachers who make a difference in a kid’s life, to some brownies for the parent who always ends up with the extra school drop-off shift.
“The human relationship has the power to relieve stress, promote resilience and restore a young person's sense of safety,” says Pamela Cantor, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who specialises in trauma. Stress releases cortisol to the body and brain, which causes the feelings of fight, flight or freeze. Having an adult who loves you unconditionally can buffer that.
2) Put a lid on endless talk about grades.
If your kids stayed up late studying for an exam, it seems only natural to lead with “How did the maths test go?” But our endless inquiries about grades sends a signal that performance is what we care about most. Wallace suggests “leading with lunch”, meaning asking what your child ate for lunch before asking about academics. Or here are three questions you can ask instead of “What did you get on that test?”
How did you feel about your performance?
Is there anything I can do to support you?
Do you understand the material and, if not, is there someone who might help? I know how hard it is to feel confused when a class is moving along quickly.
3) Encourage volunteering and service, as well as activism.
William Damon, author of The Path of Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life and director of Stanford’s Center on Adolescence defines purpose as “a stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”
Volunteering and service to others is a good exercise in altruism. But it is also good for kids’ own well-being. One way for parents to tend to their kids is to encourage opportunities for them to see and meet the needs of others through authentic volunteer work and service. As Thomas Insel, the former head of the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S. says, “In many ways helping others is more therapeutic than getting help from others.”
“Especially starting in adolescence, you want to really find your identity and really know that what I’m doing is contributing to the world and to others.” says Cristina Cortez, Head of School at Nord Anglia’s Colegio Menor Quito. Giving back is a critical part of the school experience at Colegio Menor and she sees the impact it has on students. “When they say ‘We raised this amount of money’ or ‘We were dancing with the grandparents across the street’ they feel like, wow, we did something. You can see the true sense of the human.”
4) Focus on interests, not just purpose.
The goal of adolescence is not to find a career but to build an identity. That requires some trial and error and some experimentation. Damon’s research at Stanford finds that only about one in five young people have a deep and guiding purpose. Most of us don’t find a satisfying goal until well into our 20s and 30s and many of us don’t have that singular focus at any point in our lives. “The expectation that we should have a single purpose can itself hound us with anxiety and self-doubt”, Harvard’s Weissbourd writes.
Encourage kids to pursue their interests over their “purpose”—and explain that purpose is not necessarily knowing what you want to do when you grow up but finding meaningful ways to direct one’s energy. Make sure it’s their interest and not yours.
5) Take a good look at your values, and then be explicit about them.
What do you spend money and time on? That’s a good way to get a handle on your values. Wallace suggests doing a “values inventory” (here’s a link to a free survey) and discussing it with your family. Once you know the values you mean to embrace, be explicit about them. “Before researching this book I was under the impression that modelling was enough, but it's not,” says Wallace. “We need to be explicit.” Social media and popular culture extol materialistic goals. If yours are different, make that clear.
6) See them for who they are, not who you want them to be.
The world has changed dramatically since parents were kids, and sometimes we fail to listen to what’s important to our kids and who they want to be. Cristina Cortez, from Colegio Menor Quito, encourages us to be curious and open. “It's trying to look at your kids through the lens of ‘I want to discover your passions and who you are, without using my own glasses and my own desires and my own hopes and wishes,’” she says. “Remember that they are individuals with their own mission, their own life path, and we have to discover it with them and work side by side with them.”
Kenny Duncan from NAIS Hong Kong agrees. “Life for a child now is far more complex than it was when you and I were growing up. There are far more questions that children can ask themselves about their own identity, and their own understanding of themselves, and how they matter to themselves and how they might matter to others. We need to be open to those conversations. I think parents can be more open to discussing that and also supporting their children by giving them opportunities that allow them to participate and contribute to the wider world.”
7) Put the smartphone down!
“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” French philosopher Simone Weil wrote in 1949, long before pings and dings and a million notifications battled for our brain’s spotlight every day. Kids know when we are paying attention and when we are not. “There are so many things that are drawing parents’ attention away from the important job of being a parent. Refocusing on the child is so, so important,” Kenny Duncan says.
And if we are to ask them to moderate their use of smartphones, shouldn’t we do the same?
What it all comes down to
The best part about mattering is that parents can influence it. We can show, in a million small ways, how much our kids matter to us apart from their status at school, their GPA or the college or university they get into. We can be their safe harbour, or just another place to feel pressure. It’s our choice.
“I think mattering is making a true commitment that I will not let one child in my school fail to fulfil their dreams, because they matter,” says Cristina Cortez. “Nobody wants to end up being a mess. Nobody wants to end up being a failure. And that's why schools and adults and everybody else needs to understand that we have the mission to make those kids lives develop in the way they want them to.”
About Jenny Anderson
I am an award-winning journalist and author with 20-years of experience on staff at places including the New York Times and Quartz. I currently focus on the learning: what humans need to know, how they get information and how it’s changing. I’ve written one book on behavioral economics and marriage (Random House) and am writing a second one about how parents can support teens’ learning (Crown, 2025). Get in touch here.