How Parents Make High-Achieving Kids Miserable

Two writers with experience teaching at elite colleges perceive an epidemic of conditional love that is damaging the ability of students to lead happy lives.

Jianan Yu / Reuters

When William Deresiewicz published “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” his critique struck such a chord that he turned it into a book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

On Tuesday, New York Times columnist David Brooks––who teaches high achieving kids at Yale––read a passage from that book to an Aspen Ideas Festival audience. It was filled with people whose kids or grandkids attend elite colleges or universities.

The passage:

What do you owe your parents?

Love, and when they need it later, care. But not submission. Not your life. What do you owe your parents? Nothing. The family is not a business deal. You don't owe your parents. You have a relationship with them. When you are still a child that relationship ought to involve obedience.

Once you're an adult it has to involve independence.

“Now that resonated with me,” Brooks said, “because I see my students burdened by this epidemic of conditional love, where their parents have honed them, and if they decide not to take the job they want, or the major they want, the love is withdrawn.”

Those kids live in a state of fear “that the most elemental relationship of their life is fragile and depends on their kissing up to their parents,” he said. “Their inner criteria is dissolved. And it's horrific. So this section, if you don't read anything else and you want to be a good parent or grandparent, is worth the price of that book.”

Said Deresiewicz, who was sharing the stage, “One of the most profound things that I learned… was how incredibly unhappy these kids are. Former students who I thought I knew really well, and seemed like well-adjusted kids, later told me how miserable they had been in college. And that's what parents really need to know.”

“They think they're doing the right thing by their kids. And I know why. The world is incentivizing them to do that. But they're often the last to know how unhappy their kids are.”