Raising Successful Kids

Harvard-trained parenting expert shares No. 1 message for her own kids: There's no such thing as a 'good college'

Jennifer Breheny Wallace
Jennifer Breheny Wallace

Kids in the U.S. are locked in a mental health crisis. Pressure from a young age to get into a "good college," as the only path to a successful adult life, may be making it worse.

That's why parenting researcher and author Jennifer Breheny Wallace teaches her own three children a very simple concept. "The first thing we need to do is get out of our heads that there is such a thing as a 'good college,'" Wallace tells CNBC Make It.

Wallace wrote the book "Never Enough: When Achievement Pressure Becomes Toxic — and What We Can Do About It," after working with a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to survey 6,500 parents across the U.S. (Wallace herself holds a degree from Harvard University.)

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In her own home, she and her husband try to "dial down the pressure around college admissions" by reminding their three children — including a high school senior — that college rankings are subjective, and that their future success and happiness isn't contingent on where they go to school.

You can save your kids, and yourself, a lot of stress by "deflating that myth that college prestige is the secret to success," says Wallace.

Where you go to college matters less than what you do there

Attending a prestigious college — or, any college, really — doesn't guarantee any ideal future, research shows. You can, and should, provide your kids with real examples of happy and successful people who didn't attend a highly-selective college, Wallace says.

"We all know people who went to these highly selective schools whose lives did not turn out as well as they had hoped," she says. "And we all have adults in our lives, who [went to] schools we've never even heard of before, whose lives turned out extraordinary." 

Parents should also teach children to get the most out of their education, no matter where they end up, says Wallace.

Among college graduates, future wellbeing primarily depends on the experiences you accrue while on campus, according to a 2014 survey of 30,000 U.S. college graduates by Gallup and Purdue University.

That might include extracurricular activities, a particularly engaging internship or finding a mentor who helped make learning more enjoyable.

"Basically, it boiled down to: Did those students [feel] like they mattered to their campus?" Wallace says.

How to talk about college in a healthy way

Wallace and her husband try to limit college-related discussions to just "one hour over the weekend," unless he brings up the topic, she says: "We are always available to him, but we really watch how many times a week the word 'college' comes out of our mouths."

When they do discuss college, Wallace says they try to center the conversation around "this idea of mattering on campus," rather than seeking out the school with the most prestigious ranking.

She asks questions like: What school would be the best "fit," where you feel like you can make an impact on campus?

That reframes the college discussion into a much less stressful exercise, and highlights the factors that more accurately predict future success and overall wellbeing, says Wallace.

"We can be deliberate about what actually leads to the good life we want for our kids, based on decades of science," she says. "And that is having good relationships, having purposeful work, and feeling competent in those pursuits."

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