Why Do Kids Need Ambition?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos Getty Images

I’ve only ever asked my son once what he might want to do when he grows up, and he very quickly and firmly told me he doesn’t ever want to be an adult or get a job. Last summer, while he was chatting with an older kid, a second grader, about going into first grade, my son learned about homework, a concept he’d been totally unaware of until that moment. She assured him first grade would be fun but gave an ominous warning about how different it was from kindergarten; she mentioned math and tests. I laughed it off — how hard could a first-grader’s homework be? — but my son froze, and when the playground cleared out, he burst into tears. He didn’t want to, “grow up, do work, and then die,” he told me. I comforted him, reminded him he gets to be a carefree kid for a very, very long time and that it’s really not so bad being a grown-up either. But the voice in the back of my mind agreed with him: Do I even want to be an adult or have a job if I could choose otherwise?

As both my young children get older, and parents around me are signing their first graders up for countless extracurriculars, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intense pressure to succeed that I began to feel even at their age. And I get the sense I’m supposed to be putting my own children under that same stress to become something I’ve imagined for them, instead of just being kids. From preschool, parents are told we should be making decisions about our barely out-of-toddlerhood children’s futures. Are they going to the best school? Are they in the right activities? Should I hold them back so they can be the oldest and, therefore, the most advanced in the class?

According to the CDC, anxiety and depression in kids ages 3 to 17 hasincreased over the last 15 years. High school teachers contend with teens who have high levels of stress. When I was in my senior year, I remember feeling like the entirety of my future rested in the decisions I was making at that moment. My potentiality seemed tied up in my youth, and if I fucked it up then, my whole life would be a disaster from that moment on. I didn’t hear stories about later-in-life career changes or diverting paths of success; my peers, parents, and teachers told of bright, young futures that rested on the choices of us adolescents.

In my own community, I see 8-year-olds stressed about keeping up with school work and worried about how their grades now will affect them down the road. I know many parents who, despite not speaking the language themselves, are losing sleep over whether to put their 5-year-old in French immersion, anxious about what it’ll mean for their future job opportunities rather than the joys of learning another language or whether the kid themselves wants to do it.

This style of ambition-focused parenting is hard on both kids and parents. A carefully curated, packed schedule of classes designed to rear the best and brightest leaves caregivers feeling stretched, overwhelmed, and resentful over the lack of time. Kids end up with little space for the kind of unstructured boredom that often leads to them discovering what hobbies and activities excite them. It was in those days of meandering freedom that as a kid, I found myself and my love of writing. I value that kind of mental space and want my kids to have the same opportunities to get lost in themselves, outside of external influences.

As adults we’ve been reckoning with how we work since the pandemic, yet from speaking with other parents, that same existential shift isn’t making its way down to how we view achievement when it comes to our kids. So much of what we’re told to focus on with kids is based on an ideal of career success that, honestly, doesn’t even exist now, let alone will be true for them in 10 or 20 years. Working in media, I’ve seen it firsthand, having spent the entirety of my career watching my industry crumble. Entire outlets have come and gone, giants of publishing have folded, and any sense of job security was long gone by the time I got my first real job. I’ve lived through countless layoffs and restructuring, buyouts, and new owners, all for fluctuating pay that was often demeaning. The burnout from years of this triggered my own breakup with the kind of ambition that was pushed on me in childhood.

So having realized, in my own life, that a certain kind of ambition can leave you feeling fried, frustrated, depressed, and without anything more or better to show for it, how could I ask my own children to follow in those same footsteps?

Before having kids, I’d imagined I’d want to be involved in their career success in ways my own parents weren’t. I thought fixating on a certain kind of achievement would make their lives easier than mine was. In the years since having them, it really doesn’t matter to me what they want to do or accomplish when they’re older. I’m more focused on the kind of person they want to be. Are they empathetic and aware of others’ feelings? Do they take care of the environment around them and understand that they’re connected to a community bigger than just themselves and their family? Do they feel safe expressing themselves wholly and sharing that with the people around them? Are they kind?

When I wrote last year about losing my ambition, I talked about embracing the idea of mediocrity, letting go of a compulsion for exceptionalism, never being satisfied with the life in front of me. Now it’s true of my approach to parenting too. It’s not that I don’t want the best for my kids — it’s just that I have a new understanding of what “the best” looks like. It’s not about raising the ideal employee with an overstuffed resume thanks to an overstuffed schedule, but a loving, aware person, who understands there are many ways to feel fulfilled and successful. Meanwhile, my son hasn’t had any homework yet, but by allowing him to focus on what he enjoys now, in giving him ample room to be a child without worrying about what lies ahead, he does actually think first grade is pretty great.

How are you thinking about ambition when it comes to your kids?
Tell us below in the comments.

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Why Do Kids Need Ambition?