Parenting today has come to resemble a relentless to-do list that scrolls eternally through the child-rearing years. We well-meaning mothers and fathers worry about matters big and small, striving to micromanage every detail of our kids' lives. "Volunteer" commitments are transformed into near full-time jobs and the tiniest details of a child's daily existence become crucial: Who else, we wonder, didn't get invited to Annie's birthday party? What will the teacher think of our family if Jackson brings his laser-squirt gun to show-and-tell? What drills can we do on weekends and afternoons to make absolutely sure Kendra is a starter on her softball team?
We all want the best for our children. More often than not we put their happiness ahead of our own. Way ahead, in fact -- it's part of the problem. Some of us make their childhood central in our lives. But haven't we grown-ups done childhood already? Wouldn't it be a good idea to let our kids have their turn, so they can learn and grow from the good and not-so-great experiences in their lives -- which is an important part of what childhood is all about?
As we work so hard to craft for our kids our vision of the perfect childhood, we've lost sight of that essential truth. Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child By Trying Too Hard? takes a hard look at how hyper we, as a generation, have become about parenting. We will point out some places to begin making changes, and will show how the whole family benefits when parents take back their own lives and give children a chance to live theirs.
Our hyper-parenting is born of the best intentions. We contemporary parents are nothing if not committed. Being good parents is the most important thing in the world to us: nothing matters more. As this country's most educated generation ever, we want to be truly well informed about how to raise children right so that we can do a terrific job.
This is how we have ended up paying such close attention to advice in books, articles, on the radio and television. Some conscientious parents seek out every bit of information they can find -- subscribing to several parenting magazines, investing in a library of books on development, attending workshops, seminars, and lectures. Uncertain that they have inside themselves the resources and experience required to raise children right, many are convinced that all this information is just as crucial to how families operate as the brochures bundled with an expensive new laptop computer are to its proper setup and use. If they could just digest it all, they figure, then they would know exactly how to get their much-loved child to function at his or her maximum performance level.
Despite our own experience as former children, many parents view childhood as uncharted territory. Children seem so mysterious; what really makes them tick? It seems as if good parents should know everything about their children's lives, from conception on. Out of uncertainty and fear that they might make a terrible mistake, many parents (and especially first-time ones) carefully scrutinize a child's every step. They consult child-development books as if they were technical manuals, gauging developmental timetables and panicking if a child's progress seems a bit off schedule. Seen through this anxious lens, analyzed in light of our hopeful aspirations for a child's success in life, many milestones come to seem merely like stepping stones to the next: He's crawling! When do you suppose he will begin to walk? We get ambitious. She knows her shapes: Didn't I read somewhere that such early recognition can be a sign of giftedness in the area of visual-spatial relationships? Can we enhance her natural abilities? Maybe it is time to start working to teach her to draw a circle.
Many parents fret when a child's development is not somewhere near the top of the curve. If a child is "average" at, let's say, seventeen months, they feel mortified and worry that he or she is destined to a low-prestige, low-paying career in some line of work they consider undesirable. If, on some particular milestone, a child is nearer the tail end of the development curve, they wonder-- and perhaps ask their pediatrician-- whether they should get a specialist's evaluation.
Parents often are the first ones to notice when their child is having difficulty, and a pediatrician is certainly the right professional to ask for that sort of advice. For some kids, a little extra help early on can make all the difference. This book is about a different sort of problem. We authors are talking to the vast majority of parents whose children are wonderfully normal and healthy. We hope to bring a different perspective and balance, a new sort of understanding into the lives of the many parents who have become persuaded that (as our generation is fond of saying) parenting is a full-time job. We want to debunk the contemporary myth that the natural sequence of child development represents mediocrity and would benefit, not just from an enriched environment, but from a huge and synthetic boost.
The fact is, parenting should not take all our time, money, and energy. Virtually all of us in the American middle class and above are already providing our children with an enriched environment. Compared to us, most of the world's children live in abject poverty. Relatively speaking, our lives are charmed. Yet rather than feeling grateful, many of us feel anxious, precarious, and vulnerable, completely out of touch with the fact that in many ways, we are among the most fortunate people on earth. Somehow, we have come to be afraid of our children, to mistrust their potential and our own instincts. We fear that a misstep in raising them, a momentary lapse of judgment or vigilance, might be traumatic and emotionally scarring-- or, worse yet, serve as the trigger that turns a sweet child into a sociopathic monster. Our uncertainty deprives them of the security and confidence they deserve.
American parents have been persuaded that average, typical, or even "normal" is no longer good enough. Every article and news report reinforces that. To prepare children adequately for the impossibly competitive new millennium, parents are exhorted to give them an edge over the competition. The media uses strong, active verbs to convince parents that they not only can but should work hard at helping a child excel: "Make Your Baby Smarter," PARENTING magazine urges. "Build a Better Boy" advises Newsweek. It is as though children were born mediocre and by tinkering with their valves and fine-tuning their design to help them function at the optimal level, parents could engineer them into superachievers.
It seems reasonable, given the spectacular scientific and technological progress we hear about on a daily basis. Why not apply science-- all those new facts that child and adolescent psychiatrists, developmental psychologists, pediatricians, and academic and medical researchers are learning-- to speed up children's development, to accelerate them into more productive lives? Distraught at the thought that one ounce of a child's potential might go untapped, many well-meaning parents believe that if a little of something is good, a lot must be great (an approach that gets you into big trouble with, say, vitamins or medications). If a black-and-white mobile focuses an infant's attention, wouldn't an entire high-contrast nursery really boost his brainpower?
Insidiously, this attitude leaks into other areas of life. Parents often feel that a child who is not constantly active, whose mind is not challenged 24-7, will become bored and lazy. So out of anxiety and ambition, they push and press on. If a preschooler knows her ABCs, shouldn't we get her to start reading? Once she masters simple words like C-A-T and R-U-N, why not step up to a basic book? And if she can handle that, well, maybe we should find an accelerated school for gifted children that . . .
Although some parents push more and others less, and some children (particularly firstborns) just seem to push themselves from day one, many among us feel uncertain as to what this role of "parent" really means and how to fulfill it responsibly. Most of us planned our children very carefully (the first two, anyway). We spend considerable time fulfilling our obligations to them, often at great personal cost. Not only do we try to help our children grow well physically, which parents have traditionally worked at, but we also try to help them grow well emotionally, something past generations considered at best a lucky by-product of meeting their obligations for food, shelter, and schooling.
But many contemporary parents are tripping over these good intentions. Many sense, on a gut level at least, that something has gone very wrong with the way we are raising kids today, in a life of constant pressure and perpetual motion. Though they acknowledge that something is amiss, they have a hard time taking the idea any further. After all, everyone else is living the same way. And who can hear the soft voice of reason in the midst of a stampede?
We all know there is more to the good life than where we live and what we drive. Yet slowing down to contemplate what is the right path for us might cost us-- and worse, our kids-- the race (even though we can't really say what we are racing toward, where the finish line is, and what you ultimately get for winning first prize). The very thought of sitting quietly and contemplating the meaning of life fills us with anxiety; it's easier to keep busy. So we keep going. How can you not accept that invitation to have your eleven year old dive for the county swim team? What if that one activity turned out to be the place where he or she could really excel-- gain confidence, win a few medals, and maybe even someday garner one of those elusive and exclusive athletic scholarships? Despite the fact that the aggressive schedule of weekday practices and weekend meets all over the state and sometimes even farther will stretch the family to near breaking point, we sigh and sign on. When it comes to making life good for our children, we are not quite sure where reasonable ends and ridiculous begins.
No wonder we are all exhausted!
Parents today want to raise "good" kids but are terrified that their children might end up drinking, using drugs, or parading around town with blue hair and tongue rings. Looking at the pressures children face today-- sex, drugs, violence-- and the values they take in from television, movies, and music, we yearn for a more innocent time, like when we were growing up (though it is a good bet that our own parents didn't see the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll of the sixties, seventies, and eighties as particularly innocent). We want reassurance that our earnest, persistent efforts will provide insurance against all potentially bad outcomes. We're willing to work as hard as we have to to get the happy ending.
So it is no wonder we feel annoyed at being mercilessly lampooned in books, magazines, movies, and television programs; at caricatures like the Power Mom tooling around the suburbs in her sport utility vehicle sipping Starbucks, zealously contemplating weighty matters like which local gymnastics programs will give her agile four year old the best edge in future competition. Who wouldn't resent being sneered at as superficial and out of touch, particularly by those who've never walked a mile in our Nikes? Aren't we parents today the ones spending our few free moments working to prevent the century-old children's theater from closing down or inviting an inner-city child to vacation in the country for a few weeks each summer?
But the criticism does hit a nerve. Most of us really do know such people. We talk to "them" as we sit on a playground bench watching the kids play in the sandbox, overhear them in the supermarket. We recognize the many variations on the theme. We find it ridiculous that play dates with the five year old down the block must be booked three weeks in advance because the child's schedule is so full. We mock the guy in the next office who hired a dollar-a-minute "stroke coach" to strengthen his seven year old's freestyle. He says he has no choice or his talented child will fall behind the competition. At seven? we joke sarcastically. Then we hate ourselves when we ask him, a bit embarrassed, "Does it work?" We gossip about the couple down the road, so insanely competitive that they've retained an educational consultant to make sure their middle schooler is on track for the Ivy League. And then we sheepishly wonder, "How do they think his chances look? What extracurricular activities do they recommend he take on? How much community service is enough?"
As much as we reject this stereotype, many of us modern parents are horrified to find ourselves wondering, at times, if we really are all that different from those power parents-- or would be, if only we could afford it. We may even believe that those parents, the ones willing to do whatever it takes, are doing a better job than we are. If an educational consultant could substantially improve our child's odds of getting into an elite college, how many of us would feel comfortable not shelling out the big bucks? Look at the way we react-- and we authors have done it too-- when our own children underwhelm us, as they inevitably will at times. Say, when we find ourselves fretting because a first grader-- above grade level in almost every category in his report card-- is only average in "organization" of his written work, whatever that means in first grade. Who is satisfied with an "average" child? Or when we find ourselves recrafting an eighth grader's paragraphs, so an essay will read just a bit more smoothly.
Maybe we can make the case that academic achievement warrants a parent's serious attention. But what's with the activities-- the toddler craft classes, the day-long drama camps, the six-day-a-week gymnastics programs? Can't kids just play? Not without structure and supervision, it seems. Today everything is organized, starting at younger and younger ages. Especially sports! It has become unusual to see a child just throwing a baseball with a buddy or actually climbing on one of those expensive wooden swing sets that are planted in backyards in every suburban community. Who has the time?
If a child claims to be tired after school, parents worry about his motivation level and exhort him to find a "passion" so he doesn't end up a dullard at life. Meanwhile, they've overlooked or taken for granted the fact that this child may already be one of the most popular, or creative, or funniest kids in his fifth-grade classroom. Apparently eight hours of work a day is not enough for children.
Of course it is good to broaden kids' perspective and to introduce them to activities they may enjoy. Exercise is essential, for kids and adults. The competitive colleges do seek students who excel at one activity but are somehow, simultaneously, well-rounded. But with college over a decade away, is there any benefit to frustrating four year olds by enrolling them in programs that polish their soccer skills, when anyone can see they lack the developmental skills to master the game? How many of us played team sports before we knew how to read? We were plenty stimulated and motivated kicking a ball, playing catch or hide-and-seek, or just swinging and climbing jungle gyms with the kids in the neighborhood; we didn't have to travel 150 miles to face a group from another state who played "on the same level."
We underestimate the toll this fast-track lifestyle takes on our children, even the ones who really might have a shot at the big-time. If a twelve year old gymnast has Olympic potential, would it really benefit her to move a thousand miles away to live with some master coach and see her family only on occasional weekends? Is a schedule of sixteen hours a week of skating lessons good for any adolescent? These frenetic schedules and intense and competitive activities may indeed help our children hone their athletic abilities, but will they help them grow into happy, well-adjusted adults who will have the skills they need to build satisfying lives and families of their own?
Childhood has become a serious business, no question, but grown-up life is not exactly a spa getaway either. The adult world has always had its pressures, but all this rushing around, trying to give the kids everything in addition to doing all the other things adults have to do to keep a home and family afloat is making many parents miserable. When, many wonder, will it be our turn? Is a parent's lot all sacrifice till the geriatrician becomes our personal physician? We say we don't mind, but if we really were so sanguine we'd spend less of our social time whining about chauffeuring our children from early morning swim practices to late-night ice time. If we resent this lifestyle so much, it is a good bet that it is also stressful for our children, attuned to our annoyance, yet unquestionably needing our help. They're tuned into how we feel-- all kids are. Think how it looks to them, the supposed beneficiaries of all this rushing around: If you were a child watching such stressed-out parents, would this be a lifestyle you'd choose to emulate? Or might you consider dropping out of the rat race, so you can relax? Does any family benefit from a schedule that requires nonstop action from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. seven days a week?
This way of life is too costly . . . in financial terms, certainly, but in emotional terms as well.
Few of us hyper-parent in the extreme, in part because it can be an awfully expensive and time-consuming pursuit. But many of us give it our best shot. Without signing on the dotted line or seriously considering the merit of the lifestyle we are subscribing to, we raise our children in an amazingly intense and competitive manner. People who believe in education have always taken an interest in their children's college plans, but the age of intellectual intensity has plummeted. Few of us remain iconoclasts when it comes to our kids: Even Don Imus, cynic of the century, said on-air that he is sending his infant to "school" to learn a foreign language! Preschool curriculums have become a weighty matter. Lots of families are deadly serious about extracurricular activities at the tumblebug stage; most would consider themselves truly negligent if they weren't paying close attention to enrichment by the early elementary years.
Many parents are acting as though life can be planned and children programmed, the ultimate goal being admission to a prestigious college and the supposed success that invariably follows. But let's not forget that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a Harvard grad; that an awful lot of top school-cum-Wall Street criminals are currently playing golf behind bars. And that plenty of folks who went to City College or State U moved on to write best-sellers, head up corporations, or make their millions in other ways. Not that making millions makes people happy, or ought to be a child's life goal anyway. Lots of kids dream of growing up to become a police officer, a teacher, or a poet. It is a big world! We needn't all be investment bankers.
It says a lot about our priorities that many parents today put more energy into teaching children how to serve a tennis ball than how to serve humanity. They work harder at making sure children are skilled at public speaking than at teaching them to communicate openly and honestly with one another. Should our goal be preparing our kids to get into the college of their choice or to live the life of their choice? They are not necessarily one and the same.
We parents may believe, deep in our hearts, that we understand what is important in life, yet so much of our energy goes toward the things that are not! No question, education is valuable and important. Yet true success in life actually has little to do with the diploma that hangs on your wall. Good connections can certainly help to open doors that may be heavier and stickier for others to push through. In the end, though, what makes a life meaningful grows out of the ability to build a productive and satisfying life, to have friends you feel close to, to forge a marriage and life with someone you cherish. It emerges from doing work that is meaningful to you and creating a family that you love and that loves you back, even when things aren't going that well.
That's true whether you have that very helpful old-boy network to fall back on, or not. We need to get back to the basics in our lives. As one man, a bank president in a large southern city, noted, with some surprise, the greatest moment in his life, his fondest memory thus far, is when his teenage son said, "I love you, Dad," and the father knew that he meant it.
It is scary to look inside our souls, to ask ourselves, "What do I really believe in? What do I really want from this life?" The answers from the past no longer work so well. It is not that we are frivolous. Anything but! If anything, we take life too seriously for our own good. Unsure of what we value personally, we find it easier to follow the herd. We act as though it is our job to script the future. For most families, this deadly earnestness is born of the best intentions . . . but we all know which road is paved with those.
These are the issues we will be discussing in the pages ahead. Our first chapter will give an overview of what hyper-parenting is and the forces that have driven it in our generation. The second discusses how we are deluded into believing we have great control over the children we have and how that leads us to begin working overtime at raising them right even before they are born. Chapters 3 and 4 will demonstrate how the folks with goods and advice to sell get us to believe we need them, their products, and their "wisdom" if we are to be good parents. Subsequent chapters will address such topics as micromanagement, perfectionism, and competition. Chapter 8 looks at the toll hyper-parenting takes on the grown-ups in the house. And our final chapter, "What Really Matters," explores what it is we have actually been looking for all along-- and how to get it.
We authors know what this life is like. We, too, are high achievers, working parents, professionals who work long hours at demanding careers. We live in a small city with plenty of upscale neighborhoods in an astonishingly wealthy county. Between our families, we have three religions and are raising seven children. We spend our "off" hours watching these kids perform in plays, gymnastics meets, and at soccer games; we spend our evenings carpooling and carping about homework. No question, we've been there and done that. We are struggling with the same issues and don't claim to be cured completely-- some days it seems like we are hardly cured at all. But we have made some changes in our lives, our schedules, and most particularly in our outlooks that have had a pretty big payoff. Lately we are hyper-parenting less and enjoying life more, as are our entire families, and that is what this book is really about.
We are also professionals. Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist practicing in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut. He was on the medical faculty at Harvard, and headed the Stanford University School of Medicine's child psychiatry training program. He has worked extensively with children, adolescents, and adults, in both affluent and indigent families. Nicole Wise is a freelance journalist who has specialized in writing about family life for more than a decade.
In every chapter of this book, we have tried to illustrate the points we are making with vignettes and anecdotes. Each is drawn from real life, but has been altered to protect confidentiality. These stories of family life today may be interpreted in a variety of ways, in relation to your own experiences, values, aspirations, and lifestyle.
However interesting, it should be noted that these vignettes and anecdotes serve simply to introduce and illustrate ideas. What we authors really hope to do is stimulate a process in which parents will ask themselves what they really want for their families-- and then will begin to make the small changes that will help them get there. We want to help parents to look at their family lives in a different way so that they can come to grips with a problem that is impacting the happiness and even health of every family member.
This means we must ask ourselves some difficult questions. To succeed in life, does every child really need the level of intense involvement that has come to characterize family life in America today? Does unquestioning acceptance of this fast-track lifestyle indicate a bankruptcy of common sense? Are all American families so far gone in this madness that, in our blindness, we simply see no alternative? Or is there, perhaps, a better, easier, more balanced and rewarding way for families to live?
We believe there can be. By learning to recognize hyper-parenting for what it is and starting to apply the brakes to our insanely fast-moving lives, we will not only immediately improve the quality of daily life for our families, but we also will improve the odds for happiness in the future. In the meantime, we can probably save time and money as well by becoming both more intelligent consumers of all the kiddy stuff hyped our way and educated assessors of advice and edicts we can't help but absorb as we move around in our media-drenched world. And our kids may get back their childhood, a gift most of them would be extremely grateful for.
By making small but significant changes in the way we live our lives, both parents and children will benefit-- not only now, but in the years to come. Our relationship with our children will become more genuine, more connected, and less frantic . . . which is really what most of us have wanted all along.
-- Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., and Nicole Wise