How To Avoid the Hyper-Parenting Trap
Here are some fundamental principles to help you make decisions about what might work best for your family.
Limit Activities. Think long and hard before signing up for new activities. Some families make firm rules (such as, one sport per child per season) while others make decisions on a case-by-case basis. But if you say yes to too many enrichment opportunities, the whole family will pay the price. Weigh the benefits of participation against the cost - time, energy, logistical effort, stress, and expense - to you, your child, and the rest of the family.
Develop Healthy Skepticism. Be discriminating about the advice you pay attention to. Experts should help alleviate stress, not add unnecessary anxiety to an already overloaded life. It makes sense to follow time-tested advice on how to childproof your home, say; it makes less sense to alter your family's diet dramatically in response to the latest study that promises some purported benefit, but will likely be contradicted and replaced by other findings in the near future. There are trends and styles in science, health, nutrition and education, just as there are fads in fashion and home design. One year we are encouraged to limit fat in a child's diet, the next we are warned that doing so may be harmful; two years later, studies come out announcing that, in fact, it is okay to restrict fat intake in small children. Who knows the truth? In most cases, moderation and good judgment are the best standards.
Give Yourself a Break. Your family life is meant to be your own creation, an ever-changing dance between you, your children, your spouse, your family and friends, and the community at large. Do it your way. You only get one chance. The next time you experience it, you will be watching your children being parents. So embrace the uncertainty, enjoy the new dance steps, and know that because you are trying hard, because you are an individual, and this has never been done quite this way before, you will feel awkward at times. That's the human condition - it's normal, and it is fine.
Family is a Priority. Relationships matter, maybe more than anything else. Our children are with us for a short time before they head out into their own lives, busy with friends, college, jobs and eventually their own families. We ought to enjoy them, and the brief flicker of time we have with them. Family life should not be overloaded with chores and commitments that add unnecessary resentment to daily life. If your family is too busy to hang out together, if you and your spouse hardly ever spend time alone together as a couple, adjustments need to be made. Family time should be as important as education, athletics, social activities and other outside commitments.
Buyer Beware. We live in a market-driven society, where just about everyone is selling something, directly or indirectly. Go into the world with that awareness, and ask yourself whether a particular product or service will enrich your life - or merely distract you, appease your child, or add further complications. Do not spend your hard earned money on unnecessary products - despite how hard advertisers work to persuade you that life will be smoother, happier, and far closer to perfection if you buy just this one additional item.
Character Counts. A lot! Know that how you live your life in front of your child matters more than how you tell him he ought to be living his. Character lasts a lifetime. Live the values that are important to you, because your children will emulate your daily conduct when they grow up and go out into the world.
Be Unproductive. A life that consists of endless activities demonstrates to our children that we expect them to be hyper-active workaholics who run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. with no rest. It tells them they need to work hard at polishing and perfecting themselves, and says implicitly that we don't believe they are "good enough" as they are. It is good for families to spend unproductive time together - shooting hoops, taking walks, playing games, sitting and talking, reading. The fact that you, the parent, enjoy spending time with your child with no apparent goal lets her know you find her more interesting than just about anything else in the world - nothing that will bolster her self-esteem more effectively.
Childhood is a Preparation, Not a Performance. No one ought to be on stage all the time, not adults and certainly not children! Kids should not be judged on every aspect of their performance in life - it puts too much pressure on them, and too much pressure on us. By definition, children are immature and should not be expected to perform to adult standards. Resist the pressure from coaches, and the media, that tells you how to push your child to excel early.
Pleasure Has A Place in Parents' Lives. Our brief time on earth is meant to be enjoyed, at least sometimes. Our closest relationships should be a source of pleasure, not constant pressure and tension. If we aren't having much fun with our children, spouses, friends - and even ourselves - we need to consider making some changes in our lives. Make time for a romantic dinner with your partner; every child we have ever known has done better if he knows his parents are happy, and are getting pleasure from life and their relationships.
Pleasure Has A Place In Kids' Lives Too! Childhood needn't be an endless treadmill of productivity and self-improvement. Kids deserve to have fun, down time, and empty spaces in their lives to fill any way they choose to. Many supposedly "fun" scheduled activities are anything but fun; they are tense, pressured times when a child is expected to perform. Remember, if your child enjoys his time with you now, it will stay with him forever. And emotionally at least, the relationship that has meant so much to him as a child will stay with him and bolster him as an adult.
Leave Empty Spaces on Your Calendar. Parents worry about kids' boredom, so they schedule their lives to keep them busy. But empty hours teach children how to create their own happiness - and that is an important skill we would all benefit from developing. Unscheduled time encourages children to create, imagine, see new possibilities that no one before has thought of, certainly no one designing scheduled or pre-packaged play. It teaches children to fill their own empty time enjoyably.
There Is No Single, Right Way To Parent. Every family is unique and must find its own way in the world - its own values and priorities, its own strengths, its own interests. So disregard the experts who believe they have the one right answer. With some caveats, we should all feel free to raise our children our own way - but in order to figure out what that is, each of us needs to invest some time and energy into learning what our lives are about, what we believe in, and what we value. Rush a little less; reflect a little more.
Trust Yourself. Don't believe the experts who tell you they know how you ought to raise your child. When it comes to your family, you are the expert. You are the best parent your child could ever have. In the words of the good Dr. Benjamin Spock, who said it first and said it best, "Trust Yourself. You know more than you think you do."