When We Try Too Hard
Our children have become our prized possessions. We dress them up and we fill our social media accounts with pictures of them and updates of their life. I read an article this morning in the February issue of Today’s Parent magazine titled, “Are We The Worst Generation Of Parents? In our quest to raise the happiest, healthiest, smartest, most successful kids, we may be trying a little bit too hard.” The author, Katrina Onstad, concludes that we aren’t the *worst* generation of parents ever but we are the most anxious, and she ends with, “but to be better parents, we may have to do less.”
I’ve touched upon a generation of coddled children in my post, “To coddle or not to coddle?” And how we have to let our children fail and make mistakes in order to grow and thrive – mistakes are wonderful learning opportunities. This is similar, but there is also another angle here that I think is very important to discuss.
There is a bit of a chain of events that seems to be more and more common. Parents want their children to be happy and successful so they orchestrate their lives to be that way from the very beginning. With the best of intentions they make decisions for their child. Now here is where it gets tricky. As Onstad explains:
“Modern parenting dictates that “Good enough is never good enough. Success for our kids seems to be measured in degrees of uncommon achievement that will set them apart. They can’t just play soccer – it has to be select soccer, not just preschool but “early education”…. We don’t just fear they’ll fail; we fear they will be ordinary. And that pulsing fear seems to be wreaking serious damage on our kids.”
So now while doing their best to make sure their child is in all the right activities, preferred social settings etc. it has become that if the child fails, the parent fails too. In a reaction to preceding generations of more harsh and strict parent-child relationships, our generation strives for closeness. And this closeness sometimes blurs the lines between who is the parent and who is the child: Not in their role, but in their accomplishments and failures. Onstad quotes Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshman and undergraduate advising at Stanford University as she warns against this behavior, “We did not win the spelling bee or get into Harvard. Our children are not our reflections, and their lives are their own, not a do over for us. Inserting yourself into your kid’s accomplishments blocks her self-efficacy- a belief in one’s own personal abilities.” I loved reading that – we did not win the spelling bee. In no way am I (or I believe the author) suggesting that you shouldn’t be so excited and derive enjoyment from your child’s accomplishments. I think you should be their biggest cheerleader as well as their biggest comfort when things don’t go their way. However there needs to be a distinction between your feelings and theirs. The child can’t feel that if they don’t succeed they failed you.
I wasn’t going to bring this up but as I write that previous paragraph I realize how connected it is. When a parent says they are proud of their child, if you think about it – it doesn’t actually make sense. You can’t be proud of something you didn’t do. The child can have self-pride, but a parent should have a true sense of enjoyment for watching their child succeed vs pride, since even if you encouraged and guided them (which hopefully you did) at the end of it the child still needed to do his own part in achieving the goal.
Before I continue I feel it’s important to point out the opposite. It’s in those moments that you leave out “I’m proud of you” (if that’s a regular phrase in your vocabulary) that even though you don’t say, “I’m NOT proud of you” when they don’t get the highest grade or don’t make the hockey team, that’s what they hear loud and clear. One of the biggest flaws of praise is that when it’s absent it’s most hurtful – that’s why encouragement is helpful because one can always encourage.
Ok back to the original thought, the issue with wanting the best for our children and wanting them to be extra-ordinary, is our investment in this makes them an extension of ourselves and we become too involved in every move of their lives. It’s ironic because the article points out “the downside to being your child’s concierge” and here I am calling myself your concierge 😁
There has been an anxiety epidemic identified among young people by several psychologists and backed up with data from Statistics Canada. I’ve read similar data about the United States. Similar to the coddling post, Onstad quotes Lythcott-Haims and how she noticed over the past decade a new type of student, “They seemed existentially impotent. They were accomplished academically and had done a flurry of impressive activity, but they seemed to be reliant upon a parent to tell them what to do, how to do it, how to feel about things.”
I was sharing the overarching theme of the article with my sister-in-law and she asked me if I had read a NYT article from a few years ago called Super People. I haven’t so she will send it to me but she explained that we are creating this new race of super-humans who have to be the best in everything. She mentioned that the article looked at colleges to be one of the blaming factors as it’s no longer enough to have “chess team” on a resume, it has to be “president of chess team” to even be considered. So can you blame parents? If they want their child to even have a chance, they need to super-charge their “resume” from birth. There is no time for mistakes and failures.
In a sidebar to the article, Onstad provides 7 changes you can make to be a good parent now:
“7 Changes You Can Make to be a Good Enough Parent Now:
1. Stop narrating play.
Narrating your toddler’s every playground move like he’s in a wildlife documentary is a North American phenomenon, according Bringing Up Bébé author Pamela Druckerman, who parented in France. Don’t get between your kids and their experience of the world.
2. Drop the “we.”
It’s actually their peewee cup game, not yours. Check your ego, and let them own their success—and failure, says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult.
3. Give them chores…
Even a two-year-old can put his cup in the dishwasher, and a 10-year-old can cook dinner. Chores breed self-mastery and responsibility.
4. …And don’t pay them.
Tying chores to compensation is a mistake, writes Ron Lieber in The Opposite of Spoiled. “They ought to do them for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done.”
5. Don’t do their homework.
“It’s a short-term gain that sends the message: ‘Hey, you’re not capable of doing this,’” says Lythcott-Haims.
6. Let kids figure things out.
When school-aged kids gorge on Halloween candy, for instance, they learn too many sweets will make them feel ill faster than if you play gatekeeper. Such “non-catastrophic failures” are key to developing resilient adults, says Alex Russell, author of Drop the Worry Ball.
7. Have your own life.
Little eyes see you move through the day, anxious and nagging, shuttling kids between activities. Living a well-rounded life that doesn’t always have kids at the centre damps their narcissism and models a healthy adulthood.”
I do want to point out that I don’t believe, and I don’t think the article was trying to say, that you shouldn’t organize activities for your child, or set them up with tutors if needed, or sign them up for extra-curricular activities and so on. If those options are available and possible for you to do for your children, that is great. The walkaway point is that if they do make it on to the team, but aren’t the team captain, that’s not a reason to feel defeated. There is a happy medium, and it’s important to remember that each child will be different and he can enjoy and excel in his uniqueness. If your child doesn’t make it onto a school team but still enjoys playing and wants to continue, it would be great to find a different league for them. This demonstrates to them you do not need to be one of the best to enjoy something. It would be a natural reaction for your child to feel disappointed for not making the cut, but the KEY is that the disappointment is theirs and only theirs. They will move on and get over it as this is the reality of life – there are only 12 spots on the team just like there could be only one position available for the job they want down the road.
As Onstad concluded, no, we are not the worst generation of parents. In fact I’d guess we are the most invested parents – but maybe every so often we have to do a check in on ourselves and make sure we don’t lose sight of our real goals for our children – to be happy, independent, and self-motivated. As is often quoted in parenting lectures, “Our goal as parents is to work ourselves out of a job.” We want our children to be prepared when they get older and leave our home, not to feel lost without us by their side.