By Janet Strassman Perlmutter
American parents today are a study in extremes
Some are obsessed with orchestrating their children’s success from birth on with “brain-boosting” products, a slew of enrichment activities and high-stakes applications to private schools. Others indulge their children’s TV and computer time, but don’t keep track of whether homework or chores have been done.
Some worry so much about abduction that they won’t let their kids play in the front yard. Others let their children roam the neighborhood freely, without a regular curfew.
There are working parents who let their children stay up late at night because they haven’t seen them all day, while others micro-manage their kids’ homework and mandate a strict bedtime.
What’s fueling these stark differences? Our lifestyles, for one. Gone are many of the family traditions of yesteryear: Routine, sit-down family dinners; set times for completing homework; even lazy afternoons for kids to spend simply playing with friends. Meanwhile, our expectations for our children are higher than ever. Driven by a sense that there’s so much at stake, we race from one extracurricular activity to another, with meals, homework and other routines jammed in between. Add the demands of parents’ jobs and the pressure and anxiety mount.
As a result, experts say, we’ve increasingly lost the middle ground – the balance – in parenting itself. Without the community norms and expectations of the past, and with greater emphasis on individuality, parenting today is “more improvisational,” notes William Doherty, Ph.D., a University of Minnesota sociologist and the author of Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times. We’re either so involved and hovering that we hamper our kids’ independence, or we indulge our kids so much that we’re barely parenting at all. And it’s not necessarily all one extreme or the other. We may be overinvested in one area and too lax in another.
Just how much is enough, and what’s too much when it comes to raising children?
In a culture where extremism itself has become the norm, these are rarely asked questions.
What Kind of Parent Are You?
Are you too indulgent, too demanding or too invested in your kids’ lives?
Ask yourself the questions in “Are You Talking to Me?” and find out how to achieve a more balanced approach in your parenting.
Experts who study or counsel families aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed this change. The media has begun to hone in on these parental extremes too.
Consider ABC-TV’s Supernanny and Fox’s Nanny 911 – “reality” shows that featured American families whose kids have “gone wild,” and then a nanny is sent in to restore order. While the nannies offer practical child-rearing tips, the programs convey a sense that parents have lost control of family life.
At the same time, newspapers and magazines have focused on the other extreme, parents who are overly invested in or controlling of their kids’ lives. Time magazine’s Feb. 21 cover story, “Parents Behaving Badly,” took a blistering look at meddlesome parents who expect academic excellence from their kids and pressure teachers and administrators for top grades and honors.
This isn’t an isolated, minor faction of overly demanding parents. Last year, Stanford University held a “Stressed Out Students” conference in response to the pressures middle- and high-school students face in trying to please their parents and secure admission to top universities.
A World of Worry
Historian Steven Mintz, director of the American Cultures Program at the University of Houston and author of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood blames parents’ growing anxiety with the world around us for these parenting excesses.
“We’ve got the most educated generation of parents ever,” he says, adding in the same breath, “and this is the most anxious generation of parents ever.”
Anxiety about today’s competitive culture, for example, has led some parents to become too invested in their children’s success, Mintz says. They respond by overscheduling their kids with extracurricular activities, tutoring and test-preparation services. Conversely, parents anxious about that same competitive culture may react by indulging their children and hesitating to set clear limits.
Meanwhile, parents – bombarded by media reports of child kidnappings, sexual abuse and even Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – are also understandably anxious about their children’s safety, Mintz says. They may react by strictly limiting their children’s freedom or, again, overscheduling their kids in structured activities. Downtime, for pursuits like daydreaming or imaginative play, becomes nonexistent.
Clearly, awful things can and do happen to children. But public health experts note that threats such as child abductions are overrepresented in the media and heighten parents’ fears about risks that are far less common than everyday hazards like automobile accidents and drowning.
Mintz calls this exaggeration of safety concerns, “the violence of exploitation,” reflecting the harm done to parents and kids when the world is presented as a scarier, more out-of-control place than it really is.
Living Through Our Kids
Beyond all this anxiety about the world around us, today’s parents also have higher ambitions for their children, Mintz says.
“In the 1950s, parents wanted their kids to be normal, to be successful, but not stick out,” he says. By contrast, today’s parents strive for their children to stand out. Mintz sees this particularly in parents who view their kids as “extensions of their own ego – parents who are living through their kids.”
Others believe this is an outgrowth of the fears adults cope with in their own jobs: long hours, high demands and pressure to continually prove their worth.
Judith Warner, author of the highly acclaimed 2005 book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, examined the cultural influences that draw parents to these extremes.
“Things used to be different in America,” she writes. “There used to be structures in place … like dependable public education. Affordable housing. Job security. Reliable retirement benefits.” Without these resources, adults fear that they themselves could fall behind at any moment. They cope by trying to prepare – or overprepare – their kids for an adulthood without safety nets.
On the other hand, notes Doherty, some parents don’t want to be as authoritarian and demanding as their own parents were, so they become too indulgent of their children’s spur-of-the-moment desires. (“I want to take dance lessons” followed a week later by “I think I want to take violin now.”)
“They want to see their kids flourish, which is a good thing. They want to discover their kids’ gifts, which is also good, but it can create this situation (of permissiveness),” Doherty says.
And, as Mintz notes, in a culture in which families have fewer kids and more money per child, it’s easy to succumb to overindulgence. This is especially true when norms on spending and activity levels are not clear.
While Doherty can’t pinpoint a generation of parents that has ever “shown a good sense of balance” in child-rearing, it is balance, he says, that today’s parents need the most.
If we’re too strict and overinvested as parents, adds Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of the Positive Discipline series of books, kids don’t spread their wings to try things out on their own. If we’re too indulgent, we protect kids from developing other important skills, such as how to handle disappointments. And when we’re too controlling, in any manner, Nelsen says, kids don’t learn to have their own feelings or to trust their own abilities.
So how do you regain a sense of balance?
If you’re overly permissive and indulgent, Nelsen recommends learning to send a message of kindness and firmness to your kids. Try integrating warmth and limit-setting in ways that these are not at odds with each other: “Honey, I love you, and the answer is ‘no.’”
If you have extremely high expectations of your kids, Mintz recommends learning to both accept their limitations and nurture the gifts they do have. And remember, he adds, kids need time for unstructured, creative play as much as they need to be held responsible for getting their homework done.
Taking the Long-Term View
Think about what you’d ultimately like for your children: success and happiness, or rather, success that makes them happy. When parents keep this kind of big-picture perspective, it’s more likely they can maintain a sense of balance.
As Temple University psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., points out, “We don’t want kids who are brainiacs at the expense of social skills. As parents, we want happy and intelligent children.”
“We’ve got to broaden our concept of learning,” she says, pointing to the value of unstructured play for developing social skills, creativity and a sense of exploration.
“The parents’ job is to put themselves out of a job,” echoes Nelsen. “This means thinking long-term: ‘What skills am I teaching my children?’” She urges parents to develop kids’ proficiency in listening, problem-solving and self-reliance.
Substitute questions for lectures when kids break the rules, she advises:
• What was our agreement?
• What do you need to do now?
• How will I know when you’re ready for this responsibility?
As we strive to return to the middle ground in parenting, Hirsh-Pasek recommends a back-to-basics approach, focusing on three key actions:
• Reflect on what we know about how kids learn, including the importance of hands-on experience, exploration and play.
• Resist the push to turn kids into worker bees, missing out on the pleasures and learning opportunities of childhood.
• Recenter ourselves away from being overly invested in or too indulgent of our children.
Parents living with a sense of balance themselves, she says, are well on their way to raising well-balanced kids.
• Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn--and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D., Rodale Books, 2004.
• Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, by Steven Mintz, Ph.D., Harvard University Press, 2005.
• The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, by Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., and Nicole Wise, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001.
• Parents Who Love Too Much: How Good Parents Can Learn to Love More Wisely and Develop Children of Character, by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., and Cheryl Erwin, M.A., Prima Lifestyles, 2000. See also Nelsen’s Positive Discipline book series and Web site, www.positivediscipline.com.
• Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, by Judith Warner, Riverhead Hardcover, 2005.
• Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times, by William J. Doherty, Ph.D., Sorin Books, 2000.
• The Alliance for Childhood –www.allianceforchildhood.net – Advocates for children’s healthy and happy development. Among its key projects is promoting the importance of play
• Kids Risk Project – www.kidsrisk.harvard.edu – This Harvard School of Public Health initiative presents a realistic, fact-based perspective on the various risks in kids’ lives today.
• Positive Coaching Alliance – www.positivecoach.org – Teaches parents, students and coaches to engage in sports without the high-stress, “win-at-all-cost” mentality.