With the Best Intentions
Kathy and Paul are a little anxious. After three years of trying, they are thrilled to finally be parents, and Julia is a delightful eight month old with a wonderful disposition. But lately they have noticed that Julia isn’t developing at anywhere near the pace of her cousin Andrew who, although a month younger, is already crawling and even saying Ma-Ma and Da-Da. “I’m trying to be calm about all of this,” says Kathy. “The pediatrician tells me that her development is well within the normal range … but I’m worried that maybe Julia is bored and will become lazy. She’s home alone with the sitter all day. I really want her to be smart.” So she and Paul sit down to order a kit that includes videos, books, and a chart to track a baby’s development. It seems like a good program to ask the sitter to follow since the ad promises it will “nurture and enrich the development of your child’s intellect.”
It is Tuesday at 6:45 A.M. Belinda, age seven, is still asleep. School doesn’t start until nine and her mother usually lets her sleep until 7:30. But not on Tuesdays. That’s the day Belinda has a 7:30 A.M. piano lesson. From it she goes directly to school, which lasts until three. Then the baby-sitter drives Belinda to gymnastics for the 4:00–6:30 class. While Tuesday is the busiest day, the rest of the week is filled up too, with religious school and choir practice, ballet, and (Belinda’s favorite) horseback riding. “She’s pretty worn out by the end of the day,” her mother laments. “But you know, she’s much more alert for the morning piano lesson than she was for the Friday afternoon time slot we had before.” She pauses for a moment and then says, thoughtfully, “Kids today are so much busier than we used to be. I’m not really sure it is a good thing. But I want to give her the advantages I didn’t have.” Then she opens the door to Belinda’s room and gently pats her daughter’s back to awaken her.
Tate, age twelve, is one heck of a hockey player. He started skating at two. At first, his father, a former prep school hockey star himself, did the teaching. A few months later, Tate started formal lessons. By age seven, Tate showed real promise and started playing in his New Jersey town’s Youth Hockey Program on a demanding schedule. Tate is so good now, he’s on the county all-star team and plays aggressive hockey year-round. He has four practices a week, with early morning ice times and Saturday games. For tournaments and championship games he has traveled as far as Virginia and Maine. Next year the coach wants him to practice six days a week. Sure, the time commitment is large—not only for Tate, but also for his parents, who attend every game, and for his younger sister, Morgan, who has to go too. But his mother, Elaine, says, “I really enjoy watching him play. And besides,” she adds ruefully, “he still needs me to tie his skates for him. Of course he knows how to tie them, but most kids he plays with are fifteen and can get their laces much tighter. I don’t want him to be at a disadvantage just because he’s younger.”
Seeking out a curriculum for an eight month old? Scheduling a seven year old’s week so tightly that the grown-up in charge needs a Palm Pilot to keep track? Structuring an adult life around a commitment to tie laces on a twelve year old’s hockey skates?
Sure sounds hyper—so long as we are talking about other parents. But when it’s our own child’s future we are trying to get just right, it’s a little different. What good parent would not spend $79.95 for enrichment materials that promise some extra stimulation, especially for a kid we’re a little worried might be lagging behind? We may be busy already, but if our child has some particular talent or a hankering to try a new activity, and we can find a tiny window of time through which to squeeze it into our schedule, why not give it a go? And what parent wouldn’t help his child tighten his skate laces if that small effort turns out to make a big difference to him because hockey is so important in his life? And to be perfectly frank, his prowess with a puck gives us a real charge too.
Meanwhile, though, as we labor ceaselessly, sincerely, and earnestly at doing all the right things to get our children off to a great start in life, many of us moms and dads are feeling overworked, overwhelmed, and underappreciated. Of course we love our kids. We want the world for them and would do just about anything to give them what they need to succeed, first in their little-kid worlds and later in the grown-up game of Life. Yet in trying so hard to do everything we can for them, many of us (including yours truly, the authors) aren’t sure when to say when. We sense that our family lives are out of whack, but we aren’t sure why. We know we are doing too much for our kids, but don’t know where it might be okay to cut back—especially since every time we pick up the paper, turn on the news, or try to lose ourselves in the pages of a magazine, someone else is adding something new to the list of things we are supposed to be doing for our children to make sure they turn out right.
We authors do it too. One of us recalls how, as a young and inexperienced mother, it seemed vitally important to provide only the most natural of diets for her baby daughter—nothing but breast milk and homemade, organically grown baby food, chopped and steamed in large batches, frozen in individual-sized portions. The effort was huge but theoretically worthwhile: All those reports linking pesticides and food additives to allergies and childhood cancers were really scary.
Life so often writes its own ironic endings, however, and as it turned out this same scrupulously fed child turned out to be the one of four children who was constantly sick—eventually requiring daily antibiotics to stave off the many infections that plagued her. In time, her health problems were traced to a genetic immune deficiency, which she eventually outgrew—as her mother also outgrew that naive conviction that life could be controlled and shaped by her own intensive efforts. That sincere, well-intentioned belief is the essence of hyper-parenting.
So often we can afford to relax—even in the face of conventional wisdom, let alone the latest scientific advisories! The other of us had a child who loved chocolate, and as a young child begged for some each evening before dinner. Although a little fearful of the nutritional and dietetic implications, her parents nonetheless decided to try it her way. What happened? She remains slender, and ten years later has missed a total of one day of school because of illness.
But it is tough to “try” to be relaxed, especially when we so desperately fear being negligent. What we parents really need as much as, or perhaps even more than, all that important advice about how to raise our children is a reminder that no one ever gets it all just right—and that most children turn out well anyway. Not perfect, but good enough. And, as we will see in chapters to come, that is the best we can hope for anyway.
We authors don’t think we are looking at the past through chic pink glasses when we reminisce about how much simpler everyday life used to be—at least for white, middle-class families. Not perfect, mind you, but certainly less complicated. Most of us attended neighborhood public schools, not pricey private ones. We played outside with the kids in the neighborhood; we didn’t have private voice lessons or play in organized lacrosse leagues. Our mothers had no need to color code our family calendars to track activities for each family member.
Life seemed reasonably predictable. Our parents had a vision of themselves as a strong generation that had survived the Great Depression, triumphed over evil in World War II, and saved South Korea from the jaws of communism. They had so much to be proud of. Pre-Vietnam America was pretty as a postcard, the best country in the world—at least as far as its white, middle-class citizens were concerned. “We the people” were decent, God-fearing, generous, fair, and law-abiding; our parents found plenty of safe, sunny, sane places to live. Of course there were racism, dysfunctional families, and alcoholic, abusive, and/or depressed parents, then as now, more than anyone then would have guessed. But because problems were kept sealed behind tightly shut doors, they did not disturb our “nice” image of ourselves.
We suffer no such comforting delusions today—in fact, quite the contrary. We get bombarded with news stories that scare the daylights out of us. We authors often find ourselves turning off the news in our own houses—not only is it too scary for our smallest children, but the truth is that it keeps us up at night too. The schoolroom massacres, wartime atrocities, and weather disasters are awful, no question. But it’s not only the random horror of the events themselves that raise our blood pressure; humans have always suffered from evil acts and destruction, both natural and man-made.
What’s uniquely stressful for today’s families is the way that every single report of an awful event is first delivered directly into our living rooms and made up close and personal. The 24-hour news channels give us minute-to-minute coverage, intermittently punctuated by a consultation with an “expert,” who does his or her best to provide a tidy explanation of its root causes (though the truth is that some of these events are just plain inexplicable), along with a set of how-to instructions on what you need to do to keep this from happening in your own life. The implication is that with enough effort you can.
So, whenever some horrible tragedy befalls a child, we are deluged with a flood of stories that examine why it happened, whatever it was: What oversights led to a toddler’s fatal plunge from a skyscraper window, what didn’t happen to prevent an eight year old from drowning while away at summer camp, which factors may have fueled the transformation of a seemingly normal high school student into a mass murderer. In one way, such stories soothe our angst by providing explanations that serve to make such events seem less arbitrary; in another way, however, they stoke our anxiety by giving us a list of the things we parents can do to keep such tragedies from ruining our own lives. We can invest in swimming lessons, carefully research the safety record of the summer camps we are considering, toss all violent video games in the trash—and lots more. Those of us who aren’t taking every conceivable precaution begin to wonder, should we? Ought we change all the rules in our house? We wonder whether our children are in serious danger. Sometimes they might be; usually they are not. Some events are neither predictable nor preventable.
By stoking our insecurities about our children’s future and appealing to our anxieties about whether we know how to be good parents, the media is profoundly affecting how we live our lives and raise our families. They are persuading us that just as we have to work far longer and harder at our paying jobs, so too should we work longer and harder at child rearing. There is no time for downtime! In a number of ways, our magazines, newspapers, books, and TV programs are even reshaping our sense of what is real and possible.
It’s easy and fashionable to blame the media for every societal problem, from violence and drug abuse to the breakdown of family values. But despite their protestations to the contrary, we don’t see them as just convenient scapegoats. The media exposes children, adolescents, and families to unnecessarily violent, ugly, and oversexualized images of life (and others that are ridiculously sugarcoated). That’s bad enough. But we authors believe that the information the media transmits indirectly may have an even greater impact on the way we parents are raising our children today. They put before each and every one of us an image of what we have come to accept as the right way to live. These highly contagious and subliminal metamessages about family life and parenting have dramatically altered how we look at the world. In our opinion, it is near impossible to overestimate the media’s effect on our family lives.
It bears repeating and emphasizing. Directly and indirectly, in ways we are often completely unaware of, the media is poisoning our view of what family life should be like at the dawn of a new millennium. It portrays the world “out there” as brutal and unpredictably dangerous, a malicious maelstrom from which we must provide constant protection. It blurs the lines between fiction and fantasy, encouraging us, and our children, to believe that annihilation lurks everywhere yet that perfection and absolute safety are within our reach.
The “reality” we are presented with is often far more disturbing than even the worst fantasy shows. Nothing on television is scarier than the evening news. Every place is dangerous; no one is ever really safe. As we—parents and children—sit passively taking it all in, we are presented with a ceaseless sense of urgency and immediacy, a constant threat of death lurking just around the next comer or in the next bite of food. The sands shift constantly beneath our feet, leaving us with no place to stand that feels solid. Vigilance is the order of the day; we cannot ever afford to relax ourselves or our standards.
We are urged to teach our children to beware of people they don’t know, even though the actual number of children harmed or abducted by strangers is minuscule. Scary health reports are sensationalized: “Cafeteria lunches contain flesh-eating bacteria!” Parents are made to feel irresponsible for serving a child a hot dog, which might cause leukemia or harbor listeria. An ice cream sundae is sinful—all that fat and sugar! The facts may change but month to month, the sense of urgency remains a constant. Because with no acknowledgment of the contradiction, a major story the very next month tells viewers definitively that the absence of fat in a toddler’s diet may impede brain development and that eating chocolate may add years to our life expectancy.
By their very nature, the news programs distort our sense of time and frequency, making disasters seem common, as inevitable as a change in the weather. Seeing these images over and over alters our perceptions of just how safe we are and how unlikely such disasters are to occur in our own lives. Plenty of people believe that cancer is rampant among children, when in reality it is quite rare. The Challenger blew up once, but with our own eyes we saw it explode literally hundreds of times.
Unlike fairy tales, which begin “Beyond the seven mountains and over the three great seas,” a brilliant distancing mechanism to keep children from being frightened since these events happened long ago and far away, clips on the local news highlight horrors that happen just around the comer to people who look like you and me. Every day people just like us are gunned down on the streets, or are car jacked, or have scaffolds fall from skyscrapers onto their heads. With our own eyes and the help of a crackerjack cameraman, we listen to the neighbor’s surprise, we witness the mother’s tears. We see their grief, share their pain. By being exposed in this way, we become unwitting participants in the tragedy, silent victims a continent away. We have imagined how it feels to have a child abducted, a daughter raped and mutilated. And so we react, by fingerprinting our families and buying one more bolt for the front door.
Dr. Spock’s down-to-earth child-care manual became a bestseller a generation ago. He worked to reassure parents, telling them that they knew more than they thought they did. On the other hand, today’s media and some contemporary advertisers work hard to convince us of the opposite. Knowing just how to get our attention, the media use anxiety-provoking techniques so they can tell us how to be better parents. Not only do we know very little, but crucial new information is so complex and is being gathered so quickly that we absolutely must tune in or log on to keep up with the latest developments—or risk being a failure at life’s most important job.
The media shows us again and again that perfection is possible: You can do this; you should do that. Serious advice follows the cue. Inspirational stories recount how, with the right efforts started early enough, each of us can raise a superstar like, say, golf prodigy Tiger Woods. These stories imply that every child should be above average, as though this wasn’t, by definition, impossible.
Although her son had been accepted for early admission by Boston College, we heard one mother, resident of a Cheeveresque New York City suburb known for having one of the most competitive public high schools in the country, describe her son as “average, not all that bright.” It’s unrealistic to expect every one of our children (or frankly, even many of them) to earn straight As, captain three varsity teams, and staff the animal shelter on alternate weekends. We aren’t all capable of superstardom—but that doesn’t mean our lives should be viewed as disappointing.
Even our favorite dramas and sitcoms upgrade our view of reality. It’s easy to forget that the only reason TV families can do so much, have such meaningful relationships, and comport themselves with such elegance and charm is that they are make-believe. Many of us feel we know the characters on television more intimately than we know our neighbors, since we see them more regularly and hear them speak more openly. They seem more rounded and substantial than the real folks who people our lives. On television, everything is orderly and coordinated. Even the homes of families of modest means are always well decorated; the furniture is never unmatched, let alone stained with grape juice and threadbare from years of hard use. Although the characters are struggling financially, they lounge around the house in gorgeous pajamas you would never find on the shelves at Wal-Mart.
Maybe sitcoms address real-life problems like drug abuse, teenage sex, and job loss, but they do it with style and a polished tenderness that life as we know it often lacks. Each scene is carefully set and the resolution is beautifully scripted, even if it takes two episodes to get there. In the real world, we may desperately want to offer comfort to a friend who is suffering, but find ourselves tongue-tied and awkward: On television, people always come up with just the right thing to say. They hardly ever fumble awkwardly for the right words, and when they do it’s a fumbling that only underscores how sincere, vulnerable, and lovable they are. They don’t look like the jackasses we feel we are when we say the wrong thing or say nothing at all.
On TV, the downsized and displaced corporate middle manager may be depressed for the first half of the show. But within the twenty-two carefully-crafted minutes he will not only find gainful employment that gets his bills paid; chances are he will also have long overdue, sensitive, heart-to-heart conversations with family members and, ultimately, discover the true meaning of life. If only real life worked that way. Even in the most affluent neighborhoods, people who lose their jobs suffer, along with their family. members, from problems like depression, divorce, and alcoholism. Those of us who’ve lost jobs remember how hard it was to get out of bed in the morning, let alone follow the well-meaning exhortations of friends who urged us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back into the game.
Try as we will, it is simply not possible for real people in the real world to get all the glitches out of our lives, to get them to work very, very smoothly. Implicitly, in comparison, we feel inadequate. Unlike on TV or at the movies, we have no equipment that allows us to edit out the bad parts of the day. We don’t have script consultants and wardrobe specialists and makeup artists and directors in our houses. After behaving in a way we wish we hadn’t, we can’t roll back the video for another take. Real family life has its awkward moments and regrettable interactions and always will. But many of us find it hard to accept that reality, and maybe we don’t really think we should have to. After all, we have seen this distorted image of perfectible reality, how life could be, so often that we have come to believe that it is a goal we should strive for.
Really, as we all sort of know, in one of those comers of our mind that we rarely take the time to look into, objects, achievements, and possessions don’t make life meaningful. They never have; they never will. Relationships do. But our lives are so busy, so full of stuff to buy and things to get done, we have precious little time for nurturing those. It’s hard to know one another, to attend to our relationships and marriages, when we are always racing around.
Several other factors have contributed to the particular intensity that infuses today’s parenting. For one, time seems to be ticking faster than ever—at least in our own minds. In the olden days, before every household was equipped with electricity, not to mention America Online, dusk marked the end of productivity and the workday. The entire family, including children, worked hard all day, often at a shared enterprise like the family farm. Time moved slowly. Daily life had an organic rhythm tied to the sun, moon, and the seasons. Sundown meant the time for work was over.
Since radio and television didn’t exist and the opportunities for entertainment were limited, the family had to spend time together. Parents and children, and often aunts, uncles, and grandparents as well, always dined together. Later, with few other options, they might talk, read (usually the Bible), play a game, or listen to family stories passed down from grandparents or great-grandparents. Family life was neither idyllic nor always peaceful, but family members still had to live together and get along—there were few other options. Most individuals also derived a sense of identity from their faith, which had been the family’s religion for centuries, the guidebook that delineated what was important in life and demonstrated how you were supposed to treat your neighbors as you wished to be treated yourself. The Sabbath was sacred whatever your religion, a time to congregate as a community at a place of worship, a day for real rest and contemplation.
Technology has bestowed a mixed blessing indeed. We are deeply grateful for antibiotics that might have saved Todd Lincoln and for the polio vaccine that could have protected Franklin Roosevelt. We cannot imagine life without indoor plumbing or central heating. But electricity and the light bulb—not to mention such further technological refinements as the laptop computer with fax/modem and the pager with its constantly updated ticker of stock prices and news headlines—have turned us inward, away from one another. They have also fueled a rat race that has fundamentally altered our sense of time. Once lives were organized around the changing of the seasons; now they are measured in anxious seconds. Digital clocks make each minute’s passing a notable event; microwave ovens work so efficiently that we tap our feet impatiently as we wait the couple of minutes it takes to nuke a weekday family dinner.
We move faster and faster. Everything needs to speed up and work more efficiently: machines, people, children. We race to stay in place. Cell phones and beepers put us on call day and night; we avoid solitude, fearing we might miss something crucial if we tune the world out, even for a little while. After all, no matter what time it is, the market is open somewhere in the world. The work-at-home technology that promised to give us more time with our families has actually infringed further. Stressed-out professionals who used to at least have weekends off now feel compelled to “spend a few minutes” on business matters (“Honest, honey, I promise that’s all it will take!”) even on vacation.
There isn’t a person alive who couldn’t be more productive. In the midst of astonishing plenty, we somehow feel eternally dissatisfied with who we are, with what we do, and with what we have. If working as hard as we do, we continually feel guilty that we are not doing more, what does that say to our children? Can they ever stop pushing? That dismal view of what they have to look forward to may be a factor behind the fact that in adolescence many kids choose to sign off and drop out, failing in school and turning to drugs and alcohol for escape.
As a culture, we have accepted the idea that work should be continuous, gratification instantaneous. We work constantly, but don’t really believe that important things take time. In our E-mail world, where we transmit our words almost as fast as we think them, how do we help our children understand that it takes hard work and persistence to craft a novel—not to mention to do anything else beautifully? How will they learn that in relationships, the best path often takes time, patience, reflection, and holding your tongue until your anger dissipates, so you can see more clearly what you think and feel, what you should do to preserve a relationship that is really precious to you?
We worship technology. It has become a false idol that gives the illusion of intimacy. It gives our children the erroneous belief that the good life is the fast, efficiently networked life. Our computers can link us via modem, but they prevent us from looking into one another’s eyes. Our gadgets and electronic devices can fill and order our time, but they fail to add meaning to our lives—and they distract us from other things that might. They can take away our boredom, but they cannot feed our souls.
How do we teach our children that love really matters, that reflection and careful thought is valuable, that the way we feel and behave toward our family is worth more than the newest Air Jordan basketball sneakers or a faster, more luxurious car? How do we convince ourselves that having enough time at home with the people we love enriches us more than spending another hour at the office or driving a tense, young competitor to a gymnastics meet three states away?
Loving well and working at something you find meaningful are the elements essential to emotional well-being, according to Sigmund Freud. These two are out of whack in our lives. Of course we need to work, not only to achieve our dreams and support our families, but also to support our vision of ourselves. However, we also need to find a way to live that doesn’t completely deplete us, that doesn’t leave us overworked and stressed out all the time.
It should not require a traumatic event—a brush with death, loss of a loved one, or a threat to our marriage—for us to see how fragile and precious life and relationships are. Those who’ve lost a loved one would trade a new BMW—or a fleet of them—for an opportunity to just sit by their side and talk about matters both important and inconsequential. So often we hear from those who’ve looked death in the face that now they know what’s important in life. In the hours when you realize your child is very sick, and you fear it might be a serious crisis indeed, you are willing to make any sacrifice so it won’t be so. Is that the only path to enlightenment? And why do we close our eyes to that insight as soon as the crisis is past?
Maudlin? Maybe. But you hear it again and again from people who have walked life’s darkest roads. Sadly, all too often, the new, high-resolution world we live in urges people to invest more of their time in things that lay in the opposite direction. Our days will never be long enough to do all we want or believe we need to. Of course we know what’s important in life, really, but we figure we have plenty of time—if we just take the right herbal supplements and follow the right health advice—to catch up on the important stuff at some point in the future. So we direct our immediate energies toward accomplishment and acquisition and figure we can fill in the parts that are missing—as we know, deep inside, they are—later. But will later ever come?
Although we make cocktail party conversation about taking early retirement so we can enjoy our lives more, few of us can spare the time to think seriously about the meaning of life, given the uncertainty of today’s job market, let alone take steps toward finding it. A common joke nowadays is that the only thing worse than losing your job is having a job, since corporations have downsized to the point where one employee now handles what used to be the province of three. We may be more productive, but there’s no mistaking the fact that we’re also frazzled from the frenetic pace. The irony is that if we work long, hard, and efficiently enough, we help the lean, mean economic system make us superfluous too.
Sociologist Melvin Kohn long ago demonstrated that based on our own experience, we all prepare our children for the workplace we anticipate they will encounter. In many homes today, both parents tote home briefcases filled with work they didn’t get to during the business hours. If Mom and Dad need to work nonstop to get those papers and reports and forms completed, maybe their children should get used to living that way too. It’s undoubtedly that worldview that has parents marching into middle and high schools, demanding that their children be given more homework and harder assignments.
The tenor of the times has also changed. Despite enormous prosperity, many of us fear that the years ahead will be difficult. We are parenting in a state of anxiety and pessimism about the future, even if our big-picture angst is obfuscated by high levels of consumer confidence about next week. No one we know feels truly secure. Job security is about as easy to find as a drive-in movie theater; counting on Social Security and a pension plan to support us in our golden years is a little like believing in Santa Claus as a high school senior.
The economy is changing so quickly, and so radically, that even many high achievers have to retool their careers. Professionals who undertook years of training are no longer guaranteed lifetime job security. A once-successful cardiologist, a man in his forties and the father of middle-school-age twins and a younger child, has gone back to school. He studies evenings and weekends to earn an M.B.A. he hopes, without complete certainty, will ensure professional and financial security. With three college-bound children, his wife has returned to work as well. This family’s life was already busy and full; now it is stretched to the limit or beyond.
The emphasis on perfection and perpetual motion is destroying family life. The first step toward correcting it is to see it for what it is. For our families to slow down, we need to subscribe—seriously—to the understanding that our feelings make sense, to recognize that they are shorthand messages we receive from ourselves. If we are feeling crazed by the pace of our lives, it’s not necessarily because there is something wrong with us; it may be because most people cannot handle life at warp speed. Either it exhausts you completely, or it keeps you up all night. Instead of asking ourselves why we feel so rotten, we too often ask our doctors to prescribe Prozac or Xanax—or Ritalin for the kids.
Read on. In subsequent chapters we will provide evidence of how it all starts before we even conceive our children. We will see how our earnest efforts to get it just right get in our way. We will show how we have come to spend so much time “parenting” that we often end up with too little time for being parents, the people who are there when our kids need us, the ones who take time to listen, who will love and protect them, no matter what, and the ones who feel inwardly rich for the connection and opportunity. There is a world of difference between parenting and being a parent. Learning it, and living it, is likely to make life much, much richer.
THE OVER-SCHEDULED CHILD. Copyright © 2000 by Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., and Nicole Wise. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.