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As competitive parenting has been on the rise since the 1980s, so have rates of teen suicide, eating disorders, depression, and drug use. Yet the cycle of "push parenting" doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Our children today are competing with classmates who began listening to Mozart in utero and were enrolled in educational classes at ages two and three. Under these circumstances, parents feel that they cannot afford to opt out, or let their...
As competitive parenting has been on the rise since the 1980s, so have rates of teen suicide, eating disorders, depression, and drug use. Yet the cycle of "push parenting" doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Our children today are competing with classmates who began listening to Mozart in utero and were enrolled in educational classes at ages two and three. Under these circumstances, parents feel that they cannot afford to opt out, or let their children opt out. What might become of them if they did?
Alarmed by the high numbers of unmotivated, burned-out youngsters seeking her psychiatric treatment, Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie set out to uncover not just the sources of their distress but also the factors that drive parents to pressure their children. Dr. Guthrie explores our confounding culture of overachievement and takes a sympathetic look at the pervasive guilt that accompanies raising children today.
Drawing on more than fifteen years of clinical experience, Dr. Guthrie outlines why the very intentions behind competitive parenting actually produce the opposite of the desired effect. For the parent who expects a barely potty-trained toddler to begin learning a second language or a first grader to excel at a nightly battery of extracurricular activities, The Trouble with Perfect presents evidence that placing unreasonable expectations on children can actually deter their chances for success later in life. Such pressure can snuff out crucial qualities such as curiosity, spontaneity, and resourcefulness. When children are pushed, the message parents send to them on a daily basis is that they are not capable of making responsible choices bythemselves, that appearances are more important than authenticity, that it is less important for them to own their experiences than to hold a significant title. Helping parents discover the fine line between good parenting and pressure parenting, Dr. Guthrie also cites clear ways to address the guilt and societal issues that define the average child (by definition the majority!) as "less-than-perfect" or a “loser.” With tips for enhancing the development of every child’s unique set of talents, the book is a vital reality check for anyone concerned about what’s really best for kids.
Introducing the Seven Hypes
When did you first feel it? Was it when your son was the last in his play group to learn to speak? When your daughter's pre-school interview was a screaming-dervish tantrum disaster? When your son's batting in T-ball was right out of Monty Python? When your middle-schooler wasn't recommended for a single honors class?
We all face it at some point: the realization that our children, at least in some respects, aren't the best, brightest, prettiest, fastest, most enviable and perfect specimens who ever walked the earth. It can be a devastating feeling. One minute you are living the fantasy—beaming as your child accepts the Heisman trophy, Nobel Peace Prize, or National Book Award—and the next you are sitting in the dust with this rather, well, ordinary child.
For most of us as parents, these moments of recognizing our child's frailties are an opportunity for growth: Ideally, we empathize with our child and create an appropriate strategy for dealing with the situation. In many cases, the only strategy is acceptance and love. Maybe our son won't be the Sammy Sousa of Westchester. Maybe our daughter will be better off in another nursery school. Sometimes, a bit of help is in order. A check with the pediatrician can confirm that a nonspeaking toddler doesn't have a hearing problem that's affecting speech. A check with the guidance counselor at school may reassure you about your son's nonhonors status, or encourage you to follow procedures for him to try an honors course on a trial basis.
But wait a minute . . . Are you thinking that isn't the kind of help you had in mind? Are you thinking that you know a top-notchcoach for that T-baller? Are you thinking that a letter from your neighbor, a heavy-hitting fund-raiser at the nursery school, could make the difference with the headmaster and convince her your daughter doesn't always act like she needs an exorcism? Perhaps you're thinking that a few calls to teachers, promises of tutors, and maybe even taking on a serious PTA job could convince that middle-school principal to be a little more liberal with his honors-class placements?
As we try to sort out what strategy makes sense—the coach or maybe a bit of backyard practice; the donation or maybe a more low-key nursery school—we can't avoid the stress of these decisions. Actually the stress of parenting is made up of these kind of decisions, and they become more complicated as our lives become more demanding and our culture becomes more competitive. It's very hard to sort out what's a sensible choice when we're feeling the impulse to push our children.
As Mel Levine, a highly esteemed developmental pediatrician, says, "Adults can be specialists; children must be generalists." We can decide we're good at teaching and not tennis, or good at financial research and not cleaning. We make our life choices based on these proclivities and skills, and, with luck and determination, we find roles that suit us and make us happy. But our kids have to be good at math, English, science, sports, community service, leadership, foreign languages, and so on. As the bar has been raised for them, the stress and pressure to perform becomes more and more intense. Unfortunately, a large part of this stress and pressure is due to the demands we, as parents, make on them. We want our kids to do well and get ahead. This is reasonable and important. But we don't want to push them so hard that the results are negative. Indeed, this is the theme of this book: How do you encourage your child to achieve in a healthy way? How do you judge how much nudging is good and how much is counterproductive?
Some parents don't care: They're going to push no matter what. Parents of this sort are not reflective or introspective. It's very difficult to get them to change course or even consider reassessing their goals. But you, if you are reading this book, are probably different. You're open to change. You're worried about achieving the right balance in your child's life. You're willing to ask the right questions. I've seen many parents like you, too; parents who are concerned about the stressful world their children are entering and how they can help them achieve without destroying the spark that makes them unique.
Unfortunately, many of today's parents, many of us, go at this whole parenting thing full tilt. For reasons, some good and some misguided, that we'll explore, we feel that our child's ultimate success is all up to us, and that the goal is to win, or to get our kids to win. This is not news to you. You've read the articles about test prepping for the best colleges that rivals astronaut training; bar mitzvahs that demand the financial and emotional fortitude of a Broadway producer; and athletic competition so fierce that it has actually been fatal to at least one parent.
Why are we so competitive when it comes to our children? Why are we convinced that it's so important for them to have a dazzling resume? To have a "passion"? To stand out, in some way, from the crowd? What is it that makes intelligent, sensible parents prep their young child for an IQ test, or hire a sixty-dollar-an-hour coach for their beginning Little Leaguer, or drive a half hour after a busy work day to bring a toddler to an art class when everybody might be happier at home enjoying dinner or bath time?
What I have learned from countless parents is that just about no one wants to push, but most feel they must. They've come to believe in a fearful and anxious way that they as parents or, more crucially, their children will fall short in the relentless competition of everyday life if they don't keep pushing.
The great, gnawing fear is that if you don't push, if you relax and let the chips fall where they may, your child will fail. Or at least not succeed. That's the fear-inducing truth that most of us wrestle with when we try to decide if we should call the teacher and challenge a grade, if we should sign our child up for SAT coaching starting in eighth grade, if we should encourage our child to try out for the crew team because we've heard that Ivy League schools are high on rowing.
But is it true? Is it true that our children need us to give them that extra edge? Is it possible that it can be counterproductive to do so?
As parents, we're used to following our impulse: When the baby cries, we tend to her. When the toddler falls, we comfort him. To some degree, we must rely on our impulses to guide us in our child-rearing. And if our impulse to push, prod, and maneuver our child is so strong that it almost becomes an imperative, then perhaps it's an impulse that should be obeyed.
But most of us do have a little voice inside that says, "This is crazy; this is too much."
First, of course, we must acknowledge that people are naturally competitive. There are basic human impulses that make us want to be the best, make us want our children to be the best. In the version of the jungle that most of us inhabit, the richest man gets the prettiest girl (and the biggest house, the most luxurious car, and the most frequent-flyer miles). But, fortunately, we all have minds and souls and are able to conceptualize a vast panoply of satisfactions that life has to offer beyond a babe, a stretch, and five thousand square feet of living space.
Sad to say, despite our higher reasoning abilities, some notions endure—many just vague, unrecognized concepts in the back of our minds—that direct our behavior as parents. These notions—or "hypes"—are usually unexamined and even unrecognized, but they can cloud our decisions and encourage us to act in ways that are irrational, yes, but more important, damaging to our children. At first glance, these hypes seem like a monolithic force: difficult to assess, impossible to resist. But I think you can separate out individual cultural pressures, and it's helpful to do so. What follows is an exploration of seven hypes that I see parents struggling with daily and some ideas on how you can resist them to bring more balance into your life with your child.
Everybody's Doing It!
If there could be a Unilateral Push-Parenting Disarmament Treaty, we'd all stop, but as it is, if we relax, let up, cancel the tutor, our kid will miss out, fall behind, fail.
The culture makes us push.
We hear it in the ob/gyn waiting room, on the sidelines of the soccer field, during the coffee break at the PTA meeting, in line at the grocery store . . . "If you don't hold the baby skin-to-skin immediately after birth, you'll compromise bonding." "If they don't begin a language by age three, it will be much harder for them to learn when they're older." "If they don't do T-ball, they'll never be able to play baseball because the other kids will be so far ahead of them." "If they don't get into honors math in eighth grade, they'll never get into calculus in high school." "If they don't start working on their ECs (that's "extracurriculars" to the uninitiated) in middle school, it doesn't look good because colleges like to see consistency and long-term commitment."
We live in a land of opportunity, a democracy that promises equal access for all. To the founding fathers, this meant no man would be denied freedoms on the basis of his religion. To a mother in the twenty-first century, it means that all the strollers are lined up at the starting line, and it's every baby for him- or herself. (Of course, mom pushes and steers for the first eighteen years.)
With the advent of fertility issues, the pressure to succeed begins before conception. I recently saw a brief segment of a show on Lifetime TV that featured an alarmingly solemn young couple recounting "their pregnancy experience." They had been advised to adopt a macrobiotic diet to "cleanse" their bodies and prepare for the most optimum time of conception. After four months of this diet, they were advised by their counselor that they could "begin trying." As expected, they conceived immediately. They seemed to believe that they had gotten a very fast out-of-the-gate start for their baby. They had every intention of maintaining this lead by restricting themselves to a strict organic, macrobiotic diet for the duration of the pregnancy.
It seems that no decision regarding the gestation or birth of a middle-class baby in this country can be taken lightly. No one comparison-shops like a woman pregnant with her first child. Cloth or Pampers? Epidural or natural childbirth? Episiotomy or prayer? Perego or MacLaren?
This is the beginning of the real sense that a pregnant woman feels that she is responsible for the ultimate health, intelligence, and, indeed, the very success of her child. Because the implication is that by doing or avoiding certain things she will create a better baby. She'll never have to look back and say, "If it weren't for those daily milligrams of caffeine, perhaps she would have been a National Merit Scholar," or "If only I'd eaten more carrots, his vision would be better, and he'd have been accepted to the Air Force flight training school," or "If only I'd breastfed for a year instead of a paltry two months, maybe she wouldn't have that allergy."
The guilt that women feel today over less than "perfect" births is truly overwhelming because they've been led to believe that if they just had had the discipline and education to make the right choices, nothing would ever go wrong. An educated and sophisticated woman I know was devastated after the birth of her first child. She had done everything right. But her labor didn't progress and she'd ultimately had a C-section. As she said, "I was so disappointed that I couldn't really enjoy the baby. I spent the first few weeks of his life reviewing the labor over and over, and wondering if there was anything I could have done differently, anything I could have done in advance, that would have resulted in a natural childbirth."
Of course, as any neonatal nurse or obstetrician or labor coach can tell you, things happen. Even when it comes to the most disciplined, educated, determined mothers, despite the fact that better prenatal care has resulted in healthier babies and fewer risky births, there is an inevitable percentage of birth problems, low Apgar scores, and less than perfect babies. Unfortunately, the real-life fact of simple bad luck is often obscured by the hype. By the time your baby enters the world in today's culture, you've already been thoroughly inoculated to understand and accept that whatever happens to this child, this little Rembrandt or Mozart or Doug Flutie, it will be due in large part to your efforts.
At least in utero, it's just you and your fetus. It's not so hard to control what you eat and drink and listen to. And there's still the mystery of this little creature to be. But right after delivery you're assaulted with the outside world. The baby is big or small or alert or sleepy or more or less hungry than your neighbor's. That's when you begin to realize that a barely audible gun has gone off and the starting flag is waving.
You want what is best for your baby. As a new parent you're just trying to figure out what the heck that is. One thing's for sure: You're not certain of anything anymore. And you're extremely vulnerable to suggestions, criticisms, and "expert" advice. You're looking for answers. And this is what you see:
Your neighbors push, your sister-in-law pushes, every parent on every TV show pushes, whether it's with a three-year-old who's learning Japanese or a Halloween costume that looks like it came from a production of The Lion King. Don Imus, the morning radio host who plays political conscience to the cappuccino crowd, discusses his two-year-old's Spanish lessons on air. The media barrage us relentlessly with stories of superachieving kids and how they got that way. The Today show recently featured a two-year-old with an extraordinary golf swing and, a few segments later, a woman touted her new book outlining how your infant's IQ could be increased by certain physical exercises.
Eventually your cheerful little mud-pie maker, TV watcher, videogamer begins to seem somewhat lackluster. Not that we think any the less of our children in comparison to the spectacular children we see all around. But we begin to worry that the world won't see how great they are, how special. That they won't reap the rewards that other children reap, that they won't measure up in the world's view.