Read an Excerpt
The Mommy 500
When I was pregnant with my oldest child, Brandon, I traded in my red Mustang convertible for a beige Grand Caravan. Little did I know that this supersized vehicle would become my stock car for the Mommy 500—an eighteen–year race whose finish line is designated by acceptance letters to prestigious universities.
The first time I revved my engines in this marathon was two weeks into my maternal career, when I received a letter from an enterprise that I’ll call Gymbananas. “It’s never too early to begin thinking about college,” read the primary–colored flyer, which went on to list course offerings for infants ages six weeks and up. Yes, Gymbananas had a special message for me—a sleep–deprived, hormonally challenged new mother—and it was that if I denied my baby adequate exposure to bubbles and clapping songs before he learned to roll over, I would irreparably hinder his chances of getting into Harvard. Before I could say Oy vey, I was giving a perky woman on the telephone my credit card number to secure my son’s spot in the Wednesday–morning precrawler class.
I was at Brandon’s kindergarten Rosh Hashanah celebration (my first official program as a grade–school parent) when it became painfully evident that my Gymbananas era had been but a leisurely practice lap along the Mommy 500 and I would now be putting my pedal to the metal.
“So what are Brandon’s fall extracurriculars?” asked the mother sitting next to me in the apples and honey corner.
“He’s playing soccer. What about Jeremy?” I replied, following Mommy etiquette to a T.
“Well, let’s see,” she answered, trying (unsuccessfully) to sound nonchalant. “Jeremy’s fall extracurricular sport is tennis, his fall extracurricular instrument is violin, his fall extracurricular martial art is tae kwon do, and his fall extracurricular academic is science.”
Before I could determine whether an extracurricular academic was an oxymoron, my wheels were racing. I spent the rest of the morning signing Brandon up for an array of extracurriculars, and trying to figure out how I’d managed to walk out of the kindergarten Rosh Hashanah celebration indelibly inscribed in the Book of Stress.
A Message from Bubbe
“And vy should you be inscribed in the Book of Stress?” my bubbe asked as I explained why I’d arrived so farklempt to Shabbat dinner. “If a race is making you meshuga then drop out of the race!”
She clearly doesn’t get it, I thought to myself. And how could she get it? How could someone from a simpler generation even begin to understand how it feels to have everyone from Gymbananas executives to media moguls to the other moms in the carpool line reminding me that if I don’t fuel my kids up with everything from pinch potting to pitching lessons, they’ll be left in the dust come college application time. And then there’s that whole overachievement thing. I mean I grew up at the height of the women’s lib movement—raised to be strong and in charge, driven and successful. How could my ninety–five–year–old grandmother possibly see that I’d put every bit of that energy and determination into my life choices, my education, my career—and I wasn’t about to drop the ball when it came to my kids?
And so I plugged ahead, dutifully devoting every afternoon and weekend to schlepping my family from activity to activity in the name of achieving perfect children (perfect defined as academically gifted, athletically exceptional, musically prodigious, socially popular, and self–esteem–saturated).Then one day, many years and laps around the Mommy 500 track later, I had the epiphany I mentioned in the preface. It was the annual soccer registration day and my three boys and I (Baby Emma in tow) were—for the eighth year running—spending a steamy July afternoon waiting in line to ensure they made it into the most prestigious league in the area. Finally at the registrar’s desk, I grabbed the applications and began filling out the elaborate forms. First Jake, then Alex, then Brandon…Wait a minute! Where was Brandon’s age group?
Certain the absence of my oldest son’s division was a misprint, I pointed out the mistake to the check–collecting registrar. “Sorry,” the woman told me, “Metro Soccer doesn’t have a middle–school division.”
“But what am I supposed to do?” I said. “Brandon has played soccer every fall since he was three. How will he spend his Sundays?”
“My kids like the lake," she said. "It's much less crowded in the fall. The beach isn’t too far either.”
Before I could reply that going to the lake seemed like a silly waste of time that could otherwise be spent fine–tuning soccer skills, Brandon chimed in. “You know, Mom, that does sound kind of fun.”
“What sounds fun?” I asked, glancing back at the sea of anxious parents, fingers itching for those golden application forms.
“Going to the lake.”
“And the beach!” added Jake.
“Yeah!” said Alex. “I could finally use the new boogie board I got for Hanukkah two years ago!”
Suddenly, I felt myself entering a transformational spin, like Lynda Carter on the old Wonder Woman TV show, fueled by the realization that the check–collecting registrar—and Brandon, Alex, and Jake—were absolutely right. It would be fun to spend Sunday afternoons at the lake rather than at the soccer field for a change. In fact it would be more than fun, it would be positively liberating.
I could finally see that I’d been paralyzed by the inflated expectations of our overachieving, anxiety–filled culture; that I’d been basing the decisions I made for my children on what other people thought rather than on what I knew in my heart to be true. I at last understood that my ultimate goal in parenting was not to raise spelling bee champions, prom queens, and soccer stars but to bring up fulfilled, resilient, empowered, menschlich kids (see preface).
With this newfound insight, I discovered the strength and courage I needed to take my bubbe’s advice to heart and step out of the race for kiddie perfection. I was able to ease up on the pressure, scale back the extracurriculars, and begin enjoying my children for who they were today (not who I hoped they would be at high school graduation).
I’m not going to lie to you. Steering clear of the Mommy 500 has not been easy, especially with all those other racers whizzing by me on the track! But I’ve managed to do it, and so can you. All it takes is some good, dependable AAA roadside assistance. That’s right, AAA: Accept, Avoid, Accentuate—all the tools you need to keep your family safe, grounded, and miles away from the race lights.
The Social, Emotional, and Physical Price of Achievement–Oriented Parenting
So you’re still waiting for it to happen, huh? You know deep in your parent gut that dropping out of the Mommy 500 is the right thing to do for yourself and your kids, but you've yet to undergo that Wonder Woman-style tranformational spin. To start you whirling, here are some harrowing trends researchers are uncovering at alarming rates in overscheduled, stressed-out twenty–first–century kids:
• Lack of independence and self-reliance due to having virtually every aspect of their lives planned in advance by a third party.
• A need for constant stimulation and an intolerance of boredom resulting from a childhood devoid of unstructured moments.
• Deteriorating parent–child relationships caused by never having time to be together without a purpose and destination.
• Loud, aggressive, or impulsive behavior resulting from excessive input and need for an emotional outlet.
• Early burnout from an overload of extracurriculars and academics.
• Increased incidence of teen suicide, drug use, eating disorders, and depression.
• Physical/psychosomatic complaints (e.g., headaches and stomachaches) caused by stress.
• Orthopedic issues (knee, joint, foot problems) linked to still–developing bodies being pushed beyond their limits via organized sports.
• Failure to notice and appreciate the simple joys of life due to spending the majority of one's childhood strapped into an SUV.
AAA Tools for Steering Clear of the Mommy 500
If you try really hard, you might be able to remember the honeymoon period of parenting. Okay, so it may not have felt like a honeymoon—with its 3 a.m. feedings, projectile vomiting episodes, and mountains of dirty diapers—but it was. After all, during those early months of our kids’ lives we could appreciate them for exactly who they were—burping, barfing, pooping, perfect little beings.
With every year that passed, however, we saw that definition of who and what our kids should be constrict a bit more. It was no longer enough for our child to be a part of a Little League team; he needed to be the star of the Little League team. It wasn’t enough for him to be accepted into an exclusive private school, he needed to be at the top of the class at that exclusive private school. And before we knew it we were caught up in the blur of the Mommy 500 chasing down the very perfection we’d once found in our little one’s every breath.
Speaking of breath, take a deep one, because we are about to embark on a mental journey. (And I’m giving you fair warning; it’s not the kind of mental journey that will land you on a beach chair in the Caribbean sipping a pina colada.)
Think about something you really enjoy doing. No, not shopping! Something like working as a pediatrician, managing the school carnival committee, or playing tennis on a breezy spring morning. Now picture yourself taking part in this activity: how fulfilled you feel when you are successful (not necessarily “the best” kind of successful, but successful in your own terms) and how it leaves you feeling stronger, empowered, and energized. Okay, hold that image.
This time, think about something you—quite frankly—really stink at. Something you have very little, if any, desire to do. (I, for example, might think about golf. I’m lousy at golf. My three–year–old beats me at putt–putt. I find golf boring and—my apologies to my husband—a total waste of six good hours.)
Now picture yourself being forced to partake in this activity at least once every weekend and a couple of nights a week just for practice; and every time you do (here’s the clincher) there is an audience watching. An audience that cheers, yells strategic pointers from the sidelines, and appears genuinely disappointed when you inevitably screw up. Now, keep that image in the forefront of your mind while we take a brief side trip to the Jewish Community Center gymnasium (where I happen to have spent the bulk of last Sunday afternoon watching my three boys play basketball).
It’s the championship game in the second–grade basketball league and you are having a hard time concentrating on the game due to all the yelling. (No, not from the players, from the parents!) Here are a few of the comments you can’t help but overhear in the stands:
Daniel’s dad to his son: What are you doing? I showed you how to dribble the ball. Wait a minute…you're going the wrong direction!
Daniel’s dad to fellow fans: You should see him on the baseball field. He owns the baseball field!
Evan’s mom: Daniel, pass the ball to Evan!
Andrew’s dad [after his son scores a basket for the other team]: How could he do that? What was he thinking?
Evan's mom: Andrew, pass the ball to Evan!
Benjamin’s mom to her son: Wake up out there, Benjamin!
Benjamin’s mom to her fellow fans: I knew I shouldn’t have let him go to his best friend's slumber party last night!
Evan’s mom: Benjamin, pass the ball to Evan!
Jared’s dad: Way to go, Jared! You did just what I told you to do and you got that shot! See I told you I knew what I was talking about!
Evan’s mom: Jared, pass the ball to Evan!
Finally, imagine what it feels like to be Daniel, Andrew, Benjamin, Jared or Evan—to be expected to perform masterful basketball moves in front of a whole bunch of people when all you really want to do is play around with your friends on the court and eat a yummy snack afterward. Think about what it must be like to have your stomach all scrunched up in knots because you just let down Mom, Dad, and Coach…again.
Okay, now it’s time for some Yom Kippur—caliber self–reflection.
Do you find it a bit ironic that we parents have no problem whatsoever accepting our own weaknesses and imperfections? I, for example, am completely at peace with the fact that while I may be an effective writer, I would make a terrible accountant. You’ve probably come to terms with the reality that you don’t stand a chance in an Olympic pole–vaulting competition. If we can accept these truths for ourselves, why can’t we do the same for our kids? Maybe our child is an average math student. No learning disabilities, just not particularly adept at crunching numbers. Does that mean she needs twice–a–week tutoring after school every week? How many lessons in pole vaulting do you think it would take to shape you into Olympic gold medal material?
There’s no better time than right now, my fellow former Mommy 500 racers, to grant our children their God–given right to be good at some things and downright lousy at others. To give ourselves permission to take pride in our kids even if they are shy, klutzy, and average. There’s no better time than right now to remember what it feels like to rejoice in our children’s utterly imperfect perfection.
Avoid the Self–Esteem Parenting Trap
For all intents and purposes, the modern parental psyche exists in a chronic state of contradiction. On one hand it has us obsessively pushing our kids toward a societally driven definition of perfection. On the other it has us dousing them with empty accolades in an attempt to convince them they’ve already achieved it.
I know what you’re thinking: What could be wrong with boosting a child’s self–esteem? Doesn’t my little bubbeleh need to feel good about himself?
Of course we want our children to feel good about themselves! But creating a parentally fabricated reality by misleading our kids about their performance and abilities (i.e., You are the smartest boy in the whole school! You are the greatest soccer goalie ever!) is not a viable means of achieving this objective. In fact it’s liable to have just the opposite effect.
Take the case of Hannah, a precious second–grader I once had the privilege of teaching. Hannah was quick as a wink, sharp as a tack, and cute as a button. She was also a dreadful artist. Every bunny she drew turned out like a blob, she smeared all her stick figures, and she couldn’t color in the lines to save her life. But at home—thanks to her mother’s fear that learning the truth about her shortcomings might cause irreparable damage to her self–esteem—Hannah learned she was a gifted artist. Each time Hannah’s mother praised her blobs and extolled her stick figures, Hannah’s self–esteem went soaring (wouldn’t yours if you could so effortlessly produce such artistic masterpieces?).