A number of years ago we were teaching one of our 7th grade classes and talking about stress and conflicts. One of our students raised her hand and expressed how her biggest stress was her parents’ constant pressure about her grades, extracurricular activities and getting into college. I personally was dumbfounded at the thought that a 12 year old was that anxious and pressured about getting into college. This was a 7th grader! Shouldn’t she be more worried about things that were pertinent to her age and what was happening NOW in her life? Since this time I have learned quite a bit from talking to people who have children entering their middle and high school years and the pressure that they feel about helping their children make the right decisions to A. get them into the “correct University” and B. have their University experience translate into a “good job” for the expected type of lifestyle.
Being a parent I understand completely wanting nothing but the best for your children and having expectations for them. But how often do we stop and think about the pressure that we are putting on them and what they are equipped to handle at their ages? Too often I hear of middle to high school age children who are on anti-depressants and who are taking time off because of the stress they are under. Are we doing this to our children? What is our pressure gauge as parents and what is the fine line that we need to walk? In an Excerpt from How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims, she believes that “helicopter parenting” (otherwise known as a style of child rearing in which an overprotective mother or father discourages a child’s independence by being too involved in the child’s life) is the source of many of these emotional problems that our children are facing or will face. She says, “as parents, our intentions are sound—more than sound: We love our kids fiercely and want only the very best for them. Yet, having succumbed to a combination of safety fears, a college admissions arms race, and perhaps our own needy ego, our sense of what is “best” for our kids is completely out of whack. We don’t want our kids to bonk their heads or have hurt feelings, but we’re willing to take real chances with their mental health?”
Is our own ego and “keeping up with the Jones’ causing us to parent this way? Is perfectionism worth the cost of our children’s mental health? Our culture has evolved into one of hyperachievement and perfectionism and our expectations of our children reflect this. After school they are scheduled in activity after activity with the hours of homework on top of it. When do they just play? When do they use their imaginations to create? When do they experience childhood? Think back to the days when we were little and roamed around the neighborhood with our friends. We did okay, didn’t we? Do we think by pushing our children that their lives will be better than ours and they will not have to work so hard? Well, they already are working harder than I did early on thus creating an anxiety within children as young as elementary school that is palpable.
Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, said that “when we parent this way we deprive our kids of the opportunity to be creative, to problem solve, to develop coping skills, to build resilience, to figure out what makes them happy, to figure out who they are.” We as parents need to consider changing how we view our children and their future. We have the ability to help our children now by giving them the gift of time to just play and to learn how to be themselves. We can give them the room to explore what their unique interests and strengths are in order to find happiness and satisfaction in what they are doing rather than trying to pigeon hole them into something that either we want for them or is our interest. They need to create and make choices. AND they need to fail. As much as we hate to watch our children fail at anything, they need to experience it in order to handle situations as they grow into adulthood.
Author and New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni writes in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, “these cultural dynamics of perfectionism and overindulgence have now combined to create adolescents who are ultra-focused on success but don’t know how to fail.” The inability to deal with failure as adolescents grow into adulthood, has led to insecurity, depression and loneliness. It has also led to a suicide epidemic that is plaguing college campuses as described in Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection, NYT. In this article they describe the how college female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect’: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. Otherwise known at some schools as the “Duck Syndrome” – duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles.”
We need to give good thought to how we parent and how our children are going to function in their future. What can we do to help them? Julie Lythcott-Haims explains that “the data emerging about the mental health of our kids only confirms the harm done by asking so little of them when it comes to life skills yet so much of them when it comes to adhering to the academic plans we’ve made for them.” Not only do we need to try to ease the pressure that we put on our children, but we also need to give them the coping skills to handle stress and pressures put on them today. Isn’t that what parenting is? Let’s work to help our children grow into adults who are happy, healthy and know who they are and what they want to do.
—Mary & Claire
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