Whose Life is it Anyway? : Producing Perfect Children

    Stressed about producing perfect children? In Parenting Without Fear:  Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Really Matters (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.95), psychologist Dr. Paul J. Donahue, a Scarsdale father of three, offers a reasoned approach that could be required reading for parents signing their kids up for pre-reading tutors.  This article is adapted from the chapter, ‘The Zen of Parenting’.

   In the past decade, much has been written about the culture of competitive parenting in America. Journalists, historians, educators and psychologists have all taken aim at this new rat race and the toll it has taken on mothers and fathers and their children.  Family life has come to mirror the business world, with clear winners and losers and kids who make the cut and those who don’t. The cuts start early, from the travel soccer teams for 8-year-olds, the advanced reading groups in second grade, the popular girls’ clubs in kindergarten.  The divisions and gradations only get worse as children get older: kids pigeon-holed as honors or average students by middle school; the elite athletes in town, well known before they enter high school; the members of the A social group that forms in middle school; the gifted and talented musicians, dancers, and thespians who shine brightly before they reach their teens. Throughout the years, all eyes remain squarely on the finish line and the dream of the thick envelope announcing admission to an elite college.
    Much of the recent criticism has focused on the intense pressure that kids and parents feel as they try to keep up with rising expectations.  In many places, the push to sign up for multiple activities, to jump-start the learning process, and to establish a place in the social hierarchy begins in earnest in the preschool years and continues unabated through high school. The frequent reports of kids who burn out, who tire of organized sports and other activities by the sixth or seventh grade, tend to get buried under the avalanche of come-ons and enticements by local leagues and after-school programs looking to fill their ranks.  Many parents feel compelled to keep up with their neighbors, and despite a nagging sense that their kids are doing too much, they feel they have little control over their schedules and no real opportunity to give their kids more downtime.
   The cost of these hectic schedules goes beyond the strain and exhaustion of managing multiple practices and competing demands on children’s time. Kids living in fast-paced communities can resemble mini-adults, dutifully toting their bags and books from school to enrichment classes and from activity to activity. In many families, the weekend offers little respite, and having two or three or four commitments on a Saturday or Sunday is no longer considered out of the ordinary. The notion of childhood as a time of freedom and exploration can sound quaint but so yesteryear in many towns where the parents tally who scored the most goals in the first grade soccer league and who is first in their class to read chapter books. Many educators wonder what will become of these kids down the road, when all they have known is structure, competition and adult-organized activities.
    There is a more subtle but perhaps more troubling result of the push for early achievement. The quantifying of childhood — the grades, the medals, the elite teams, the advanced classes — has done more than turn kids into winners and losers or successful competitors and slackers. In our culture, children have become objectified and in many cases they have become showpieces for their families. Their trophies and their travel team jackets may be theirs to own and wear, but the public display of their success is acknowledged by the adults in the community as a sign of parental achievement.  “Boy, you must be doing something right; he’s such a good little athlete” can be understood as a friendly and innocuous comment from another parent — and often it is.  However, in it lies a clear message that kids’ accomplishments (especially their prowess on the playing fields and in the classroom) reflect directly on their parents and their child-rearing abilities.
   There’s a fine line here.  We all take pride in our efforts as parents, and if our kids compete and do well we have a right to feel good about it.  As long as we are not boastful nor take too much credit for their work, what harm is done?  It comes down to a question of orientation and outlook.  If we expect our kids to work hard and to be independent, and they learn to push themselves and get good grades or positive feedback from their teachers, it is reasonable to salute them for a job well done.  But we have to remember that although we may have helped them develop the tools, they did the work.  I firmly believe that kids’ achievements are theirs alone.  As parents, we have to be careful not to have too much of our own self-esteem invested in how our children perform in their activities.

PAUL J. DONAHUE, Ph.D., founder and director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, is also a consultant to the Georgetown University Child Development Center and the National Head Start Association. He is also the co-author of ‘Mental Health Consultation in Early Childhood’, and has published numerous articles in trade books and journals. He is the father of three children, ages 6, 9 and 12.