Trying Too Hard to Parent. Part 1

A successful couple sits, somewhat uneasily, in a psychiatrist’s well-appointed New Orleans office. They are discussing their 13-year-old son: They fear their sweet, studious seventh grader lacks the drive, the “killer instinct” they know from personal experience he will need to make his way to the top in today’s hard-driving business world. Can the doctor work with their child to help him toughen up, sharpen his ambition, hone his personality so he drives himself just a little harder ? and thereby, perhaps, increase his chances of being successful in life?
This scenario is reported in a new book that chronicles how affluent American parents strive to raise their children so that they are better educated and have more advantages than they did.

The problem is, when all this abundance feels more like pressure than fun, neither the children’s nor the parents’ needs are met, say Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise, the authors of “Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child By Trying Too Hard?” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

“Hyper-parenting is the conviction that it’s our responsibility as parents to give our children every advantage and to shield them from unhappiness and that we can and should craft as perfect a life for them as possible,” said Wise, a magazine journalist and mother of four from Stamford, Conn. “The reality is that it’s not possible, it makes you crazy and actually hurts your child.”

Pushing Too Hard
There have always been pushy parents, Wise notes, but affluence and competitiveness have combined to create a new brand of stage mom or dad. Some examples? One of the worst Wise had ever heard of was the professional couple that paid their nanny a bonus of $500 each time the baby beat a developmental milestone, such as walking earlier than the child-rearing book said he should have. Or the mom who wouldn’t feed her baby a slice of cake on her first birthday because of her iron-clad conviction that the child shouldn’t have sugar, ever.

The book is full of examples, and most parents will shake their heads in recognition while reading it. One set of parents still tied their 12-year-old’s hockey skates and endured year-round hockey with four practices a week and tournaments in far-away states. One lucky child got lunch delivered especially by Mom every day so she wouldn’t have to eat cafeteria food.

“People are micromanaging every detail of their child’s life,” Wise said. “This is trying too hard.”

Wise got together with Greenwich, Conn., psychiatrist Rosenfeld after the two had a conversation about a trend they noticed: parents overdoing everything for their kids. They were left feeling resentful because they didn’t have time for their own lives and guilty when they didn’t do every single thing the “experts” said they should be doing.

So what? So we really love our kids and want to do the best by them.

Well, says Rosenfeld, hyper-parents may produce children who just give up in adolescence because they can’t live up to their parents’ expectations.

“When kids get the message they’re never good enough, it damages their self-esteem,” Rosenfeld said. “If they were good enough, they wouldn’t need constant improvement.”

Wise believes that kids don’t learn to roll with the punches when they do fail and that anxiety for the child increases when “the hyper-parent focuses too much on what’s wrong with the child rather than what’s so very right.”

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