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In pursuit of super-excellence in everything

Published on: December 30, 2013

babes27By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.

Don’t we all want our children to be high-achievers? How do we know what dose of activities—like team sports, music lessons and extra reading—is the right amount for our child? Or when we should ratchet down? Or maybe we should allow our children to pile on even more activities because they seem hungry for engagement? And are those kids really hungry—or is it our narcissistic, anxious and ambitious mega-me’s inside of us rationalizing the elimination of play time and hang time because we are insecure about the future for our kids?

By now we’ve all read or heard about hyper-parented, overscheduled, hot-housed, and helicoptered children who suffer from pressured child-rearing. We’ve reached the 25th anniversary of the hurried child syndrome. Experts implore parents to dial down their zeal for activity-overload with research and cautionary tales about stressed out, depressed, anxious, and substance-abusing kids.

The message in these books and articles is that extreme parenting is harmful. Even if some children are propelled successfully to the top brackets of achievement, some will end up withering on the vine, developing character deficits or suffering mental health problems. Despite decades of warnings, the extreme parenting trend seems to be alive and well, with anxious parents scrambling to figure out the right formula for optimizing advantages for their babies, children and teens. Recently, the recession and 21st century global competitiveness seem to have just fired up the trend further.  After I confess to you that I see no end to this trend, I'm going to refer you to a website where you can rant and comment and maybe even let your inner writer loose to help confront this childhood-harming parenting syndrome.

An “extreme” irony about this disturbing trend in parenting is that it prevails at one end of the class divide. Sandra Hofferth, a sociologist, has documented how the children who are the most depressed and stressed are those with no activities. Poverty has a way of providing a deficit of the nutrients that the wealthier are at risk of gorging on, with harms at both ends of the spectrum. Children suffer both ways.

As a psychologist, I see reasonable parents every day who struggle with questions about testing, school selection and parenting choices. Shouldn’t you automatically place your kid in the gifted student program in the public school if she can possibly test into it? Aren’t a lot of “enriching” activities good for kids so that they can discover their talents? Given the competitiveness of college admissions, shouldn’t you have your kid take as many AP classes as possible?

One guideline comes from Carl Jung: “The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” Herein lays the rub. Kids can adapt to a certain degree, although some more than others. So what’s wrong with a little push here and there?

It’s all about the match. In reference to the packed schedule question, some children will thrive and others will be overwhelmed. Temperament plays a large role in one’s appetite for novelty, activity and social engagement. As a clinician, I judge the “load-overload” question by evaluating the overall health of the child and family. The child may want to add a third sports team to his schedule, but if he has irritability, sleep problems, trouble getting his homework done, and a family that needs dinner togetherness , I vote “no”. Sometimes parents have “co-experienced” so many positive aspects of their child’s achievements—in chess, swimming, orchestra, or all the above —that they can’t discern the tilt in the health index toward a negative balance (i.e. “more is not better”).

When it comes to academic and talent enrichment, the experts come out on the side of “balance.” But that recommendation comes off like milk-toast, when super-motivated parents want fois gras, caviar and cheesecake.

Despite what seems like a steady stream of warnings for a broader view of success for educating children, there is still a strong cultural push for extremely stellar performance across academics, athletics and talent development. Parents tell me all sorts of reasons for their enthusiastic pushing—some worry about college admissions, some want their kids to discover the wonders of baseball (or whatever), and some are afraid to back off because “everyone else is doing it”. For any of these earnest parents, backing off can feel like succumbing to slacker parenting!

And just “what if” you have a gifted child—shouldn’t you help her gain admission to a program that can help them reach their highest potential? Schools with “gifted” tracks are like elite colleges. There is nothing inherently good or bad about them. Indeed, some children have extraordinary intellectual profiles and can be best served in special programs.

Although psychologists test children occasionally whose IQ score comes out in the top one percentile, more often we see parents who coach their children for tests and react to “normal” IQ results like we just diagnosed cancer. Indeed, it is a “gift” to have a child with above average intelligence, just like it is to have pleasant looks, a brain chemistry primed for happiness and some bonus height, but genetics are only part of the equation. The other side is nurture, which is where all the parenting decisions come into play. And values about developing other parts of character, family health and psychosocial thriving drive a more balanced perspective on IQ.

Parents who push for super-excellence in everything and diminish childhood to college prep are not bad parents; they are misguided and anxious. Their emotional brains are flooded with fear of failure and desire for high rewards, which trick them into thinking that the academic super-charged, highly-designed child enrichment race will give their children advantages that will insure success, honors and safety in a scarily competitive world. Parents can only see things in perspective if they calm down and study child development enough to understand the true needs of children.

The books that warn parents of the dire problems with replacing playful childhoods with hyper-parenting don’t seem to be turning this parenting trend around. What will? Mommy blogs on free range parenting, “slow” parenting and the merits of good old fashioned play are chiming in with their grassroots efforts. But this movement seems to fall on the deaf ears of those hurtling down the fast lane at lightening speed.

How can child development research compete with the way advertizing wizards sell “get smart” products by preying on vulnerable parents by using “F.U.D.” techniques (creating Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt)? When will there be a tipping point whereby extreme parents will become uncomfortable with their excesses and be bold enough to balance?

The website invites readers to offer up stories of extreme parenting with the idea that perhaps when we the realize—with humor—how outrageously overboard we’ve gotten as a culture, we’ll reach a tipping point, reverse the trend and become more conscious about offering our children truly nurturing childhoods. Mark Twain once said, “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter. Enlightenment can take many forms.

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