The Parent Trap


"Raising children today is like competing in a triathlon with no finish line in sight. Days are filled with a mad scramble of sports, music lessons, prep courses and battles over homework. We only want what's best for them, but our kids may not be better off.

"These days, raising kids is like competing in a triathlon with no finish line in sight. Millions of parents around the country say their lives have become a daily frantic rush in the minivan from school to soccer to piano lessons and then hours of homework. But they're trapped, afraid to slow down because any blank space in the family calendar could mean their offspring won't have the resumes to earn thick letters from Harvard - and big bucks forever after. And a busy schedule at the office only adds to the pressure. Parents believe they have to do it all - or they're toast (and so are their kids). Middle-class parents are under continuous pressure to plan, enrich and do this important job the one, precisely right way.

"Although the current generation of parents is the richest and best educated in history, they are particularly apprehensive because they're raising their kids in an uncertain time. In a world where a high divorce rate and job hopping are the norm. Rapid technological change has contributed to that sense of instability. Today's middle-class parents are reacting to the aftershocks of the seismic shift to the digital economy, just as blacksmiths and farmers in the 1920s worried that their kids wouldn't make it through the Industrial Revolution.

"Parents sacrifice their dwindling free time (and their own social lives) to make sure their kids are safe and want for nothing. It starts off innocently enough, with play dates for their toddlers set up weeks in advance. Then it snowballs to the point where everyone is overwhelmed - and bragging about it. In elementary school, many youngsters attend activities every afternoon because their parents are afraid to let them ride bikes down the street. Workdays end with frenzied trips to pick up the kids; no one wants to leave a 6-year-old alone on a soccer field in the dark.

"As the activities multiply, psychologists say, parents often forget that sports and music are supposed to be fun experiences for their children. They get overly involved in the minutiae of their kids' lives, stage managing successes and robbing kids of the opportunity to learn from their failures.

"For many parents, activities that used to be just for fun now seem to have lifelong consequences. Sports are particularly fraught; no one wants to raise a loser. Brad Bole, a stockbroker who volunteers as the coach of his sons' soccer and hockey teams in Marietta, Ohio, says he's constantly trying to get the "really intense" parents to calm down. But he's not always successful. "I had a mother come over to me and tell me she thought Brad really needed to push the kids more," says his wife, Babette. "They want that intensity. They want their children to be fighters. They want them to be hustling."

"What families risk losing in this insane frenzy, is the soul of childhood and the joy of family life. These are supposed to be the years that kids wander around and pal around, without being faced with the pressures of the real world. Instead, the parenting experience is being ruined and parents' effectiveness is being diminished. They're not giving the right kind of guidance, dispensing wisdom about life. it's all about how to get into Yale.

"Even as they struggle to get through the day, many parents know that on some level all this over scheduling could be harmful. They just aren't sure how to cut back without depriving their kids.

"There's a significant minority of kids who have shut down emotionally because they've tried to hard to achieve.

"The best way to prevent that, child-rearing experts say, is to pare down the family calendar and remember that downtime can be the most productive of all. Be sure to leave a little space for just hanging out. And, try to give yourselves the same gift of time every night. After the homework is done and the kids are in bed, they make it a priority to just be together. If there are clothes that need to be put away, they just sit there because I have to chill out. And, of course, gather strength for another round in the minivan."

Source: Newsweek, 1/29/01. Also see Stop Stressing Me: How to stop burnout, in the same issue.

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To nourish children and raise them against odds is in any time, any place, more valuable than to fix bolts in cars or design nuclear weapons. - Marilyn French

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