Parents, Stop Feeling That Everything You Do Is Wrong

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When was the last time you heard a curmudgeonly adult complain that kids today have it easy?

Results from this year’s National Poll on Children’s Health were released in April, suggesting that many adults — both parents and nonparents — think that children today are experiencing more stress, and worse mental health, than when they themselves were young.

This is a striking reversal of the traditional dynamic, in which adults recall the hardships and dangers of the old days, and conclude that kids today have it easy, said Dr. Matthew M. Davis, a pediatrician who is director of the poll at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan.

Not that the curmudgeons have shut up. Everyone knows that first world, privileged kids today are cushioned, shielded, protected from the literal and figurative bumps and bruises of the real-world playground. Everyone gets a trophy. We monitor children’s social interactions and if someone says something harsh, we call it bullying and we intervene. Parents are helicopter parents (hover hover), or worse, snowplow parents (pushing all the obstacles out of their children’s way). Kids are overprotected, spoiled, entitled and lazy.

And everyone knows, of course, that kids today are overscheduled, highly stressed, burdened by completely unrealistic and hypercompetitive parental expectations of all-around achievement and success at a prestigious college. Few get that all-important trophy because the odds are so incredibly poor. Parents are would-be tigers, entitled demanding perfectionists, kids are stressed, pushed past what they can do, and miserably aware that they aren’t measuring up.

So our children aren’t turning out right because we are dangerously overprotective in our parenting or too strict and demanding. To sum up, everything you do is wrong.

Can we really be getting it so wrong at both ends? Can we be this bad at it?

It’s time to put an end to the everything-you-do-is-wrong school of parent criticism, which puts us all in an impossible bind. You helped your kid with a difficult school assignment? You helicopter, you! You referred to the importance of your child’s high school G.P.A.? You hyper-critical, prestige-minded stress machine! (Even back in the 1970s, my parents were known to do both things.)

Parents also feel stressed by this perception that children are so stressed. “There are some real challenges for parents today in terms of encouraging them to be protective while at the same time not be overprotective,” Dr. Davis said. “That can be a very hard balance for parents to strike and it’s also a hard balance for communities to find.”

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia drew a specific connection between the apparent extremes of what he called “self-esteem parenting” and the high stress and anxiety of children who feel the weight of parental expectations. The problem, he said, is that if we praise children for being smart, they may become anxious about losing that label, and therefore less likely to take on hard tasks.

But parents can help children become more willing to work hard, more perseverant, even more creative, he said. “We have this enormous amount of research on what kind of parenting produces the best effect.”

The model that Dr. Ginsburg has put forward in his book, “Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love With Expectations and Protection With Trust,” published through the American Academy of Pediatrics, is what he calls lighthouse parenting.

“You should look down at the rocks and make sure they never crash against them, and prepare them to ride the waves.”

This is the style of parenting described as authoritative, often contrasted with the extremes of permissive parenting and authoritarian parenting, and there is a lot of research to back it up. “The authoritative or balanced parent essentially says, I love you so much but I’m your daddy, I’m not your friend,” Dr. Ginsburg said, “I’m going to give you lots of opportunity to grow, a deep sense of connection so that you’re going to be firmly rooted. I’m going to give you lots of opportunity to make mistakes. But when something comes down to safety or morality, you’re going to do what I say because I know best.”

I hope I have my lighthouse days, when I get the balance right. I know I also have my tiger days and my helicopter days, and for all I know, my free-range moments and my snowplow episodes, maybe in rapid succession. Everything I did when my kids were growing up was probably wrong, except when it was right.

As parents, we all make decision after decision after decision — stand back and let a kid take a chance or interfere. Watch a kid struggle or offer help; encourage perseverance or say it’s O.K. to quit sometimes. Sympathize and reprove, console or tell them to suck it up. And the balance changes with the particular kid involved, but also with the day of the week and the month of the year.

Except for the crazy people (and yes, there have to be some crazy people, or what would be the dirty fun of P.T.A. meetings and open school nights), most parents are somewhere in the middle, trying our best, getting it right sometimes, getting it wrong sometimes, and often unsure, especially as our children get older, whether today is a right day or a wrong day.

When my oldest child was born and my husband was feeling swamped by the (predictable and appropriate) terror of this new responsibility and all the decisions to be made, my own father very kindly told him to stop worrying. There was no one thing that we would do or not do that would matter all that much, no individual decision or speech or act, he said.

Our child would understand who we were by everything we did and how we lived, our tones, our values, our random eccentricities, not just by what we said parent-to-child, but by how we lived in the world. Eventually, our son would know us better than we knew ourselves.

And somehow, that was a comforting thought, that parenting was not something we could purposefully decide, that it was who we were and how we lived that would inevitably constitute the family environment that would shape our child.


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