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Are we the worst generation of parents ever?

In our quest to raise the happiest, healthiest, smartest, most successful kids we may be trying a little bit too hard.

by
Photo: Erik Putz,  illustration: Alex Mathers

Photo: Erik Putz,
illustration: Alex Mathers

Whatever happened to good enough?

An acquaintance had her two-year-old in a daycare-preschool whose website promises a “premium” and “enriched” experience that may include French, gardening and science. The daycare records goings-on all day via webcam, and at night, my acquaintance and her husband would pore over the video for hours. She did not like what she saw. A certain craft looked too mechanical: The kids were lined up, wrists held, hands dunked in paint and then pressed onto a piece of paper to be later embellished into the shape of a dinosaur. Bam went the hands. Next kid. Bam. An assembly line. There wasn’t anything wrong, per se, it was just…not special. The parents pulled their kid out of the daycare.

The day a friend and I e-gossiped over this story (vacillating between, “What control freaks!” and “Is my own kid’s daycare sufficiently enriching?”), I was waiting out the final practice of my 10-year-old daughter’s soccer season. She had played for a select team for the first time, which meant more practices and car trips to tournaments in faraway suburbs. The practice was on a school night in late September, long after the season should have ended, and everyone seemed tired—well, the parents did, anyway. In the dark, the girls sat on the field in a circle, eating cupcakes brought by some mother who wasn’t me. Hovering around the edges were the parents, as ever. A dad asked me if my daughter would continue to play indoor soccer through the winter. I told him no, she plays hockey during the school year, and we try to keep it to one activity per season. He looked alarmed. “But aren’t you worried that she’ll fall behind?”

Ah. I recognized this question: It was probably the exact one that caused the dinosaur parents to flee that daycare, and I, too, have felt the familiar panic and inadequacy that is the gurgling toxic river beneath the soil of so many conversations between parents. “Fall behind what?” I wanted to scream. “What’s the endgame here, people?”

Every generation of parents tries to do it better. Perhaps the present-day intensity around parenting is a late–Gen X, early-millennial response to the latchkey years of the ’70s and ’80s, those Ice Storm childhoods of unsupervised afternoons watching sitcoms and running around in alleys. But that sincere urge to curate better childhoods than our own has bumped up against uncertain economic times to create a perfect storm of high-anxiety, slightly insane parenting. Is it possible that we’re actually doing it worse?

Crafting the perfect childhood:
My kids are now old enough that I’ve endured a decade’s worth of disquieting messages about how to raise (perhaps “engineer” is the real word) them for that elusive perfect endgame. I’ve withstood the tut-tutting edicts about co-sleeping and breastfeeding; the schoolyard whispers concerning how to get the “best” kindergarten teacher; the pressure to recreate the Pinterest-sanctioned bento box school lunch with sandwiches in the shape of Angry Birds. Now adolescence awaits, with a $100-billion global tutoring industry and online services that coach kids through the university application process.

The driver, over and over, is fear. We fear that those hours of Bubble Guppies have forever stunted their potential. We fear they’ll have to trade happiness for success and maybe find neither. We fear they’re failing, and we’re failing them. We fear for our children’s bodily safety, and so we chauffeur them from playdate to sporting event and back again. Hopped up on a newsfeed of Amber Alerts and lurking sexual offenders, we never let them out of our sight.

The reality is crime rates are the lowest they’ve been in 40 years, and kids have never been safer. So then let’s turn our fear to their adult futures in a fragile global economy: We fear they will “fall behind.” And so we cultivate these perfect bento box childhoods, fumbling for the best for our kids, overthinking and over-researching because the Internet lets us. There’s no parenting decision that can’t be examined and judged on social media. Of course, only the luckiest, most affluent get to debate whether a juice cleanse for a six-year-old is a good idea (it’s a thing, really). As with the non-question of working versus staying at home, financial realities often dictate domestic choices, and most parents are operating on instinct, just getting by, bento boxes be damned.

But when we do navigate modern parenting mores, the take-away is clear: Good enough is never good enough. Success for our kids seems to be measured in degrees of uncommon achievement that will set them apart. They can’t just play soccer—it has to be select soccer; not just preschool, but “early education.” Even the dinosaur print of a two-year-old must be exceptional. We don’t just fear they’ll fail; we fear they will be ordinary. And that pulsing fear seems to be wreaking serious damage on our kids.

The downside to being your child’s concierge:
Toronto-based psychologist Alex Russell has identified an anxiety epidemic among young people. Statistics Canada backs him up: In a 2012 survey of Canadian mental health, more youth (ages 15 to 24) met the criteria for mood and substance-use disorders than any other age group. Ninety percent of Canadians ages 18 to 24 say they are excessively stressed, according to a 2012 Sun Life Financial Canada survey.

Many stressed kids end up at the office door of Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University. Over the past decade, she noticed a new nervous tenor among students.

“They seemed existentially impotent,” she says. “They were accomplished academically and had done a flurry of impressive activities, but they seemed to be reliant upon a parent to tell them what to do, how to do it, how to feel about things.” Alarmed, she wrote a book called How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, a plaintive plea to well-intentioned parents who become the “concierge” for their kids at a young age, solving all their problems, over-directing their academics and activities, tending them like bonsai trees. These kids emerge less curious and more closed-minded—not the happy kids their parents are trying to mould. A 2011 study by sociologists at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga discovered a correlation between helicopter parenting and students who take medication for depression and anxiety.

Of course, those young adults are the offspring of late-generation boomers, kids who had their self-esteem fluffed like throw pillows and got trophies just for showing up. Our kids will be totally different than those special snowflakes, right? Right?

Our kids may, in fact, be the most special-est snowflakes of all—or at least the most broadcast. Never has it been easier to trumpet our children’s successes or couch them in humblebrags: “I worry sometimes that Ethan’s reading is just too advanced!” Daily Facebook posts run from the benign hockey victory photo to the more skin-crawling trend of showing report cards and college acceptance letters. (A kid who struggles academically or misses the winning goal probably doesn’t get the same play on social media.) How many adults do you know whose profile picture is of their kid? This very public enmeshment of parent and child is perhaps the most dramatic shift in how children are raised. Generations ago, experts advised parents to let babies “cry it out” as both insurance against spoiling them and—uh-oh—good exercise. This advice is brutal, but it speaks to a separation between parent and child that’s unimaginable today.

The scramble for closeness is well-intentioned; parent-child intimacy intuitively feels better than the cool, hierarchical distance of preceding generations. But Lythcott-Haims warns against the use of the word “we”: We did not win the spelling bee or get into Harvard. Our children are not our reflections, and their lives are their own, not a do-over for us. Inserting yourself into your kid’s accomplishments blocks her self-efficacy—a belief in one’s own personal abilities.

Our narcissism can quickly become theirs. A recent Ohio State study showed that kids who were constantly told they were “more special than other children” grew up to display more narcissistic traits as adults than kids who weren’t raised to the steady beat of applause. With a demographic shift toward smaller families and a birth rate hovering around 1.67 children per woman, Canada will soon have more only children than ever before. That’s not necessarily a recipe for an army of egotistical little emperors, but there’s no doubt that this cohort of solo kids truly will be at the centre of family life.

And as one or two child-free friends are happy to point out, kids today can be overindulged brats. Parents may not disagree: In an American poll by Parenting and Today, 59 percent of parents surveyed said their children are more spoiled than they were. Many of us know the mortification of a Christmas morning gift gorge, when the kid pops up from the neck-high pile of brand new Lego, thumbs clicking an iPod Touch, and asks: “Is that it?” Grandma’s eyebrow raise usually underscores the obscenity.

In the era of cheap, disposable goods, a baby’s dresser overflowing with fast-fashion onesies and a family room with multiple gaming consoles aren’t as rare as they once were. Yet this stuff isn’t earned, for the most part. It’s bestowed. One 2014 survey showed that while 82 percent of adults reported doing regular chores when they were kids, only 28 percent require the same of their own children. The qualities chores impart—responsibility and self-reliance—are the ones sorely lacking in those stressed-out Stanford frosh. But parents will often do the dishwashing and dog walking because Junior has robot class or some other CV-stuffing activity.

Why it’s hard to step back:
We know this is crazy. The phrase “helicopter parent” first appeared in 1969, and for the past decade, the majority of parenting experts have urged a loving but chill, non-interventionist model. A slew of books published in the last few years bear titles that say it all: You Are Not Special; The Gift of Failure; All Joy and No Fun; The Collapse of Parenting. And yet…visit a playground, and listen to the steady hum of “Good job!” as parents hover over their toddlers, narrating their play. Alex Russell, in his book Drop the Worry Ball: How to Parent in the Age of Entitlement, writes that this constant mediation starts young and continues right to the eve of university, after parents have completed their kids’ applications and packed their suitcases. In his Toronto practice, he sees common responses to overparenting once the teen years hit: kids who are anxious, gold-star-oriented and fragile; and kids who are anxious, checked out and smoking pot in the basement while playing Call of Duty.

“We are underestimating children’s competencies,” says Russell, who says he’s heard of an elementary school class that banned birthday parties when not every child was invited. “The idea that a 10-year-old can’t handle not being invited to a birthday party is disrespectful to 10-year-olds. Conversely, when we do allow the kids to fail and struggle, and don’t step in to manage, oversee, guide and correct, we’re respecting our kids.”

This sounds perfectly simple, but so often, if parents do dare to step back and grant growing children some autonomy, society steps in to tell them never to retreat.

A single mom in BC had arranged for her eight-year-old to come home from school and stay alone for two hours until she could get home from work. A social worker deemed this unacceptable; the mother disagreed, saying she was confident of her child’s maturity. Her case went to the Supreme Court of BC, and in September, the mother lost. The social worker stated an eight-year-old did not have the “cognitive ability” to be left alone, for fear of accidents including “fires” and “poisoning.” Fires and poisoning are not unimaginable outcomes for a two-year-old on his own, but it’s the rare eight-year-old who can’t tell the difference between bleach and Snapple.

This is what Lenore Skenazy, head of a mini-movement advocating “free-range kids,” calls “worst-first thinking,” a mode that encourages parents to base all decisions on the worst-case scenario. Free-range parenting points the other way, toward optimism. It advocates for unstructured play and letting kids walk alone, giving them the intellectual and physical space to develop into the kind of independent young adults we all hope our kids will grow up to be.

A change may be coming. Perhaps the millennials, the eldest of whom are now having kids, will do this parenting thing better. When asked to rank, in order of importance, answers to the question, “I want my kid(s) to,” 82 percent of millennial parents said they want their child to know that “they don’t need possessions to make them happy, 77 percent want their child to graduate college, and 56 percent want their child to excel at sports.” Happiness above achievement—an interesting idea.

If our own parents tilted too much toward neglect, they gave us space, and the bruises and social gaffes of our off-line childhoods made us who we are. And we aren’t the worst generation of parents ever, just the most anxious. It takes courage to still the currents of fear and just let our children be. But to be better parents, we may have to do less.

7 Changes You Can Make to be a Good Enough Parent Now:
1. Stop narrating play.
Narrating your toddler’s every playground move like he’s in a wildlife documentary is a North American phenomenon, according Bringing Up Bébé author Pamela Druckerman, who parented in France. Don’t get between your kids and their experience of the world.

2. Drop the “we.”
It’s actually their peewee cup game, not yours. Check your ego, and let them own their success—and failure, says Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult.

3. Give them chores…
Even a two-year-old can put his cup in the dishwasher, and a 10-year-old can cook dinner. Chores breed self-mastery and responsibility.

4. …And don’t pay them.
Tying chores to compensation is a mistake, writes Ron Lieber in The Opposite of Spoiled. “They ought to do them for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done.”

5. Don’t do their homework.
“It’s a short-term gain that sends the message: ‘Hey, you’re not capable of doing this,’” says Lythcott-Haims.

6. Let kids figure things out.
When school-aged kids gorge on Halloween candy, for instance, they learn too many sweets will make them feel ill faster than if you play gatekeeper. Such “non-catastrophic failures” are key to developing resilient adults, says Alex Russell, author of Drop the Worry Ball.

7. Have your own life.
Little eyes see you move through the day, anxious and nagging, shuttling kids between activities. Living a well-rounded life that doesn’t always have kids at the centre damps their narcissism and models a healthy adulthood.

A version of this article appeared in our February 2016 issue with the headline “Are we the worst generation of parents?”, p. 70. 

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