Are America’s Parents Too Much Like CEOs?

With a cover story about breastfeeding about to turn into a reality show, America seems obsessed with childrearing. Parenting author Madeline Levine talked to BuzzFeed Shift about why we might be doing it wrong.

Michael Schwartz

Have you come across any specific examples that show how damaging over-involved parenting can be?

I had a kid in my practice, a great kid. He had a very well-intentioned, lovely, but hard-driving executive-type father. They pushed and pushed this kid and he ended up going to dad’s alma mater, which was what was expected, and he never went to a single class. So his parents were paying private school tuition and the kid’s siting in his room, depressed. He finally came home and talked to his parents, and he was never going to be a hard-driving CEO — that’s not who he was. To keep pushing that really ran the risk of throwing him into even worse depression. Once everybody settled down and understood that Dad’s success is meaningful to [Dad], but for this kid who was a really nice kid and liked helping people, Dad’s life was not going to be as meaningful to this kid, they let the kid come home. He went to another school and became a physical therapist and is doing very well. It’s not a grand example but there’s hundreds of thousands of kids like this — the percentage of kids who come home after their first year of college is stunningly high.

And I remember being on campus at Stanford one morning and this young girl is kind of looking around and not sure where next class is. Her Stanford backpack is 3 inches away but instead she reaches for her cell phone and calls her mom in Boston. The first one’s an example of parents projecting their own vision of their child onto a child where it’s not aligned, and the second is really about in this hyper-parenting world, kids don’t learn to be resourceful. She may be at Stanford but she can’t find her way around.

You wrote The Price of Privilege, about the problems of affluent, overparented teenagers, in 2006. Why did you decide to write a second book about the problems of kids and parents?

When The Price of Privilege first came out there was a lot of blowback about the idea that kids were too stressed. People said, “we were stressed when we were kids.” And growing up is stressful, but it wasn’t always the way it is now, with all the emotional problems, the cutting. So the first few years [after the book came out] were about convincing people there really was a problem. But over the last few years there have been a bunch of books coming out saying how big a problem this is.

The question shifted from identifying the problem to, what are we going to do about it? This book is about that. It’s more practical. No matter where I went in the country, it was always the same. A bunch of questions came up over and over that were so easy to answer. How come parents can’t answer these simple questions? It has to do with misinformation about how kids learn, when it’s good to push, when it’s good to hang back. I wanted to address this lack of information, and also I found that there was a paradigm around parenting that was so off base.

What does that paradigm consist of, exactly?

There’s this idea that resources are very scarce. It is in fact a very frightening time for kids and parents. My son’s friends are seniors in college now, and they’re not sure what’s going to happen when they graduate, and that’s anxiety-provoking. We’re scared we’re going to be beat out globally, we see a diminishing job market, we’re afraid our kids aren’t going to make it. We’ve adopted this stance that you take advantage of every opportunity to give your kid a leg up, that earlier is better, more is better, oversight is better. And in fact those things aren’t true. Baby Einstein videos actually retard language acquisition. Play-based preschools turn out more academic kids than academic preschools.

The big [misconception] is that there’s only one way to be successful: high grades, prestigious college, be an analyst for Goldman Sachs. The reality is it’s a small group of kids who have the talent for that and a small group of kids who feel that’s a meaningful way to spend their life. I had three incredibly different children: my oldest was analytic straight-A kid who ended up becoming a lawyer, my middle kid is extremely creative and is now directing, acting, and catering (mostly directing these days), my youngest was hands-on. School was fabulous for my oldest son, and not too bad for the middle, but for my youngest it offered very little. But we are going to need people for infrastructure and building things and fixing things and mechanics. To dismiss those kids and creative kids is to cut out a huge percentage of our children.

The reality is most kids just aren’t geniuses, most kids aren’t going to Harvard or Princeton. Most CEOs went to state schools, so there’s kind of a myth about what it takes to be successful. I think people benefit from having a little time to figure out what really interests them, to be left alone, and that all gets cut out in this hyper-parenting where everything’s scheduled.

HarperCollins

What about young adults who feel they were parented this way? What can they do now to repair their relationships with their parents and move on with their lives?

Communication works at any age. A lot of this is about realizing what’s going on. I have moms come into my office with iPhone pictures of two pairs of shoes because their 20-year-old daughters wanted them to help choose. It’s pathetic that at 20 you can’t pick out a pair of shoes. But that girl has become so accustomed to being tethered to someone else’s point of view that she can’t make her own decisions. This is not about not being close with your kids, but both for the young adult and the parents, realizing that a sense of self is developed internally. You can’t have someone else constantly telling you who you are and what you like and what you should do.

The thing with kids is for them to have some realization that, at 20 I should be able to pick out my own shoes, I wonder why I keep coming back to Mom. In the same way it takes courage for parents to back off, it takes courage for young adults who have lived this kind of externally-directed life, without rupturing their relationships with their parents, to negotiate a more adult relationship.

Your book and a lot of other coverage of this issue focuses on middle-class and upper-middle-class kids. Do these kinds of problems trickle down at all to kids in lower socioeconomic strata?

I think it is not particularly the issue for kids in poverty. Inner-city kids have bigger fish to fry than this. But I think for the wide swath of kids in the middle it is an issue. I talk [about issues of pressure] just as much at public schools as I do in private schools. And some of the most over-the-top parenting comes from immigrant parents, where the whole family is riding on the kid’s back. So it applies to a wide swath of America, but not all of it.

Do you think we’re starting to see a backlash? Are parents going to start being less involved?

Well, I have my first interview on underparenting scheduled later today, so that’s really good. But I can’t say I hear a lot about that. I’d love to be able to say, yes, this is washing the country and everybody is rethinking things, and I think there are pockets of huge change. I’m the cofounder of a group called Challenge Success — we work on school reform, parent education, things like how man APs a kid should take, simple basic best practices. In the 100 communities we work in there was enough will to start to change the paradigm. And I speak constantly around the country — people are interested. It takes a degree of courage to move from being interested and concerned to actually changing things.

We’ve all become like CEOs who are only worried about the bottom line. We see things in a very short-term way — you didn’t get an A today — when we really should be looking twenty years out at the kind of adult the kid will be, so they can have relationships and find meaning in life and feel fulfilled and have work they like. If that shift could happen, if people could think about kids a little further out than the end of the grading period, we would see change.

There’s something that sort of stuns me about all of this, and that’s that it’s not that long ago that moms were out in force when they thought their kids were threatened. I remember moms out at our local Safeway with signs protesting pesticides on apples. The outcomes on this [parenting paradigm] are so much more concerning than an apple. Twenty-five percent of kids suffer from depression, 25% have anxiety, 17% are self-mutilating. I’m puzzled by the fact that moms, who usually lead the charge on things that are potentially dangerous, are not out in every school in this country asking why my junior high kid is doing three hours when research shows the optimal amount is one hour. It’s taking kids’ lives and their mental health.

For people of childbearing age who haven’t had kids yet — and I guess I’m talking about myself here — it can feel like having children today is this terrifying endeavor. Do you have any advice for them?

From my point of view there’s nothing I’ve done in my life that was as marvelous as being a mom. When I get introduced as a PhD, I always whisper, and a mother, because that was the biggest job of my life. It does not have to be this way. Most of us were raised without this kind of constant oversight, and there are two secrets that adults hold that would help your generation. One is this idea of pushing and pushing so your kid is extraordinary — that’s a lie. In fact when you grow up you have to be really good at one or two things, you’re probably really average at most things, and you prob suck at a few things. When I give talks, I’ve kept two thousand people waiting because I can’t get back from the bathroom, because my spatial relations are so terrible. So I didn’t become a surgeon. It’s just not true that kids have to be spectacular at everything.

The second is there’s a huge cost to that kind of constant pushing, and if you want children to be successful, actually you take a very different parenting route. You’re warm, you set limits, you’re reliable, available, consistent, and non-interfering. You have to think of yourselves a little bit as revolutionaries — you’re throwing off a dysfunctional paradigm We need to go back to the notion that kids develop on their own timeline, so you offer a haven at home, love them, and let them grow up. And back off.

In her book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, released in July, Levine argues that interfering parents are creating a generation of stressed-out kids who can’t do things for themselves. She’s also a psychologist who treats kids and parents, and her first book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids was a bestseller in 2006.

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