Introduction: Thriving Adults,
Working as a child psychologist is a privileged position. I have the pleasure of hearing compelling stories from parents every day. Many of them are heart-wrenching; some are tragic; others are inspirational and uplifting. By far the most striking tales are those I can’t easily unravel. In these cases the stated “problem” does not appear overly serious, yet parents report feeling uneasy, frustrated, or stumped. Sometimes they are more than a little frantic. Curiously, their uncertainty is in high contrast with their outward appearance. Most of these moms and dads are composed, smart, and aware, and a good number are experienced professionals or successful businesspeople. They are nearly all caring and well-intentioned parents.
Take Susan, an attorney in her early forties, who came to my office on an early winter’s morning. She had a warm smile, and though she was a little shy, Susan was expressive, self-effacing, and very funny. In the first few minutes I wondered what could have brought her to my door. Yet as she moved beyond the initial pleasantries and began to describe her concerns about her son, Susan appeared weary and dejected. Looking down, she told me she was feeling close to the end of her rope.
Her son Tim was eight years old and in the third grade. He was a smart kid and had breezed through the first three years of elementary school. Now things were changing. Tim had real homework for the first time and Susan couldn’t seem to get him to do it on his own. There were also more social pressures, and Susan and her husband were worried about Tim’s standing with his peers: Would he make the travel soccer team? Was he having enough playdates? Were kids leaving him off their birthday party lists?
To Susan, Tim appeared vulnerable and anxious much of the time and unsure of his abilities. Often he could not choose whom he wanted to be with or what he wanted to do. Susan had also noticed that Tim was more needy this year, asking for extra toys and games without taking much pleasure in the gifts he did receive. By all accounts Tim was a good kid who often showed compassion for other children and adults. Susan knew he had some great qualities, but could take little solace in this knowledge. Lately she was finding it more and more difficult to feel confident about Tim’s future, and she was feeling guilty about contemplating a return to part-time work.
Rene and Ted came in a few days later to ask for help with their four-year-old daughter, Adrienne, who was a real spitfire. Precociously verbal, she had been a fluent talker since she was ten months old. She was beginning to read a little, could count up to one thousand, and loved everything to do with oceans and marine life. Rene admitted that Adrienne did have some difficulty in preschool this year; she was rambunctious at times and did not always follow the rules, nor did she like to share. Ted thought Adrienne was misunderstood by her classmates and perhaps by her teachers as well, although he did admit that sometimes she could become uncooperative and aggressive at home.
Ted and Rene’s main reason for coming in was to learn more about how to give Adrienne opportunities to develop her prodigious talents. Should they add on enrichment programs for her? Would a private tutor help? Should she be going to a more challenging school next year? Despite hearing from teachers that Adrienne was always using her imagination and thinking creatively, Ted and Rene worried constantly that they needed to do more to stimulate their daughter. Their first thought was to seek out a team of learning specialists who could assist them in this effort. In our first meeting, they expressed serious doubts that their encouragement and assistance would be enough for Adrienne.
Like Susan, Ted and Rene were capable and successful people who had little difficulty managing most of their responsibilities. They cared deeply about their children and wanted the best for them. Yet when it came to problem solving or making decisions for their kids, they wavered, and lacked the confidence they displayed so readily in other aspects of their lives. They were a bit sheepish about this dilemma and felt considerable despair over not knowing how to “fix” things themselves. Talking about Adrienne’s difficult behavior made them uncomfortable, as if they were letting out a secret that they had kept pretty well hidden until that moment. It pained them not to know what course they should take with their daughter, or what resources they might need to call on to keep her on a promising track.
The New Age of Anxiety
Plenty of new parents are anxious. Who doesn’t recall coming home from the hospital with a newborn and thinking, “Now what?” Even after we’ve mastered the feeding routines and diaper-changing, there are many moments of confusion and uncertainty when we are caring for an infant. Things get a little easier as the kids get older. Toddlers look less fragile, and by then most parents are used to the fevers and occasional bumps and bruises. In most cases, the sleep deprivation begins to subside and parents can resume some semblance of normal living.
By the time the child is two or thereabout, parents begin to worry about much more than basic caretaking. Suddenly we wonder if our children are talking enough: Are they social, do they make good eye contact? How do we handle those tantrums? Are they growing, do they move around well, are they going to be coordinated? What about school? Should we sign them up for nursery school or day care? Can they handle the separation? Can we?
The threes and fours bring their own, bigger, challenges. Does he know his numbers and colors and letters? Is she having enough playdates? Should we join in the soccer and baseball clinics? What about swimming lessons and ballet? Shouldn’t they start being exposed to theater and museums and the zoo and musical performances? How come we hear that other kids are reading already? Would math workbooks be helpful?
In the early years of elementary school, the burners are turned up even higher. The academic pressures that parents have only heard about up to this point now hit them head-on. Plenty of kindergarteners struggle to complete their homework, and first graders can have mutiple projects going at school. By second grade the good and not-so-good readers are being tracked and separated. It’s no wonder that parents fret over how to give their kids an edge and begin to ask more questions: Are the kids mastering phonetics and getting enough math instruction? The extracurricular menu is ever expanding: Should it be karate or violin lessons or dance? And then there are sports. Parents see second graders are being divided up into A and B soccer teams and can’t help wondering if private coaching is needed. How do we build those skills at home? What about our kids’ self-confidence? Are they in the popular crowd at school?
Where’s the Instruction Manual?
Just thinking about all these choices and pressures can be exhausting and bewildering, and many parents don’t know where to turn. As a professional, I often hear about their concerns, which are usually prefaced by: “I’ve never done this before”; “This is my first time as a parent”; “They don’t come with an instruction manual, do they?” It’s easy to laugh these off as typical and half-in-jest complaints. I think that is a mistake, because for many parents, particularly the mothers I meet, this confusion goes to the very heart of their dilemma.
Today’s parents, especially those who have waited to have children until their thirties or forties, come to their new role with plenty of experience. The trouble is that all their work skills and academic achievements don’t translate so easily to child rearing. Leading a professional life is not always the best job training for parenting. Just ask Lily:
As a lawyer I have no problem making decisions; I tell people what to do all the time. Now I don’t know if my son is ready for kindergarten and I can’t control my two-year-old. They fight all the time and I can’t seem to stop them. I feel like I should call Nanny 911. And really, how many activities should a five-year-old have? Do we have to do swimming, soccer, and karate, just because everybody else in town is doing it?
In my experience, parents who left their jobs or downsized considerably to be with their young kids desperately miss work. Things were so much more orderly there. The instructions were clear. And there was no worrying about time-outs or tantrums or arranging playdates or getting the kids down for a nap.
Managing deadlines and multiple clients or projects can be stressful, of course, but in most industries and professions the path to achievement is clearly spelled out: more sales, new clients, and billable hours. Clear rules of the game, including short-term objectives and long-term goals, all appear to be missing in the world of parenthood. And our “clients,” no matter how cute or smart, are not always cooperative and reasonable. Entering the realm of young children can be exciting and magical, but for many parents it feels more like they’ve landed in the Bermuda Triangle. A teacher I know, whose son is a high-tech executive, related this story: “He manages dozens of people but when it came to picking up a group of unruly five-year-olds for soccer practice, he was lost and mildly petrified. He was more than grateful when I volunteered to bail him out.”
Little kids are wild, they are provocative, they are chaotic, and they can be lots of fun. They are not usually easily understood, calm, measured, organized, or cooperative. This is not a knock on kids; it just is what it is. But for many parents who have led a fairly structured and reasonably sane life, seeing how kids actually behave can be an unpleasant revelation. As Kate, mother of a three- and a five-year-old son confessed, “A lot of our life is out of control; I feel out of control. I’m running around like a lunatic; nobody listens to me; their dad is never home; I’m wiped out.” Kate is not alone, and most of us who have young children can relate to her anguish.
Let’s Get Organized!
In a simpler time, if there was such a thing, parents could learn to live with the chaos at home. There wasn’t much else they could do. In the 1960s, when some of us were of preschool age, few structured programs existed for kids. It may be hard to fathom, but only 6 percent of four-year-olds were in nursery schools or day-care centers in 1965.1 Until the 1980s there were no enrichment classes for young children or sports to speak of for kids under age eight or nine in most parts of the country. Before the advent of preschool and other programs, parents had no choice, they had to wing it.
They did have advantages. In our parents’ generation adults typically married and had children at a younger age. Many mothers and fathers found it easier to be playful and had the energy and spirit to join in with their kids’ craziness. There were also not nearly as many pressures on our parents to keep up with the neighbors. It was perfectly acceptable to let your kids roam around the block and play on their own for hours and hours. Few parents worried about fostering their young children’s interests or identifying their passions, or getting down on the floor for “special time” with them. Three square meals and a good washing at day’s end were the basic job requirements.
Things have changed. In New York, parents are phoning from the labor room to sign their infants up for the most popular “Mommy and Me” programs.2 Relax about school? Parents are worried almost from birth about when to start, and programs for two-year-olds are the norm in many urban and suburban neighborhoods. Music, art, creative movement, and language classes are all available for three- and four-year-olds. The ads for many of these have not-so-subtle come-ons with a “Your kids will fail miserably in life if you don’t sign them up now” message. Sports classes and coaches who specialize in the under-eight set have sprouted around the country. Reading and math specialists who work with first and second graders don’t want for business in many communities.
There is a chicken-and-egg debate that exists below the surface. Are we now more knowledgeable and adapting to the new reality of childhood or is there something else that is driving the parenting frenzy? Some parents point to early childhood research that describes “critical periods” for learning and contends that children should be exposed to language and music and mathematics at a younger age. Parents have also heard about the value of early “social competence.” Does that inspire their playdate angst and the scheduling treadmill? Aren’t they doing the right thing by preparing their kids with rigorous physical training when the local sports teams make their cuts by third grade? Isn’t kindergarten much tougher than it used to be and shouldn’t kids be starting to read by then?
These are all legitimate questions, and I believe that the changing expectations in our schools and communities and our emerging understanding of young children have fueled much of parents’ anxiety and hyperactivity. It is not the whole story. Part of the rush to do more and to sign up our young kids for enrichment classes and lessons comes from the fear of the alternative: having to sit and face them alone, without anyone to assist us. Given this choice, many parents opt to replace the in-house chaos with structure and organized activities outside the home, and get help from people who purport to know more about young kids. At least then we can feel that we are doing something “productive” and our kids are keeping abreast of the competition. We can also enjoy a few more moments of not worrying about how to handle their tantrums and mood swings, their fights with their siblings, their endless questions, their requests to jump on us “just one more time,” and their complaints about being “so bored.”
Organizing a schedule, most seasoned adults can handle that! I know parents who plan playdates for their preschoolers weeks in advance, and have all their children’s activities carefully arrayed on their Palm Pilots. At-home time can also take on a structured, preplanned feel: a morning crafts project, a trip to the park after lunch, nap time, art time, and an educational video before dinner. Then there is reading to children, counting games, some ABCs mixed in, all in the service of preparing them for the “real” academics that are coming soon. Sprinkled in between are special outings to the zoo, the circus, or the local nature center, all to give kids exposure to the larger world around them.
It is no surprise that many educated and older parents, especially those who have spent time in the workforce, wish to bring their considerable skills to child rearing. Their efforts usually pay off, and many of our young children today are more verbal, sophisticated, and aware of their environment. Keeping kids busy can be exhausting, but it also allows parents to minimize the potential for conflict and confrontation. There seems to be little point in choosing a more unstructured way of life. Wouldn’t that only increase the possibility of unruly behavior at home, raise parents’ stress level, and reduce the likelihood that the kids will keep up with their equally advanced peers?
Copyright © 2007 by Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D. All rights reserved.