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The Evolution of Parenting: Are We Pressing Our Kids Too Far?

  April 2

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kidsPlease welcome Brian from Luke1428! He’s one of my favorite writers on the Interwebs, and I know you’ll enjoy this one!

Wouldn’t it be great if children were born with a manual? Doctor hands the blanketed newborn to the mother along with a 3-volume set entitled “Parenting 101: Everything You’ll Need to Know About Raising Your Child.”

If that massive work could be written, it would surely hit the New York Times Best-Seller list.

Truth is, the X’s and O’s in those early days of parenting aren’t terribly difficult to figure out. Feed baby…clothe and change baby…give baby tons of attention and love. That’s about it.

Then around 18-24 months a little discipline might get added to the equation. The toddler begins to test certain boundaries and quickly learns the meaning of the word “No.” The parents are beginning to see certain characteristics about their child that get them excited about what he or she might become.

As the fine motor skills continue to develop between ages 2 and 4, activities begin to pick up. Mom hangs out with child at the park, chattering with the other moms about all things parenting. Pre-school is right around the corner. T-ball starts at age 4.

This is when the X’s and O’s of parenting that were once easy to ascertain turn into shades of gray. A self-imposed pressure begins to mount as important kid milestones are reached. We observe other parents in our social circle engaging their children in activities and wonder whether we should be doing the same. After all, we don’t want our children to be deprived or miss out like we did.

Culture and peer pressure begin to subtly become our influencer rather than our own parental compass. All around us experts say we “Should be doing this” or “Must be doing that” so our child develops properly. Mix in a little button-popping pride in our child’s accomplishments, and we begin to think, say and do some ridiculous things like:

“My child only received a ‘Satisfactory’ grade on his Kindergarten report card. Wonder if that will exclude him from going to MIT? Better get some after school tutoring.”

“My child is such an athletic shortstop for his age…he’s destined for the Major Leagues.”

“Oh no, it’s not hectic…my child loves going from school to tae kwon do, to piano lessons, to evening soccer practice all in the same day…keeps her active.”

“We have to attend that elite private school…the Joneses around the corner do and love it!”

These statements may sound absurd. However, in my 16 years of education, 13 years of parenting, and 9 years of participating in our own extracurricular kid activities, I’ve either said them myself or heard something similar to them from another parent. If truly believed and followed, the ramifications of the “have-to, must-do, can’t-live-without” mindset can be devastating.

Devastating on our pocketbook as we shell out fee after fee after fee to keep our child involved.

Devastating on our time as we rush from one commitment to another, gulping down fast food in the car.

Devastating on our stress level as it feels like we cannot keep up.

Devastating on our relationships, as the speed of life kills any downtime for meaningful communication to take place between parent and child or from spouse to spouse.

For many parents, pushing their child to excellence does not stem from a desire to do what’s best for the child. Rather, it’s rooted in two big issues:

1. Living out our failed dreams and personal inefficiencies through our own children and,

2. Living up to societal expectations, basing our decisions on what other parents do.

I think most children are indifferent about the activities we enroll them in, especially the younger they are. They would just assume stay home and play catch or tackle football in the backyard with dad. To them the time spent in one-on-one contact with mom playing Barbie dolls or baking in the kitchen beats hours of hitting tennis balls around the court, being instructed or yelled at by their coach.

This isn’t a call to abandon all activities and isolate our kids at home. As parents we simply need to be wise about what we involve our children in and how much pressure we put on them to excel. No first grader needs to be practicing T-Ball four days a week and playing 40 games in a three-month season. That’s simply overkill. Yet the competitive rec-leagues are filled with teams doing just that.

We all can fight the push-my-kid-to-exhaustion trap. In our household, my wife and I have started doing the following:

1. Talking to the children about their interests and dreams instead of assuming we know what’s best for them.

2. Refusing to care what other parents are doing in relation to how it impacts the decisions for our kids.

3. Setting limits on participation based on our budget and other time commitments.

4. Allowing each one of our four children to participate in only one out-of-school activity at a time.

5. Backing off pressuring them if the child expresses little interest in the activity I would prefer they choose.

I once heard someone say that if there is an Olympic athlete hidden in your child, they will tell you. Translation: I’ll know by my child’s communication and actions how deeply passionate they are about something. If they demonstrate a desire to be pushed in an activity, then I’ll push. Otherwise, by scheduling them into multiple activities they don’t care about, I’m simply producing frustration for all those involved and eating up valuable family time that could be spent in more profitable ways.

My challenge for you today is to evaluate the rat race that is your family life. Are you running from event to event trying to keep pace with everyone else? Do you feel pressure to make your child turn out “just right?” Is it creating unwanted stress that boils over into family conflict? If so, it may be time to set some new standards for living.

Are your kids able to keep up with all their activities? Do you get stressed out running from event to event? How are you working to reduce anxiety over what your child might become in the future? Are you trying to live out your failed dreams through your child?

About the author: Brian Fourman is a private school teacher and personal finance blogger. His hobbies include rental real estate, running and cooking. In his down time, he loves being a dad to his 4 kids and hearing his wife talk about all the cool things CPAs do at work. You can check him out providing encouragement and inspiration on his blog at Luke1428.com or by connecting with him on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.

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41 responses to “The Evolution of Parenting: Are We Pressing Our Kids Too Far?

  1. On the other end of the spectrum, when I was a teacher I had entire classes of students whose parents had very little in terms of expectations for their children. When you called home and said, “he hasn’t done homework in weeks”, the response was “so. Why should I care?”
    We need a happy medium in this country so badly!

  2. I like the point about the Olympic athletes. Some parents need to encourage their kids to try at things, but the trendy thing to do is clearly push your kids into lots and lots of things, hard. Hopefully people give their kids some unstructured time just to play and be creative!

    1. “…to play and be creative.” Funny you bring that up. Our first two kids we pushed into many structured activities…the last two not so much. Of the four, the youngest two are far more creative. They will spend hours playing by themselves in their rooms, drawing pictures, doing make believe, even producing short skits for us to video record. Not saying their is absolute causality there with what we did as parents, but maybe.

  3. We made a conscious decision when my son was 5 and the activities were starting to arise that he would be enrolled in only one for the season and it was based on what he liked to do. Initially that was gymnastics and it has since moved to soccer. He is now 8, and soccer consumes our Saturdays and Sundays when we are in season and then a summer camp; however, he loves it. He is passionate about playing it, practicing it and even watching it on tv. We see other parents, though, leaving soccer and going to lacrosse and/or baseball. The funny thing we hear from our son, is that typically his friends only like one of the three sports the parents are making themselves crazy trying to get them to.It is very tempting to put our own desires on our children’s shoulders, but it is more important for us to listen to what our children are saying and follow their lead. It’s their childhood not ours.

    1. I mentioned in the article about “going from tae kwon do, to piano lessons, to evening soccer practice all in the same day”…that was us with our first daughter. We only did that one day per week but what a brutal day it was. I think it burned her out on piano for sure which she was actually quite good at.

  4. This is such an interesting read for me, because I don’t have any kids myself, but I remember going through exactly this from the other perspective. I grew up in Northern Virginia, which is crazily competitive and full of helicopter parents, and my parents did not buy into it at all. They signed each of their kids up for a sport, an art, and a musical instrument when we were in elementary school, and by middle school we were asked to pick what we would like to focus on. In high school, it narrowed down even further.

    I also remember one month when I hadn’t practiced piano enough, so my parents said paying for the next month of lessons was my responsibility. I didn’t want to stop lessons, so I covered it out of my babysitting money. After that, I definitely made the time to practice!

    1. Kids are being pressured more to specialize today. Pretty much gone are the days of the four sport athletes. I love the message your parents sent regarding piano. Not only did it teach responsibility but revealed how much you loved it. You were willing to sacrifice babysitting money to continue with your passion. I’m sure that made you appreciate it more.

  5. This is excellent advice. I have a 5 month old and I’m scared silly that I will either not push her enough or push her too hard. This is awesome advice! Seriously, I am pinning this for future reference!

    1. “…not push her enough or push her too hard.” Well don’t push yet…just hold her in your arms. 🙂 It’s definitely a balance though, one which I still fight finding the right equilibrium.

  6. Great post Brian…will have to bookmark this for future reference as my Parenting 101. My son is only about 9 months so it’s still pretty easy…still at the stage where you feed him, change him and play with him. I know for sure there are many more difficult decisions that pop up when they get older. You raise a lot of good questions that parents have to ask themselves.

    1. I remember those days Andrew. Good times. I can say though, that if you work really hard early on to raise your son properly, it makes the years that follow so much more fun. We were full force into training for those first five years and are really seeing the benefit of it now that they are older.

  7. I see this ALL the time, Brian. Parents get so competitive with one another and paranoid that somehow if their child isn’t in every activity available, they are missing out. I definitely want Lauren and Taylor to participate in activities they enjoy, but I don’t want to over book them or force them into activities just for the sake of it. Kids need to be kids too. It makes me sad when I see parents pushing their kids to do this or that and often times it’s for the parent’s benefits, not the kids.

    1. “…it’s for the parent’s benefits, not the kids.” Agreed Shannon. It’s OK to be proud of your kid’s accomplishments. It’s not OK to use their activities/accomplishments as a point of status with your adult friends just to boost your own personal ego.

  8. This reminds me of that LUVS diapers commercial that shoes a crazy mom trying to teach child #1 about a violin and by child #2 they’re just banging on pots and pans.

    I was very much part of the rat race in my youth, but I put it on myself. I loved being busy everyday after school with sports teams, MUN, school plays — you name and I probably participated in it. Towards the end of HS I had honed in my focus on certain sports and being in theater but there was never pressure from my parents to make varsity as a freshman or be able to win a scholarship to college. I feel extremely grateful that they always listened to what I wanted out of extracurriculars. Notably, my mom enrolled me in dance as a 6-year-old (because my friends were doing it and I asked) after about 5 lessons I got in the car, looked at my mom and said, “This is boring. Can I do something more physical?” My mom told me I had to stick it out through the recital a month away. A month later I put on my tapped shoes for the last time and a few weeks later I started basketball and played every year until I went to college.

    1. One of the great lessons kids learn is sticking with it after making a commitment. My daughter got worn out on tae kwon do near the end and probably would have quit a level below black belt. We had come so far though and we knew completing the process would be an emotional boost for her. So we told her she had to stick with it until receiving her black belt….then she could decide to continue or not. She did it and then decided to drop it which we were completely fine with. Again, it all comes back to knowing when and how much to push. Thanks for sharing your story!

  9. Thanks for this post, Brian and Cat! 🙂
    The Hubs and I are sloooowly warming up to the idea of having children and posts like these are great because we can learn from our favorite PF bloggers before parenthood is here. The other day, I freaked out in the middle of watching TV because I didn’t know how to potty train a kid!! LoL…
    When the time comes, we need to prioritize our kids’ activities because I understand that it can get out of hand. We want to raise very creative children and piano lessons and art lessons don’t come cheap! We might just teach them at home 🙂

    1. Haha…potty training is not all that hard. Biggest thing we did was give incentives (Cheerios, M & Ms, etc.) when the kid performed the right behavior. It really didn’t take long for any of our four and we had only a few accidents…mostly with the boys. Thank goodness for hardwood floors!

  10. It’s in interesting discussion. I’m not a parent yet, but as someone who has worked in the classroom setting, I would prefer a parent to be more involved with their child than the opposite. You can always have some one scale back their parenting “aggression” (for lack of a better term), but it seems much hard to get parents to increase their involvement.

    1. “…it seems much hard to get parents to increase their involvement.” I’d agree with that assessment Ryan. Of the two, it’s probably easier to get parents to dial back than ramp them up.

  11. I was terribly overbooked in high school, but I really wanted to do it all. I was captain of the gymnastics team, president of the thespian troupe, in all the shows at school and at the local community theatre. I usually didn’t get to start my homework until after 10pm. I pulled lots of all nighters in those days.

    1. I see kids in those same situations now at the school I teach. It’s a tough balance for sure. At least you had the driving desire to be involved in those things yourself. Makes it much more palatable to me that you wanted to do it rather than being forced into doing it.

  12. I don’t have children, but your post has certainly given me a lot to think about. My parents were very involved with my life as I was growing up. They may have pushed me a little too hard at times, but I’m grateful for that. It helped me develop a lot of talents and interests, including my musical abilities. It’s hard to imagine how I would have turned out without their involvement.

    1. I think we can all speak to that at some level. I know my parents sacrificed a lot of time and money to involve me in sports, which I am extremely grateful for.

  13. We have four kids so we had to limit their activities. I think we eventually went to one but there might have been a time when all or some had more than one. We learned!

    1. Glad to know we are not alone on limiting activities. 🙂 Four kids all involved is really tough. At the present time we have one doing rec-basketball, two doing rec-soccer, and one doing a church play. That’s about our limit.

  14. My brother and his wife had their kids in so many activities that it made it impossible to have any family time. On any given weekend, they could have 5 or 6 practices or games. During the week it was the same. They never got to eat dinner together.

    She filed for divorce last month.

    1. That’s very sad Holly. The speed of life can kill relationships as your example shows. The worst part is their decision to separate will impact the kids for the rest of their lives.

  15. Great article Brian, thanks for your perspective. I came from a family of 9, so even one event per child per week could produce a busy schedule! I don’t feel like I missed out on much though, it really gave me more passion for the things I felt like I could succeed in later in life (like basketball, golf, and computer work).

    1. Nothing like being able to field your own baseball team! 🙂 Glad you remember your childhood with fondness. I’m sure that had a lot to do with how your parents managed the household. I can see how it would get very hectic.

  16. Great post Brian! I don’t have kids yet, but know from experience what it’s like to HATE an activity – piano, yikes! (I’m getting anxiety just thinking about it). Eventually my parents gave in and required that I do at least one activity of my own choosing. I hope that when I do have children my online business will be flourishing enough to stay at home. I DO NOT know how full-time employed parents juggle both. Hats off to you seriously! I have a great respect for my mom who did it 90% alone and working while my dad was in the military.

    1. Thanks Taylor. It’s been very difficult for our family to juggle two full-time careers, four kids with school and activities, my blog, housework and whatever else we can find to do. Life can present so many opportunities that seem good and before you know it, you are overbooked and very stressed. It’s difficult to choose what needs to be cut out to reduce that stress but it does have to happen. Everyone is going to be negatively affected if you don’t.

  17. There is this interesting disparity between some parenting methods that we see nowadays I think more than ever; many parents pushing kids to be the best of the best, work incredibly hard, and get into many things in the hopes of giving them opportunities that they never had themselves, and parents being so relaxed on their kids, letting them get away with anything and everything to avoid disciplining them or pushing them to hard, afraid of not letting them be children and make mistakes. I think that the issue lies with being too extreme one way or the other. I had a lot of activities growing up but usually only 1-2 at a time. Soccer was in the spring and fall, skating in the winter, dance in the summer and fall, etc.

    1. You have identified the two extremes correctly Daisy. The truly effective parent is found somewhere in the middle…not too permissive and not too pushing. We need more parents who manage their children with a mixture of love and discipline which sets limits to what they are allowed to pursue.

  18. Very interesting post, Brian! I listened to an economics podcast recently that showed evidence that none of the activities that kids do matters in the long run, but what does matter is the amount of love in the child’s home. I think this ties in well with your idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” and having kids involved in so many activities. I really like how you talk with your children about their interests (so you’re not projecting your own onto them), and how you try to block out what others are doing as a measure of success. Really thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing!

    1. “…I really like how you talk with your children about their interests (so you’re not projecting your own onto them), and how you try to block out what others are doing as a measure of success.” I can’t begin to describe how difficult both of those things are Natalie. Probably the projecting issue is the worst of the two. I really have to discipline myself to not to make my children become what I think they should be. I tried that early on and it caused issues.

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