On Healing 1/3/2005: Kids suffer stress from push to excel

Forget Freud and Spock: Many of today’s parents are raising their children based on the works of Charles Darwin! You know, eat or be eaten, excel or fail. And the message is getting through loud and clear.

Most children I speak with are under constant stress to achieve excellence in everything they do. Even neighborhood athletics and extracurricular activities are now avenues where excellence must be pursued. I recently called a woman who was unable to talk because she was rushing her child from soccer to math tutoring and barely had time for dinner. The child was 11.

The push for excellence begins in utero with playing the right music, and continues in infancy with the Mozart effect and flash cards. Somehow, average has become a four-letter word. No Child Left Behind? What I see in the suburbs is all children pushed to the front.

And the cost?

Columbia University psychologist Sunya Luthar found that in affluent communities, the rate of depression and anxiety disorders is dramatically higher than the national average. The two most significant factors were stress and a sense of disconnection from parents.

I have spoken to hundreds of children who suffer constant stress. Many feel alone and misunderstood, and complain that the only thing adults seem to care about is their performance. These children might not fit in any diagnostic category, but they are in a great deal of pain.

Maybe that’s why high school and college counseling offices are swamped with referrals. A recent article in Psychology Today reported that on the college level, requests for counseling have been increasing since 1988. Until recently, most students wanted help with relationships. But since 1996, anxiety has been their most common problem.

At the extremes, perfectionism is an anxiety disorder. Our children want to do more and be more, and many associate failure with catastrophe.

Some of you may be thinking: “What’s the matter with our children achieving their highest potential?” Many things. The problem with the Darwinist method of child rearing is that it is based on fear and not faith. Much of today’s child-rearing is about fear of what will happen if our child doesn’t excel, as opposed to faith in our child’s ability to create a happy life.

I recently spoke with a group of high school seniors about what happiness meant to them. In a group of more than 300, not one person talked about love or community or having children.

The problem with the Darwin method is it fosters anxiety and self-absorption and teaches nothing about community. That’s the problem, and also the cure.

We wish the same for our children that we wish for ourselves – genuine happiness. Achievement feels good, but that good feeling doesn’t last very long. It’s like eating chocolate cake when we are hungry. It feels good going down, but because there are no real nutrients to sustain us, we are quickly hungry again.The kind of happiness that has staying power is a byproduct of a life well lived. Humans feel happy when they feel understood, loved and accepted for who they are and not just for what they have achieved. The Darwin method of parenting may result in material gain and perhaps social power, but it also leads many people to call a therapist at age 50.

Sure, our children need to achieve and do their best. That’s one way they learn about who they are. But they also learn much about themselves if they get involved in larger social issues, hang out with parents, and reflect on what kind of person they would like to be.

On a recent trip to California, a friend took me to see the redwoods. She told me that for such large trees, they had very shallow root systems. When I asked her how they were able to stand, she said: “Simple – they grow close together and the roots interlock. That’s how they get their strength.” We all do.

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