Parents must de-emphasize achievement, engender warmth.
Almost every religion has faith and kindness as its core values. Religions teach compassion and helping those who are more vulnerable. And we all agree with these principles. So why don’t we apply them with our children?
Remember when your children were born and you looked in their eyes for the first time? All you wanted was their safety and happiness. Most of us wished for our children to be nice people, make a contribution to the larger world, find security, comfort and companionship. Many wanted their children to be spiritual beings, to have humility and clear values.
What are we doing to foster those goals?
I recently spoke with more than 200 children in a local middle school, and from what I learned, we seem to be fostering different goals.
The children told me that their parents expected them to get A’s and B’s. Most said they felt so pressured by their parents that it was almost impossible to make them happy. They told me that even their organized recreation was less fun because if they felt they had too much homework, their parents would force them to go anyway because they must “be responsible and stick with commitments.”
Most of these children, as young as 12 or 13, are already thinking of college and what they need to do to get into one of the best schools. They said that for fun they went into their rooms and listened to music or e-mailed their friends – when they had time.
So do you overschedule your child? Do you emphasize achievement and performance? Why?
Partly because that’s what parents are doing to themselves. And partly because we love our children.
That love we felt for them at birth never goes away. But pretty soon, the love gets tainted with anxiety. Every day we hear about tragedies, illnesses or catastrophes that could happen to our children. As they grow, we worry about drugs and sexually transmitted diseases. And then there is their future. The job market is difficult and highly competitive.
So we worry. And how do we manage our anxiety? We do everything we can think of to make sure our children will be safe and have the skills to create a future. But what happened to kindness, spirituality, humility and clear values? In our anxiety to protect our children, they are being forgotten.
Andrea Steinberg is the clinical director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Cherry Hill. In her clinic, she says, she is seeing more children with more severe emotional problems: “Children’s problems are being overlooked in the early stages because so many people are overscheduled.”
She explained that when a child was stressed or depressed, the symptoms could be subtle. If one does not have time or patience, they are easy to overlook.
“Small problems turn into big problems, and before you know it, it’s too late… .” The slight hesitation in Steinberg’s voice said everything about what she meant by “too late.”
Cherry Hill has seen at least five adolescent suicides over the last two years. “I know there are adolescent suicides in every community,” Steinberg explained, “but because I am part of the community, I experience these losses differently. I think about them almost every day.”
She is frustrated that her program, like many others, offers a variety of services that just aren’t being taken advantage of. “At times I feel frustrated, at times I just feel helpless, but mostly I feel frightened. These are frightening times, and I am truly scared for these young people.”
Hillary Domers is also frightened. She is a social worker in that same agency and said she was seeing more 11- and 12-year-old children who were encumbered with overwhelming worry and anxiety. According to Domers, many of them are suicidal or filled with rage.
Today the children we have are largely overscheduled, suffering with stress, feeling misunderstood, and seeing a future of little joy. But what we want is for our children to feel alive, creative and happy, connected to the family and the larger world. So how do we get from here to there?
Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, is clear about what children need: “There is plenty of research that indicates children need authoritative parents. Not parents who are rigid and controlling, but parents who have boundaries and are warm in their personality and emotions. These parents have children who do the best in terms of drug use and overall levels of happiness.”
Our children also need parents who are committed to at least three family meals a week. Meals in which the discussion revolves around people’s interests, values and concerns, rather then simply their achievements. Our children need parents who can be role models for community involvement, joy, relaxation and love. We need to teach our children how to enjoy and cherish life, not just get through it. And most of all, our children need parents who remember the feeling we had when we looked in their eyes for the first time.