I read the best book last summer, The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine. She’s a practicing and experienced psychologist who works with a lot of affluent children and families. In her book, she warns against overindulgence, too many opportunities and not enough freedom and space for children to grow. Reading her book really hit home because I have met some of these competitive, authoritative parents who have unrealistic or just unfair expectations for their children. On the other hand, I frequently work with low-income students and parents whose children actually present the same symptoms with different, but similar causes.
Let me explain. I work with low, middle and high class families. I’ve worked with rural, inner-city and currently suburban students. And, I’ve noticed some trends. With both my extremely low-income families and also some higher-class families, I see a lot of anxiety sometimes to the point of full-blown anxiety attacks. The source may be an unstable home life without clear, safe boundaries. It could be a child in kindergarten with ongoing behavioral and anger issues who refuses to get on the bus because he’s going to “get whooped” when he gets home; he’s terrified. And the cycle doesn’t stop because he is always worried about getting in trouble, continues to make poor choices and continues to feel scared going home.
Or, on the other end of the spectrum, it may be a smart, responsible student who is on the edge of falling apart because they didn’t finish their work. They may get a ‘B’. An intelligent, successful father is telling his third grade daughter that ‘B’ stands for ‘bad’. She goes on to tell her peers that. In elementary school, nothing less than perfect is ok. These types of intelligent students may even slip over into the role of the bully, because they feel no power at home. Or, they take the stress out on themselves and their feelings of self-worth suffer.
What do both of these parents have in common? They both want their child to do better. But, when is doing their best without punishment enough? Children who live with fear of disappointment cannot comfortably go through the natural stages of child development. Childhood should be full of mistakes but I think we all, as adults, sometimes forget that this child has only been on this planet for 5, 8, or even 10 years. Even 10 year olds have a lot of growing and messing up to do.
Do we need to lower our expectations? No. Most of the time kids can live up to realistic expectations. However, there is a balance like everything in life, a yin and yang on what we should expect. I believe we need to be gentle, patient, and clear in our expectations. The hardest thing, I think as a parent, is to realize that what’s easy for me may be difficult for my child. It may have been difficult for you as a child. Think of the following ideas to reflect on:
- Do I push my child to do things because she wants to or is it because I really want this goal for myself?
- Do I applaud my child’s efforts and not only achievements?
- Do I expect only the best and shame my child when they don’t perform?
- Do I flip out over minor things, later to regret it?
Again and again, research tells us that the authoritarian parents, who give both love, acceptance and firm boundaries yield the most successful students, especially long-term as Madeline Levine teaches us in her book. As a School Counselor who counsels all types of students, I expect problems. But some of the problems children are experiencing are unnecessary. And, they come from the most unlikely places, not just the poor, uneducated parents. Extreme parenting is extremely unhelpful.
If we want our children to be successful in life and not enter into risky, unhealthy relationships, habits and/or places during adolescence, we can do some preventative work.
- Reinforce and support hard work, even if the end result isn’t the top achiever.
- Give our kids freedom and choice in developing self interests and hobbies.
- Reward the non-tangible, like character-building actions and choices.
- Help your child recognize their strengths and weaknesses, while you model goal-setting for yourself.
- Be teacher, not a punisher.
Like all parents, we want our children to achieve. But, what do we want them to achieve? They don’t always have to be the best. They may not always live up to your expectations. Just make sure your expectations are fair, clear and moving towards an area of self-growth. Extreme parenting sometimes leads us and them away from long-term happiness and success. So, remind yourself to walk the line gracefully. Kids are usually capable and desire to be ‘good’ at something on their own. Trust in them and yourself as a kind leader.