Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Are We Responsible for Our Children’s Problems?

It is a truism that we reap what we sow, and nowhere is that idea more stubborn than when judging parents. We look at our children, and other kids, searching for the answer to the question “Why are they like this?” “Parenting,” not a common word in our parents’ generation, now attracts a billion dollar industry of advice experts. For the new mother there are baby nurses, doulas, lactation consultations, and sleep coaches. Older children have speech therapists, learning specialists, psychologists, and even psychiatrists who are called to diagnose and treat problems before they get in our children’s way. Just today, I read about another new type of consultant: coaches that help your children spend less time on their phones.

Dr. Erika Reischer, a parent coach herself, says the new consultant boom and screen addiction are part of the same problem. “It’s part of the mind-set that gets us stuck on our phones in the first place — the optimization efficiency mind-set,” Dr. Reischer said. “We want answers served up to us — ‘Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’”

College bound kids are the most lucrative source of parents’ cash. Tutors, coaches, after school enhancement programs, college prep courses, as well as wildly expensive summer programs designed to pad the application and impress admissions teams are abundant. 

What is the message here? Kids learn that winning and achieving are the goals, and parents will do everything they can to groom them for that future. The parents are subscribing to the idea that this is what a good parent must do for their children. Growing up is now a competitive sport. So is parenting.

The hugely popular HBO series Big Little Lies pokes fun at a group of parents in Marin County Ca. who pursue their goals with dead seriousness. Reese Witherspoon, remembered for her role as the hilariously ambitious high school girl Tracy Flick in Election, plays a character that could be Tracy, twenty years later. She and her friends, whose kids all attend the same quaintly progressive private school, engage in an ever-escalating series of competitive play-dates, birthday parties, bake sales, and school fundraisers. The atmosphere at drop-off and pick-up could be an episode of Shark Tank.

Though the show has a gripping mystery plot propelling it, as well as a first-rate cast, which includes, in season two, Meryl Streep, who liked the show so much she requested a part be written for her—the social commentary is its strongest virtue. While the kids are far from perfect, their homes are. Season one included a plot line around tracking down which little boy was being too aggressive towards Lauren Dern’s kindergarten daughter, a project she approached as if she were the head of Interpol, furiously throwing her weight around and mercilessly grilling suspects and wielding accusations.

The kids show definite signs of stress, but the show implies that their white-hot environment generates much of it. And while enormous energy is spent engineering the perfect lives for the kids, they themselves are like extras in their parents’ dramas.

While Big Little Lies verges on parody, it portrays a glamorous version of what happens in most affluent communities. But the less affluent are being affected by these trends, too.  Recently the SAT decided to take students’ backgrounds in account when scoring, to offset the advantage that kids with means get test prep.

Letting your children play outside, without structure or goals, is now quaintly called “free-range parenting.” This used to be the norm, of course. Kids would come home from school, and other than homework, light chores, or the occasional piano lesson, they were free to play on their own. Playdates were sometimes arranged, (aka going to a friend’s house) but often kids played spontaneously with neighbors, siblings, or on their own.

Unstructured imaginative play has been shown to have positive effects on children’s brain development. Recently rereading To Kill a Mockingbird, I was struck by the descriptions of the kids’ inventive games, ones that I have no doubt were based on the childhoods of Harper Lee and her friend Truman Capote. This kind of play certainly seems to have worked out well for them.

When things go wrong, people now look to the parents for the answers. Capote, famously self-destructive and alcoholic, no doubt suffered from being left by his mother in the care of elderly aunts for years at a time. Lee never married, which was unusual for the era, but it was hardly tragic, and she seemed content quietly living until her 90s. Her failure to publish another book in her lifetime is seen by some as evidence of neurosis, but perhaps it was due more to wisdom. But there is no evidence that the parents of these two beloved authors ever castigated themselves for their failures to produce a perfect child. 

Writer David Sheff, whose poignant memoir Beautiful Boy, follows his son Nic from a contented childhood into a near fatal meth addiction, asks himself again and again how he failed his son. He sees his divorce from Nic’s mother and a long distance shared custody arrangement as having been unduly stressful, but he can’t fully explain how such a promising child became so desperate. Was it a series of accidents, e.g. a sensitive young adolescent meeting with bad timing, bad friends, and a bad social culture?

Maybe it’s karma, Sheff wonders. It is sometimes mystifying to see troubled kids from healthy families and solid kids who seem to emerge from nuthouses. Of course, we don’t always know what’s really going on at home, but as a therapist I am often more surprised at a patient’s level of health than pathology, given what they describe.

A book called The Invulnerable Child studied kids from disastrous backgrounds, trying to identify what factors contributed to the success of kids who do well in spite of environment. A chief finding was that they seemed to be able to find nurturing people around them—a grandparent, a coach, a teacher, etc.—and flourish on whatever extra attention they could get from them, gobbling up these crumbs like the hungry children they were.

Things have definitely improved since the days when all pathology was blamed on parents, especially mothers. Schizophrenia was the result of a “schizophrenogenic”mother.” The mothers of autistic kids were labeled “refrigerator moms.” Both conditions are now seen as related to physical, rather than psychological factors, present at birth.

Still, helping kids grow up well is a parent’s duty and privilege. But we may have lost sight of the ingredients in the secret sauce. Success is success, but is it the key to a good life? Long before this parenting craze began, Franny, a beloved J.D. Salinger character, voices a very Salinger-esque opinion on the matter: “I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.” 


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  • Mickey M. August 13, 2020 at 11:30 am

    Great essay. I had more to write but decided not to. Thank you.