Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids

pressuredparents.jpgAlthough guest contributor Sara Cabot of Little Lettice is one of our family food experts, today Sara – a mom of four children approaching or in their tween years - takes a diversion from nutritional content to provide a review of Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids. Read on for Sara’s review, as well as to learn how to be one of 5 winners to receive a copy of Pressured Parents!

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Often I feel just fine about my kids until a casual conversation on the soccer sidelines turns into a comparison fest.

“We go to Kumon once a week,” a mom wearing a Dartmouth sweatshirt told me one day as we watched our kids play. “ I didn’t think I could fit that in, what with Benjamin’s oboe lessons and Cub scouts, but we’re going on Tuesdays, right after soccer.”

“And what are you doing over Christmas vacation?” I ask with masochistic verve.

“We’re sending him to soccer camp in Brazil. And this summer we’re doing our regular road trip. We’ll visit every state capital by the end of junior year. That will give Benjamin great material for his college application essay!” She exclaimed.

“College application essay?” I think, my throat tightening. “But our kids are only 12 years old!”

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This excerpt, taken from Pressured Parents, Stressed-out Kids: Dealing With Competition While Raising a Successful Child by Wendy Grolnick and Kathy Seal, gave me what I call the “AHH” factor. As in, “Ahh, I’ve had this feeling too!” And you are not alone. Grolnick (a psychologist) and Seal have given this throat-tightening panic a name: Pressured Parent Phenomenon (PPP). Our emotional response to the kind of situation outlined above is caused, the authors say, by our incredibly competitive society whose every facet - be it academic, sports, or the arts - has become rife with pressure to achieve.

Grolnick and Seal have written an exhaustive and well-researched book that explores all the facets of this Pressured Parent Phenomenon: where it comes from, how it is affecting our children, and how we can turn our anxiety into calm guidance.

The authors first explore the context where PPP is flourishing: she asserts that “competition is a defining feature of American schooling,” while “the music world of kids revolves around competitions.” As for sports, the authors quote a sports psychologist who suggests that sports programs operate as “failure factories” that, as time goes on, weed out more and more players. Competition among kids has reached “epidemic proportions” and to extend the metaphor, PPP is contagiously passed from parent to parent like a virus.

Inevitably, we parents are fanning the flames of this competitive culture, rather than putting a dampener on it (which is what we should do). In fact, Grolnick and Seal make no bones about presenting parents as the culprits. They talk about us fighting the “battle for admission” into certain schools from nursery through college. Regarding sports, the authors claim that we “get hooked into the competitive mind-set,” and panic that our children are going to feel bad if they don’t do well. The authors say, rightly I think, that all this competition “is affecting parents as much if not more than children.”

So what can we do about it? How can we parents turn our fears into calm guidance?

The authors outline three tactics, which Grolnick discovered during over 30 years researching this topic: We need to develop our children’s autonomy, competence, and connectedness. This in turn will lead to intrinsic motivation in our children, who will feel empowered to do well because they want to, not because they are told to do so by us.

Grolnick and Seal then devote the rest of this very sensible book to teaching parents how to develop these traits in our children. We need to be “in control” without being “controlling,” thus respecting our kids’ autonomy while setting clear guidelines about their roles and responsibilities. The authors show us how to use praise to boost feelings of competence in our kids by “prais[ing] effort or product, not character,” and that “the most effective praise or feedback is informational: it specifies what children have achieved.” I experienced the “AHH” factor with this suggestion because I hear a lot of parents saying “Great job!” without really specifying what is so great about it. And in these cases, I think children often suspect that the actual action wasn’t so great and that their parents are just saying, “I love you,” which can be annoying.

Grolnick and Seal tell parents that being involved boosts our children’s feelings of connectedness to us and to the world. In a chapter called ‘At Home,’ the authors tell us to hike or knit with our older children, play with blocks or dolls with our younger ones, “or just watch.” Interestingly, she never mentions reading to them, which I think is the number one important thing to do with young kids for myriad reasons.

For me, the authors don’t emphasize enough the importance of starting young on this path of intrinsic motivation. The book feels like a curative for a problem that already is, rather than a preventative for something that has not yet happened. But I think this is because so much of the research is based on case studies of older children.

Ultimately, I found the authors most compelling when they wrote about us adults, rather than the kids. Perhaps it’s because, as stated at the beginning of the book, it is we who are the cause of much of this stress. Or maybe it’s because the authors lost me when they wrote that over-scheduling is OK for some kids (I don’t think it’s ever OK!). Or perhaps it’s because we are closest to what first author Grolnick herself thinks as a parent, rather than as a scientist.

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Congrats to winners Marion, Sarah, Catherine, Anne, and Kendra!
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Now, want to be one of 5 winners to receive a copy of Pressured Parents? Here’s how:

  • Visit the Prometheus Books’ new releases section, then email (with ‘Pressured Parents’ in the subject), and name another Prometheus book you’d be interested in reading (other than Pressured Parents!).

  • One entry permitted per person; US entrants only.

  • Entry period closes at midnight EST, Monday, May 19, 2008.