Anxious Parents

Anxious Parents

It’s a worrisome trend, according to this dad

When I was a kid, if it wasn’t a school day or a soccer weekend I was off in the woods with my dog or with my neighborhood friends. My family lived on a forested hill on the outskirts of town—exactly the kind of place an adventurous kid would want to grow up. There were creeks to dam, dirt mounds to jump bikes off of, tree forts to build, new and winding trails to explore. In winter, with a foot of new snow to track out, it was even better. I would leave in the morning, after doing chores, and as long as I made it home at the agreed-upon time, or checked in by phone if I ended up at a friend’s house, all was good. I was free for the day.

Can you imagine letting your kids roam free today? That is, free all day, unsupervised and without a cell phone or BlackBerry or homing device strapped to their waists? There’s something about our world in 2006—the seemingly ever-present threat of shooters, kidnappers, predators, drug dealers, scammers, or natural hazards like ponds and wells—that makes the child-rearing freedoms of yesteryear seem dangerous and anachronistic. And yet somehow, we survived.

My mom and dad were great parents. They were involved in all aspects of my childhood, but when it came to just being a kid, they backed off. They gave me a lot of space to grow and learn and explore and figure things out on my own or with friends, as long as I showed them I could make good decisions and be responsible for my actions.

Of course back in the ’70s most people still smoked and seat belts were an abstract concept. Public safety campaigns and liability lawsuits had yet to grip America, and PlayStation/Xbox/Nintendo and the Internet weren’t even blips on the short-attention-span horizon. “Disorder” probably meant you got the wrong hamburger at Dairy Queen. One could easily dismiss those days as a “different time.” And certainly technology and medical science and communication and safety standards have changed dramatically, but kids are still kids. Their basic needs haven’t changed.

I’m just a dad, not a sociologist, but it seems to me that for healthy development, kids need equal doses of responsibility and freedom. Get rid of one and you’re asking for trouble. Get rid of both and it’s going to be a bumpy ride. And yet that’s exactly what I see a lot of parents doing today. They eagerly do all they can to smooth out life’s troublesome potholes for their kids, while at the same time micromanaging their every move. As writer Hara Estrof Marano put it, parents try to “engineer a risk-free world for children.”

In 2004, Marano wrote an article for Psychology Today called “A Nation of Wimps.” Her book by the same title is due out in 2007 (nationofwimps.com). I’m not one to pay much attention to so-called experts, but I think Marano is onto something.

“Cell phones function as an eternal umbilical cord,” she said during a recent phone interview, “and it’s all so misguided. Kids aren’t allowed the freedom that allows them to build their own identities. They can’t make their own mistakes, and so they miss out on critical life skills. When something difficult arises, there’s mom or dad on the cell phone trying to fix everything.”

Parental anxiety is natural, said Marano, but too often horribly misplaced. “Anxious parents turn their kids into projects.” And you can dispense with the notion that it’s the guilt-ridden working parent who’s most at fault. “Often the at-home parent is the one freaking out. A lot of moms and dads, especially in affluent homes, leave the work force to focus on their kids. They apply their professional training to parenting and try to turn their kids into résumés on two legs.”

Or worse, into patients. “I think it’s appalling how many parents are willing to have their kids labeled ‘diseased’ because they think it will help them academically,” Marano continued. “It all centers around giving their kids more time to take tests, especially the big test—the SAT.” She says a lot of parental anxiety involves getting children into college. “When kids do not function well in that narrow academic groove, parents try to give them an edge or have the rules bent for them.” She also says kids are often labeled defective so early that they don’t fight it; they internalize that something’s wrong with them. They see themselves as weak.

Marano has plenty of research and experience to back up her findings. Me? Just my daily observations. You see them at the playground, at the mall, across the backyard fence, at PTA meetings—moms and dads who hover or praise or scold to the point of annoyance or irrelevance. Those parents who are so consumed by their kids’ security and self-esteem and academic standing that you wonder if those poor children will ever have a chance to speak out or grow up or just be themselves.

Of course it’s our duty to protect our kids and help them succeed. But at what cost? The last thing we should do is project our sometimes irrational anxieties onto them, like the mother who recently told me she wasn’t sure if her child was allergic to peanuts but she had the medication for it just in case.

You know, all kids are different, but they’re tough. They’re built to survive, and sometimes we forget that. We need to step back and remember the world for the beautiful place it is. And let kids be kids.

MSN – By Dad, Anxious Parents Kristopher Kaiyala

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About Ask Marion

I am a babyboomer and empty nester who savors every moment of my past and believes that it is the responsibility of each of us in my generation and Americans in general to make sure that America is as good or even a better place for future generations as it was for us. So far... we haven't done very well!! Favorite Quotes: "The first 50 years are to build and acquire; the second 50 are to leave your legacy"; "Do something that scares you every day!"; "The journey in between what you once were and who you are becoming is where the dance of life really takes place".
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