Boston Globe Online:

Raising a perfect child

By Beth Wolfensberger Singer, 3/26/2000

Lauren Rubin, a West Newton mother of two young children, won't soon forget the day she watched one of their playmates gather a mouthful of saliva and spit it at his dad. It was an indelible scene. The boy, enraged to hear that it was time to head home, aimed from the balcony level of Rubin's staircase and hit a bull's-eye, smack on his father's head. When the father protested only mildly and persisted in suggesting it was time to leave, the boy cursed vehemently and then punched and kicked his dad. He was 4 years old.

Before the outburst, Rubin had told the father that his son hadn't eaten any of the dinner she had made. Now, witnessing the struggle, she wondered what would come next. What came next was the father offering to take the son to Burger King. "Come on, quick, let's get your coat and boots on, so you can at least get some French fries."

Rubin doesn't hold herself up as a paragon of parental virtue; she jokes that she'll be happy if she's not the sole reason her kids eventually seek therapy. But this was making her skin crawl, so although noting mentally that it was none of her business, she spoke up. "I said, 'If my child spit and swore and punched me, I would not be rewarding that behavior with his favorite foods.' But the father's attitude was that if he didn't give this kid something to eat, he'd starve. He felt he was being a good parent and feeding this child."

The spitting incident, naturally, stands out in Rubin's mind. "But that kind of thing happens a lot," she says, referring to the baffling parental permissiveness. There's always been disagreement about the best way to "feed" children what they need, she knows. But she wonders, as many parents do, if parenting might be particularly off-kilter now. Rubin's oldest is only 6, but you don't have to be a parent long these days to see your share of well-educated, well-intentioned moms and dads who go at child-raising with great intensity and wind up acting strange.

Some turn into yes-men, and some act like children themselves. Some behave like servants, others like talent agents the behavior takes many forms, but there's always an anxious edge to it. Rubin guesses that it boils down to some brand of fear: "It seems to me that people are afraid of their children."

A chorus of psychologists and parenting educators concurs: Parents are scared, yes. They're scared of their children sometimes, certainly, but they're even more afraid of what kids have come to represent to them: living barometers of whether they're parenting correctly.

This peaceful, relatively prosperous period at the border of two centuries is in many respects the best time ever to be an American parent. But it's also, the experts say, a time of enormous pressure for parent and kid alike. Parents hear that it takes a village to raise a child. But they don't live in a village, or even near their extended families. So they grit their teeth and vow to become the whole village themselves. Become the village and patrol it assiduously, making sure everything is just right.

It's a goal fashioned with the best intentions, by loving hearts. Unfortunately, it has led them down some twisted paths.

Debbie LeeKeenan, director of the Eliot-Pearson Children's School at Tufts University in Medford, for children ages 3 to 8, is one witness to the fervent parental vigilance. She is fielding an increasing number of requests to have children held back a year. "The parents say, 'I want my child to repeat, but I'm not sure when is the best time to repeat.' And these are not children who have remedial issues. I'm hearing that question from parents of children who are ready to move on. But the parents want them to be the older ones in the class, to have a competitive edge."

Tufts professor David Elkind, author of 1981's The Hurried Child - a book that alerted the country to the dangerously increasing academic and social pressure on children sits on the board of Eliot-Pearson. People associate his work with the school, says LeeKeenan. "Yet even we are attracting parents who are so anxious they ask, 'What kind of reading program do you do with 3-year-olds?'"

LeeKeenan has been at Tufts for seven years and believes that this anxiety is a fairly recent development. "There's a lot of angst and a lot of anxiety, and I feel that it's around doing parenting in the perfect way," she explains. "There's this idea now that you can't make any mistakes, that there's only one way to parent and you only have one chance to do it. 'When's the perfect time for toileting? When's the perfect time to have a second child?' We're getting these questions more than ever. When parents talk about school, they say, 'I have to find the perfect teacher. I have to find the perfect classroom. What is the perfect school?'" In the push for perfection, many parents take extreme approaches, says LeeKennan. "I see a lot of parents on either one end or the other: They're either overprotective or overpermissive."

Here, here, says Jodi Wilinsky Hill, cofounder of Parenting Resource Associates, a Lexington-based nonprofit counseling and support group. She has noticed plenty of the permissiveness LeeKeenan refers to. Recently, Hill watched a 2-year-old take sugar and cinnamon from the shelves of a kitchen he was visiting and run around sprinkling it everywhere. She was astonished to see his parents, both in their 40s, cleaning up but not objecting to the behavior. "They didn't want to say no, or thwart him, or restrict him, or harm his self-esteem," she surmises.

But with similar amazement, Hill, who holds a master's degree in education with counseling psychology from Harvard, has heard parent after parent profess devotion to a discipline book called 1-2-3 Magic, which lobbies for less discussion and more consequences. Hill recognizes the techniques it advocates as ones developed decades ago for significantly developmentally impaired adults and children. "It would be really fabulous training for my golden retriever," she says.

Books like that - along with magazines and Web sites galore - merely amplify the quest for parenting perfection. "I'm overwhelmed with parenting advice," says Alice Kelly of Newton. "I read all about how I'm supposed to be providing my children with enriching play experiences. I'm supposed to do lots of physical activity with them so I can instill in them a physical fitness habit so they'll grow up to be healthy, fit adults. And I'm supposed to do all kinds of intellectual play so they'll grow up smart. Also, there are all kinds of play, and I'm supposed to do each - clay for finger dexterity, word games for reading success, large-motor play, small-motor play. I feel like I could devote my life to figuring out what to play with my kids.

"My mother didn't stand there with a clipboard checking off all the different kinds of play. When I wanted to play, I was told to go outside, where I would find dozens of neighborhood children. We basically did what we wanted to do, and we all basically came out fine." But knowing that doesn't completely ease Kelly's mind. Those dozens of neighborhood children aren't outside to play with anymore. They're at lessons or sports matches or tutoring sessions. Thanks mainly to peer pressure among parents, the kids are all busy getting enriched and entertained.

"I hate to put it this way, but parents have just become pathetically overanxious about their kids, and overprotective," says John Friel, a Minnesota-based psychologist whose book, The 7 Worst Things Parents Do, was featured on Oprah a week before the shootings at Columbine High School. "There's a lot of guilt that parents are feeling," says Friel because of divorce, busy lives, or a feeling that other parents are providing their children with more resources and enrichment "and because of that guilt, parents are doing a real odd combination of spoiling their kids and neglecting them at the same time. They think, 'I'm going to make sure my children have a perfect childhood.' And then they overshoot the mark."

Striving for perfection might not sound like such a sin. But it is "a horrible trend, a really terrible trend," says Linda Braun, director of Families First, a parenting counseling service in Cambridge, and one of the coordinators of the Parenting Education and Family Support Program at Wheelock College Graduate School. Still, she says, given the evolution of American parenting, it's easy to see how things got so confused.

During the 1940's and '50s, Braun explains, a common child-raising style was what might now be termed authoritarian: I'm the parent, you're the child, and I'll tell you what to do because I know better, and you'll do it. "There were societal expectations for how people should behave," she says, "and they were sort of set from the top, and children complied. But a lot of children grew up fearful, or angry, or humiliated, or resentful. And they said, 'I'm not going to do that to my children.'"

In the late '60s and throughout the '70s, with the erosion of blind respect for authority, the civil disobedience movement "slipped into parenting," Braun says, and parents became very understanding and lax, wanting to let their kids act on their feelings. "So it got to the point where people stand in a coffee shop, and they see these parents saying to their kids, 'So what would you like, the raspberry Danish or the cherry?' And the kid whines, 'Oh ... I don't know ... I don't want anything.' And there's a line of 12 people, and they're all thinking, 'What is the matter with parents today? This is crazy!'"

Many permissive parents realized the craziness of catering to a child's every whim, so they swung back in the authoritarian direction, studying books with such titles as Because I Said So! and Spoiled Rotten: Today's Kids and How to Change Them. This took place in the late '80s and throughout the '90s, but it wasn't an effective correction, in part because parents still feel guilt about how little time they have with their kids. "Working parents have a really hard time setting limits and boundaries," Braun says sympathetically. "And children need limits and boundaries as much as they need love and understanding."

Our society accommodates a great variety of parenting styles. Permissiveness, of course, never took over completely, nor did the authoritarian style - nor the more moderate, kind-but-firm blend, the authoritative. What did take over toward the end of the 20th century, says Braun, was parental nervousness and uncertainty.

Betsy Kessler feels that nervousness, raising her two children in Wellesley. She grew up with a mother whose parenting mantra was, "It's much easier to say yes than to say no, but it's much better to say no than to say yes." But while Kessler marvels at the permissiveness of some parents she knows "the kids decide when they're going to eat dinner, where they're going to eat dinner, and when they're going to bed" - she also wonders if her difficulty making decisions stems from her mother's constant barrage of nos.

Elizabeth Ward, a Stoneham dietician, has been puzzling over why parents are so "willing to be short-order cooks, preparing two or three meals at a time" in order to please the kids. Parents do this for many reasons, she knows, but one of them is a belief that forcing a kid to choose between eating what's presented or skipping a meal will lead to eating disorders - a thought that probably never occurred to parents in earlier decades.

It's healthy to question whether strictness creates indecisive adults with eating disorders. But the conviction that today's parents are more psychologically aware than previous generations of parents is no asset, argues Anne Cassidy, a mother and journalist. She wrote for parenting magazines until she became so alarmed at what she calls the "intellectualizing" of child raising that she stopped writing for and reading those magazines, abandoned her many parenting books, and wrote a book of her own called Parents Who Think Too Much.

Cassidy describes a kind of advice-junkie trap for parents, one that beckons as soon as they set down the home pregnancy test and head out to buy What to Expect When You're Expecting, first published in 1984. Within its pages a woman learns how to graduate from pregnancy summa cum laude, following a regimented "Best-Odds" diet to "significantly" improve the odds that the baby "will be born healthy." Next: What to Expect the First Year and What to Expect the Toddler Years. Soon, parents are standing in the kid-raising section of the bookstore or newsstand, surrounded by screaming titles, thinking that they know very little, that their parents knew very little, and that they desperately need help.

True, admits Cassidy, previous generations sought child-raising advice. "The difference is, there might have been a book, or maybe two books, per generation, with one method of child-rearing in vogue. In 1975, there were 500 books on child-rearing topics; 20 years later, it's a couple of thousand per year."

With so much often conflicting information about the ramifications of parenting, and scarce time to digest it, every decision becomes weighted with implications: when to take away the pacifier; whether to use a stroller or a Snugli; what preschool to choose. "These things are huge deals now," Cassidy says, citing the existence of baby-sling instructors and books like Bottlefeeding Without Guilt as symptoms of the obsession. "We want to be perfect parents from the start."

Braun believes this compulsion hits mothers hardest: "My own personal theory is that the pressure to be a perfect parent grew out of the women's going-to-work movement. When you make a choice to do something, you need the validation for that choice. So if I have chosen to be in the work force, I need to know that my children are not suffering for that choice. Therefore, my children need to be perfect little products. And likewise, if you've chosen to stay at home, it's 'I need to know that was a worthwhile choice.' And how do I know that? My child is a perfect little product."

Cassidy agrees: "If we don't stay home with our children, we feel we have a knowledge gap about kids, so we're reading the books to catch up. But if we do stay home after having been used to being in an office and being very organized, we're going to do parenting like it's work. I know women who say, 'I never used to have a Filofax until I had kids.' They're used to being out of the house all day long, so they go out to the playground or Gymboree classes, and they schedule the kids for all kinds of activities, and it becomes like their work project."

Like other critics of modern parenting, Cassidy is careful to point out that this drive for perfection primarily afflicts thoughtful, well-educated, intelligent people. "It's like they're going to run child-raising like every other part of their lives. And it's not going to work, because there are other people involved. You never know what kind of child you're going to get."

John Rosemond, the parenting author, columnist, and speaker, believes that in our secular and materialist culture, parents are trying to turn out perfect little products, largely to gratify their own egos: "We no longer emphasize character development in how we raise children, we emphasize talent development. The parent with the child with the greatest achievement wins."

Rosemond gained a national reputation for toughness with his books Because I Said So, Parent Power!, and others, plus a slew of similarly themed books and newspaper articles. But he worries that parents take a "sound bite approach" to his message, heeding the advice about taking the upper hand piecemeal, forgetting that discipline, or any approach to straightening out kids, has to occur in a context and has to be consistent.

"By the time a child was 4 years old," he says, "the typical parent of 50 years ago had put that child to work in the family and was teaching that child obligation, a service ethic, and to be aware that he was not an independent operator but part of a social grouping." But while some parents today might be commanding with a kid about individual problems - finishing homework or interrupting adults - they also "put the child on what I call family welfare at birth, and keep him there for 18 years. The child is required to do absolutely nothing - in many cases not even keep his room clean - and nonetheless gets pretty much whatever he wants."

Even within such a context, Rosemond asserts, it's a mistake to think that following any parenting strategy will allow us to program an Uberkid. "You can control your child's access to you, you can control what you will and will not do for him, but you sure as heck can't control him. And the attempt to do so is going to be very frustrating." But Rosemond notes that he sees such attempts constantly. "I was talking to a journalist in Missouri, and she was relating a conversation she had with a parent who's a proponent of attachment parenting, and this parent said, 'I will do anything I can to raise a perfect child.' I made sure I heard that correctly and that that was a direct quote. 'I am a perfectionist, and I will do anything I can to raise a perfect child.'"

"There's a sense that if there's so much information out there about parenting, there must be a right way to parent," says Jodi Wilinsky Hill of Parenting Resource Associates. "Parents go off in search of how to do a better job and find there's so much information that it can't be managed effectively, so they latch on to one piece of advice and adopt that as their parenting philosophy, for lack of having a bigger picture."

Parents hear that it's good to give kids choices rather than telling them what to do, for instance, so they follow that advice in isolation, overwhelming children with choices that they are not developmentally capable of making, while creating in them the impression that they are the bosses. "Not just 'Do you want to wear your red socks or your blue socks?' but 'Do you want to wear socks?' and 'Do you want to get dressed?'" says Hill. In addition to driving everyone bananas, this backfires when parents have to pull rank.

Or parents hear that it's important to help a child develop good self-esteem. But instead of giving children honest reactions reflecting their strengths and weaknesses, their parents tell them that everything they do is fantastic and rescue them from situations that threaten to dent their self-image, a strategy that causes anger and disillusionment when the children realize that the world doesn't embrace them unconditionally.

One person with a unique perspective on this is nature writer Gary Ferguson. To research his book Shouting at the Sky, he spent three months in one of the country's most successful wilderness therapy programs for very troubled teenagers. The participants were 14 to 17 years old, middle to upper-middle class, and of well above average intelligence and creativity. Other types of programs had failed for them, including psychiatric wards and rehab facilities.

"For those kids to be comfortable in the wilderness, they had to take a certain amount of responsibility for themselves," says Ferguson. "If you don't put up your tarp in the wilderness, for instance, you will get wet if it rains. For a lot of them, it was the first time they had gotten the sense that action A leads to result B. There was often a certain, I think, resentment when they started to realize that by having been protected from all consequences, they had really become dependent on other people to determine what was going to happen to their lives."

Topsfield mother Mary DeRoo notices a similar erosion of coping skills springing from overscheduling kids in extracurricular activities. "The kids don't know how to start their own neighborhood game of kickball. They don't know how to make allowances for the smaller kids, because they're used to everything being equal, because that's how their parents treat them. They're so used to the instructor telling them the rules that they don't know how to make them up themselves."

In school, too, kids are no longer encouraged to find their own way, so great is the impulse to speed their achievement. Maryann Fitzgerald, who has taught first grade in Hudson for the past 30 years, is the first to say she sees parents doing their best to help their kids. But she wonders about the conviction that everything now, including school learning, needs to be fun and engaging. "We also have an obligation to teach children how to deal with failure," she says. "If you teach them to work extremely hard at something that isn't fun, whether it's math or reading, and they have to keep struggling with it, maybe when they come to a social situation that they can't seem to handle, this discipline of working hard at getting by a difficult situation may help them. I think we're not doing them any favors by letting everything be hunky-dory."

"If parents would just ask, 'What are the long-range results of what I'm doing?'" says Jane Nelsen, a family counselor in Sacramento and author of a series of "Positive Discipline" books. In a former job as an elementary school counselor, when she saw kids having difficulty, she would ask them who dressed them that day. "Most of the time," she says, "the parents were still dressing the kids, even though they can do it for themselves by the time they're 2 years old. Parents do it because it's easier, faster, and the kids look better. Here's a great example of where the parents are in total control, and yet they're robbing their children of the opportunity to develop the belief that 'I am capable and I can contribute in meaningful ways.'"

Carol Maxym, a psychotherapist specializing in troubled teenagers, and author of Teens in Turmoil, finds it a deep shame that we've turned parenting into something we feel must be done to perfection, with perfect vigilance, and for perfect results. Prying parents' fingers from their children's lives is a central part of her work. "One of the things I tell parents all the time is to go back to when you were whatever age your child is now and remember your feelings as they were then. 'Did you want your parents to save you from everything?'"

Another question that serves Maxym well in talking to parents: "How's your sex life?" It's not Freudian curiosity on her part. She doesn't want details. But she has found the question to be a litmus test for determining whether parents have maintained their own lives or have simply become parenting machines, absorbed in the task of living their children's lives for them. Because in addition to being hard on kids, perfectionist parenting is awfully wearying for adults.

Jess Brallier, a father of two who lives in Reading, sees many of his peers spending every spare moment serving the children - focusing on them at home, ferrying them to various lessons and games on weekends - leaving no room for themselves and feeling guilty if they miss a single soccer match or meeting. "I watch older couples sitting quietly, not talking, at turnpike restaurants," he says. "And I realize there's no longer any 'they' there. They so elevated their children that they innocently wrecked their marriage in the process. Parenting is more like a lease than ownership. I love the kids, but my real duty is to prepare them for when I'm not here. They're not my life, they are a stage in my life, maybe 20 years. Whereas my marriage ... maybe, if I'm blessed, I'll have it for 60."

It takes courage to say such a thing, says Maxym. "I think we've got the idea of a grading scale out there, and every parent is worried about failing on that grading scale. We have a lot of people saying, 'You're a bad parent if you do this, or if you don't do that.'"

But from Maxym's seat, talking to the kids of mothers and fathers who overparent, it's critically important that parents pay less attention to providing happy childhoods for their kids and more attention to having happy adulthoods themselves. Even when they don't mean to, parents teach children. And growing up is challenging enough without having to fear you're on the road to one day becoming an adult enslaved to the shaping of perfect children. "I can remember in particular one teen telling me almost that," Maxym says. "'Why do I want to grow up? Doesn't look too good to me.'"

"We have to let being an adult be something that looks at least reasonably attractive. You have to have a certain level of comfort with yourself. 'I try my best, and I can accept my mistakes.' Your child will get those feelings. It doesn't mean that you're perfect. Maybe you don't make it to every soccer game. It means that you do your best - and that you know there are limitations on that."

This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 3/26/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.