Being a parent is a stressful job. These days you’re not only expected to cover the basics – love, food, clothing, schooling, junior taxi service. Our perfectionist culture tells parents we must also execute a punishing schedule geared to transforming our child into star pupil, tennis champ and school musical lead.
But hyper-parenting – where parents push their kids in the name of ‘fulfilling their potential’ — doesn’t necessarily lead to happier, healthier, more successful kids. Not every child can be the next Ronaldo or Picasso, and parental pressure and over-involvement can lead to children’s anxiety, fear of failure and inability to be self-reliant.
Economist Bryan Caplan caused a stir earlier this year with his book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun than You Think, which suggested that hot-housing has little long-term effect on your child. Caplan points out that studies on twins and adopted kids show that the long-term effects of parenting have little impact on a wide variety of outcomes including health, happiness, intelligence, character and success.
Children can’t be moulded, he says. Like flexible plastic, they respond to pressure but return to their original shape when pressure is released, so there’s no point trying to change them. “Even happiness is not something that parenting makes or breaks,” says Caplan.
Since you can’t change your kids, pushing them to excel is a waste of time and a burden on your relationship with them, say supporters of a new type of more ‘serene’ parenting.
“We all want the same thing: for our children to be happy and healthy and to reach their full potential,” says Carl Honore, slow advocate and author of Under Pressure: Rescuing our Children from the Culture of Hyperparenting. “And we can all have this if we relax a bit, if we get the right balance between doing too much for our children and doing too little.”
Focusing less on children is better for parents, too, not just because those who overparent are three times more likely to suffer depression and anxiety, according to clinical psychologist Dr Madeline Levine, who believes that over-involved parenting is a parent's way of correcting what they saw as wrong in their own lives. It’s also better for your kids if you invest in your own relationship.
“Hyper-parenting is exhausting. It turns childrearing into a cross between a competitive sport and product development,” says Honore. It’s tiring, expensive and stressful. “All this puts a squeeze on the marriage, with both partners feeling tired and overstretched. It also means they have less time to spend together on their own. Ultimately, it can break a marriage.”
But if we all want the best for our kids, how do you get the balance right between providing opportunities and being hands-off? Caplan points out that if you’re consciously thinking about your parenting style, you’re already on the right track.
“Ignore the panic and peer pressure – your child will be fine,” Honore advises. “Trust your instincts. Find your own way to parent. Listen to and observe your child. A child is not a project or a product or a trophy or a piece of clay you can mould into a work of art. A child is a person who will thrive if allowed to be the protagonist of his own life.”
- Experiment with reading no parenting manuals and websites for a week. Try to work out your own style of parenting, what works best for your family, rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing.
- When you next take your child to the playground, resist the temptation to jump in and co-play at every turn. Back off so your child can play on her own or with other children.
- Schedule a few hours each week that are free of structured activity when the family can rest, chat, play games, cook together - whatever takes your fancy when the moment arrives.
- Let your children tell you how school went today, rather than demanding a full debriefing the moment they step through the door.
Overparenting: sure signs
- You find yourself yelling at your kid when you’re in the process of doing something that is for their ‘benefit.’ The activity is hurting the relationship for the sake of some future benefit that you can’t guarantee.
- Your child still doesn’t sleep through the night after three months. Instead of training them to sleep, you spend hours tending to your kids. If you get a decent night’s sleep, you’ll be a better parent.
- If you are en route to an activity and both you and your kid can’t face it. If your child is complaining and you’re thinking you can’t be bothered to go, it’s a sign that it has become a chore.