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In Ashland City, Tennessee, the parents of a 5-year-old insist that their daughter is "already far too advanced" for the small town's public-school kindergarten. Instead, they believe, she should start school in first grade. It takes an entire month of tearful late-night homework sessions -- to catch up on skills normally acquired in kindergarten -- before these parents finally acknowledge that their daughter actually does belong in kindergarten with the other children her age.
In Dayton, Ohio, a mother and father volunteer to coach the local Odyssey of the Mind competition so they can place both their elementary-age kids on the team. (The coach's child doesn't have to try out.) The children, neither of whom has the academic credentials to be chosen for the team on the basis of performance alone, spend the entire competition chasing each other around the auditorium.
In San Marcos, Texas, a mother drives her child 40 miles to karate lessons every day. This grueling schedule has resulted in a shelf full of first-place karate trophies and a 12-year-old child who has never had an after-school play date with another kid.
What are these parents thinking?
While the parents described above are extreme examples, they're not uncommon. We all know parents who've gone this far or farther. If we admit it, we also know that the impulse behind their actions is a feeling we've had ourselves: We all believe that our children are above average.
But according to experts, only about 10 percent of kids are truly gifted, either academically or creatively. The rest are just garden-variety children -- perfectly delightful, ordinary kids. Unfortunately, most parents these days don't want average kids. So we nudge our children to try baseball as well as soccer, to accept the solo in the school musical, to make A's in subjects that don't come all that easily to them, to take French lessons after school and tennis on Saturday. Before long, and from mostly good impulses, we've turned our children into walking resumes. We've also set them up for a lifetime of feeling that nothing they do will ever be good enough.
Parents have always wanted what's best for their children, have always dreamed of having kids that were bright and talented, sure to go far in life. And, in truth, this trend to sign up kids for lessons and team sports and private tutors can sometimes stem from a genuine need. When public schools increasingly manage budget shortfalls by cutting out music and art and gym classes, parents may have no choice but to find a way to fill in the gaps themselves.
What's damaging to kids is when parents take the traditional hopes and dreams of parenthood to a new, even absurd, level -- and that's what's happening more and more.
Part of the problem is that parents today are bombarded by advice. We avidly watch every report about intellect-enhancing activities; we pore over magazine articles about how to stimulate our baby's growing brain. As Lisa Cruz, 25, a university information specialist and mother of one in San Antonio, puts it, "If psychologists are telling us that constant stimulation will lead to our child's future success, a lot of parents will try anything."
The one thing we don't want to fail at is being good parents. But since it isn't always easy to know what being a good parent really means, we look for external measures of our success. Working parents who feel guilty for spending too little time with their children can feel vindicated if they have a highly successful child. The child's success becomes de facto evidence that they're successful parents. And, conversely, the stay-at-home mom is under just as much pressure. As one stay-at-home mother of two in Birmingham, Alabama, puts it, "My kids are my responsibility. So it'll be all my fault if I don't do it right."
And then there's peer pressure -- among parents themselves. "Some parents see their children's activities as just another way of keeping up with the Joneses," says Leah Klungness, PhD, a psychologist in Locust Valley, on Long Island, New York. "They often feel that they must demand academic excellence and permit their children to participate in as many activities as possible so that their kids don't fall behind."
When you look at all the pressures leading parents to develop this may-the-best-kid-win attitude, it's not surprising that so many fall prey to pushy parenting. But as understandable as the mentality is, "This is an attitude that's toxic," says Linda Hutchinson, PhD, parent coordinator in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina.
When you're constantly correcting homework, carting B or C students to a tutor, "helping" with the social-studies project, or getting overly involved in your kids' sports success, says Pat Bruner, PhD, a former school psychologist from Richmond, Virginia, you're subtly signaling to them that they aren't good enough exactly as they are: "The long-range effect on kids pressured to excel beyond their ability is adults who are insecure or bitter that their best is never good enough."
The pressure to participate in the competitive kid culture is intense, and it won't be easy to resist. Consider these tips for slowing down:
Trust that average is the norm. It may feel at times that yours is the only child not in the gifted program at school, but remember that only a small minority of children truly qualify as gifted. Most of the kids actually in the gifted program aren't really gifted; they may simply have more ambitious, competitive parents.
Recognize that there are lots of ways to be gifted. "Every child has strengths," says Bruner. "The problem is that only a few strengths are being recognized by our society right now -- academic success and athletic prowess." So take a moment to celebrate your child's real gifts, even if they aren't in the classroom or on the playing field. Donna Wyman, 41, a not-for-profit coordinator and mother of two in Greenville, South Carolina, remembers a report card her daughter brought home a couple of years ago, when she was in fifth grade. "It was the first year Maggie came home with a report card that wasn't all A's and B's; in fact, it was mostly C's." Wyman quickly made an appointment to talk with Maggie's teacher, who told her, "Your daughter is an average student. She's happy and healthy. She's the nicest kid in the class. She has lots of friends. What more could you possibly ask for?" The conference was an epiphany for Wyman. "What a great teacher!" she says today.
Take the long view. "Anyone who has ever attended a high-school reunion can well understand that there are no guarantees or fail-safe predictors of adult success," says Leah Klungness. The quarterback of the football team rarely goes on to play in the NFL. And Albert Einstein reputedly was a lackluster student. In that context, it makes sense to relax and watch your child bloom on her own schedule.
Keep it simple for as long as possible. The day will come when kids ask to participate in events and activities, and parents will have to scramble to protect family time. But many parents inadvertently set up a pattern of family mania very early on -- even before kids are old enough to ask for themselves. But preschoolers don't need T-ball or Suzuki piano lessons or the pollywog swim program to thrive. Linda Guy, 38, a publicity director in Atlanta and the mother of five, says, "I learned from my older children that a hectic activity schedule can drive us all crazy, so I've been very intentional about keeping my youngest child's life extremely simple. As she starts elementary school, she has no regularly scheduled activities other than church, and she's a very calm, secure child."
Steer stress-inducing conversations to safer waters. When other parents start to list their child's activities and accomplishments, say something like, "You must be really proud," and immediately change the subject. You can't win in a conversation like that, and playing the game will just make you -- and your child, if she overhears it -- unnecessarily uptight.
Finally, in every context and with every parenting decision, says Bruner, you need to remember that parenthood's real goal is "to help your child become a happy, productive person. Period." For those wonderful average kids all around us, being forced to be something they're not only undermines that goal. --Margaret Renkl
Margaret Renkl is a freelance writer in Nashville.