The Parenting Pressure Cooker

We’ve all felt it, the pressure to do more, more creatively, more frequently, and more lavishly. We succumb to some imperative to push[1] our children to accomplish more, to excel, to clear some intellectual or academic hurdle, to master some musical instrument or foreign language, or to become an accomplished athlete. Little Jane and Little Johnny should not have one second of unscheduled time or unstructured play, lest they fall behind their peers and we be exposed as negligent parents.[2]

The implicit and at times explicit competition for how we raise our children begins before we even have them (as “The Parenting Challenge” points out so clearly). This tournament for the best child has little to do with our children and more to do with us, the parents. Have we failed to grow up. Do we need to refight some battle we lost as teenagers. Are we so narcissistic that we reduce our children to instruments of self-validation? Are we just bad parents?

Whatever the explanation, the pressure on mothers is, I am sure, infinitely greater than it is on fathers. Everywhere you look are, inter alia, magazines, ads, blogs, and websites celebrating Preternaturally Creative Mothers whose relationship to time is clearly not limited by the same constraints that operate on the rest of us mortals.[3] In the face of so much perfection, how can any mortal mother feel adequate?

The solution to this problem—and let’s be clear, it is a problem—is not to extend the fantasy and drum the self policing into fathers, though the increasing number of inter alia, magazines, ads, blogs, and websites celebrating Preternaturally Creative Fathers is on the rise. The solution is to recognize it’s a juvenile game of oneupmanship and to decide to stop playing. Stop reducing their childhood to evidence your success or failure as a parent. Stop invoking them as evidence of your worth or standing.

Sure, do wonderful things with and for your children. But also do ordinary things with your children. And do nothing with your children. And once in a while, not on any schedule or calendar, leave them to their own devices.

  1. It is fascinating to catalog the many euphemisms parents employ to disguise their act—we encourage, coax, urge, stimulate. On a good day, “push” describes what happens. Frequently, the process degrades into bribe, goad, impel, coerce, nag, force, require, browbeat, bulldoze, and bully.  ↩

  2. Now, in some freakish parody of ourselves, we are expected to schedule unscheduled free time, i.e., unstructured play. At curriculum night, one parent was boasting about how much better Little Jane is doing now that “every day I make sure she has some unscheduled time for unstructured play.” I’m trying to envision the calendar of activities I’m sure hangs conspicuously on the kitchen wall where not only members of the family can see it but visitors will see and marvel at little Jane’s impressive schedule of activities. Sandwiched between Violin practice from 3:30–4:20 and Chinese tutoring at 5:00 is 33 minutes of “Unscheduled Time for Unstructured Play” (with 7 minutes reserved for bodily functions), except on Wednesdays when Chinese is replaced by Ballet class, which requires a 10 minute drive, so “UTUP” is reduced to 20 minutes (saving the 7 minutes for bodily functions and 3 minutes to collect the ballet paraphernalia).
    Soon, I am sure, parents will be competing over their children’s UTUP, not just quantity but also quality and even authenticity.  ↩

  3. When I was young I was convinced that if I could adjust my mechanical watch so it ran fast, 15 minutes per hour fast to be precise, I could enjoy 32 hours in my day where everybody else would have a scanty 24 hours. Perhaps prematurely and much to my regret, I came to believe that I would not, in fact, benefit from setting my watch fast. Perhaps these P.C.M.s have figured out how to make this work.  ↩


“My daughter can …”

He was gregarious and friendly as he circled the classroom that first day, making a point to introduce himself and his daughter to all the parents there. I assumed he was trying to help his daughter make new friends in her new school. I was mistaken. When he got to us, before he had retracted his hand from the clichéd handshake, he launched into an inventory of “My daughter can …” statements. For the next 30 seconds he regaled me with his daughter’s academic abilities and accomplishments. She, meanwhile, was peeling the paper wrapper off a crayon. As quickly as he had materialized before me, he moved on to the next parent.

Part way through his checklist of achievements I realized that I knew this father-daughter pair. A year earlier, when he was convinced that the pre-K class was not “challenging or stimulating enough” for his daughter, he had found a better school for her. Then, as now, he had never missed a chance to detail for the other parents his own daughter’s feats of intellectual and academic derring-do. Those parents reckless enough to respond by praising their own children’s accomplishments found themselves locked in a fight-to-the-death game of one-upmanship, tossing ever escalating and increasingly hyperbolic accolades, honors, and exploits back and forth like some verbal time bomb set to explode at the first sign of hesitation.

This father’s compulsion to market and position his daughter is precisely what we should expect. You could easily argue, his obsession reflects his profound love and care for his daughter. He, I have no reason to doubt, only wants the best for her. As he understands, in our society school is a zero-sum game in which his daughter’s successes are measured against those of the children around her. There will be winners and there will be losers. And to the winners go the spoils of good college, good job, big house, expensive car, luxury vacations, in short, a good life.

The mistake is equating education with achieving mastery over certain prescribed tasks. Such mastery confuses a particular skill with knowledge. It rewards a particular intellectual achievement at the expense of cultivating habits of mind, of encouraging curiosity, of nurturing enquiry, of fostering independence, and of promoting perseverance.

When I ran into this father this morning, he reminded me of his daughter’s incomparable brilliance. At the appropriate moment, I expressed my wonder and awe at her latest feat. In reply, I smiled and said “#2 can almost reach The Third Monkey Bar.”