A US psychologist is urging parents to chill out and just let their children get on with things, writes John Cradden

Monday September 17 2012

PUSHY parents, eh? Look at their poor kids. You can almost see the deadness in their eyes. Being shuttled from one activity to another in the SUVs, seven days a week. Get a life.

Mind you, you have to wonder at the energy that drives these outwardly successful helicopter parents.

It must be exhausting, both managing a successful career and micro-managing their kids to ensure they get the best possible advantage in this dog-eat-dog, recession-riddled world.

My attitude couldn’t be more different. I can’t be bothered spending every afternoon ferrying them from music class to maths grinds and from gymnastics to GAA.

“Can I go out and play?” asks my five-year-old daughter. “No, it’s too dangerous out there, you might get run over.”

“Will you play a game with me then?” “No, I’m too busy, love”, I say, before handing her the iPad to play with.

I think I fall into a category of my own: the ‘lazy-but-overprotective parent’.

So when I stumble across an interview with US psychologist Madeline Levine about her new book, which supposedly advocates an approach termed ‘underparenting’, I’m hooked.

Here are some of the tips from her book, entitled ‘Teach Your Children Well’.

* Don’t be your children’s entertainment director (boredom forces children to make their own entertainment). Check.

* Don’t stop sibling squabbles (they’ll learn about compromise, survival and the art of negotiation). Check.

* Lose the buggy at age three (helps with exercise and communication). Our two-year-old insists on walking most of the time herself anyway, so er … check.

Levine’s previous book, ‘The Price of Privilege’, was a huge bestseller in the US. It explored why teenagers from affluent families were experiencing high rates of emotional problems, limited coping skills and disengagement from learning.

She found that it was mainly due to parents who had geared almost all their children’s lives to achieving high grades, trophies and entry into top schools and universities.

It turns out that the phenomenon is not confined to rich families but also huge swathes of middle-class households.

So the new book is an attempt to offer practical advice to parents who feel they want to change their approach in order to help their kids learn “real-world” skills that are important for success, including creativity, innovative thinking, resilience in response to failures, communication skills and the ability to collaborate.

It’s an interesting read and makes lots of salient points in a country where many parents are unhealthily obsessed with Leaving Cert points and the whole CAO merry-go-round.

Anne Conroy, training and resource service manager at children’s charity Barnados, says Ireland certainly has plenty of hyperactive parents.

“Research, which has included Irish research, has found that their over-involvement in such activities tends to cancel out the learning benefits of taking part in them.”

But she adds that there is no one way to parent.

“Every child and every family is unique, with its own background and its own way of doing things. Some of what Levine is promoting is helpful.”

When I interview Dr Levine I ask her if she really is suggesting that parents should become lazier in their approach in order to produce more rounded children.

She is livid with one newspaper’s suggestion that she’s all about ‘under-parenting’.

“I hated that article! They called it underparenting. As soon as I have time to breathe I need to write them a letter.

“The opposite of helicopter parenting or pushy parenting, or whatever, is not underparenting, it’s appropriate parenting,” she explains.

“It’s not that kids don’t need to be parented, they absolutely do. My suggestion is that instead of spending 95pc of our effort on what grades our kids get, or what college they are going to, that we pay some attention to the other aspects of character and coping skills that we know are necessary if you are going to have a reasonably successful life.”

Parents often do so much to ‘help’ their children that they end up doing more harm than good.

“It’s an exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their performance, which in turn makes them feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more overseeing.”

Levine says she is acutely aware of just how fast things are evolving in terms of what kids are learning simply because the world itself is changing so fast, so the need to learn better coping skills, for instance, becomes all the more important.

But before they try to change their approach, parents need to think about themselves first, she says.

“The first thing I would say to parents is to make sure that their own lives are in order.

“I think a lot of this hyper vigilance around kids has to do with parents feeling that they themselves are under tremendous scrutiny, or a lot of peer pressure.”

She suggests that parents get a hobby. “Make sure not everything you do is centred around your child,” she says.

“I can’t tell you how many kids have said in my office, ‘please tell my mother to get a hobby besides me.'”

She also suggests that parents learn to tolerate some distress in their kids.

“My advice always is, if you can’t stand to see your kid unhappy, you are in the wrong business.

“Part of developing resilience is making it through challenging things in life. And if you are always stepping in for your kid, they don’t get to do it.”

Even for those of us who are not so inclined to over-parent, Levine’s book offers useful reminders of just how important things like family time and unstructured outdoor play are, which can often be impinged upon by technology as much as too many extra curricular activities.

(Note to self: lock the iPad away.)

Margaret Harrington, a 46-year old mother of three teenage children aged 17, 15 and 11, says much of the practical advice in Levine’s book does make sense.

“I am a strong believer in teaching kids proper life skills,” says Harrington, from Carlow.

“This extends not just to my own kids, but anyone who visits here.”

Such skills include cooking and baking healthy food, doing laundry, ironing a school uniform, wiring a plug, basic food hygiene, working the central heating and fixing leaky taps. The list is endless, really.

“They will need to be resourceful when they grow up. Kid-glove parenting is the opposite of this.”

Being such a busy house means a big effort to sit down for dinner together in the evening is made.

“It makes an enormous difference to communication within the family. Everyone gets to share their day’s events, no matter how mundane.

“It means everyone’s talking, which, in this day and age, is not a given any more.”

Planned activities are minimal.

“The eldest plays saxophone and does karate. Our son plays GAA and rugby. The youngest girl does modern dance. That’s it.

“The kids get everything they need, but they are not molly-coddled in any way. I think that is a good thing.”

– John Cradden

Originally published in the Irish Independent

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