I have a confession to make. Back when the weather was really nice, there were a number of days when I spent perhaps a grand total of five minutes with my children from the time they got home from school until we ate dinner. No educational activities together, no family bonding time, no outings. I just let them play. For the most part, I knew where they were. They played with each other and with other neighborhood kids, rotating between their houses and ours. They played in the huge cardboard box-turned-play-fort in our yard, climbed trees, and had a great time. From time to time they’d wander in for a snack or a drink, but mostly they kept to themselves. I learned later that some of the things they did included killing bees with a baseball bat, “fixing” the cardboard fort with a hammer and nails, and patrolling the neighborhood like secret agents with their Nerf guns to keep us safe. I guess I’m glad I didn’t know what they were doing after all! So now I ask you—does that make me a bad parent? After all, who would let their kids run around mostly unsupervised for three hours? What kind of parent would let their kids use a hammer and nails without adult supervision? Or kill bees with a baseball bat, supervised or not? Or for that matter, play with toy guns? And besides, shouldn’t parents be spending time with their kids, playing games, reading books, going to museums, building memories? What kind of a parent does these things anyhow? Turns out, a good one.
Lately I’ve read a number of books and articles that talk about children in crisis, and it’s quite alarming. Kids nowadays have more problems than ever before, both physically and emotionally. And honestly, most of that falls back on adults. So much advice from “authorities” is available to parents that we think we’re failing our kids if we aren’t doing the latest thing with or for our kids. Well-meaning parents who truly love their kids fall into these traps, thinking they’re doing the right thing, when in fact, they may not be. Here are some of the most common mistakes parents are making, but take heart. These aren’t irreversible. They’re also really easy to fix once you’re aware of them.
1. Overachieving. Parents want what’s best for their children, and they want to see them succeed, so if that means extra time for private lessons or coaching, so be it, right? But what starts as a genuine interest to help your child learn can also become an obsession. I knew a family whose son was in year-round travel hockey. He was eight years old. Does an eight year old really need that kind of intensity and pressure? Adults in general have become obsessed with sports from a very young age in children, and too often we’re the ones who take the fun from it, pressuring them to win. The article The Race to Nowhere in Youth Sports shows what we are doing to kids by obsessing over sports in particular. We’re robbing them of their childhoods. And it’s not just sports. I taught piano lessons for some time, and people asked me how young they should start their children. In complete honesty, I found that third grade was an ideal time to start. They’re old enough to sit still and get the concepts but they’re still young enough to want to make their teacher happy. Kids who started in third grade caught up in less than a year to their peers who had started in kindergarten. So do your kids a favor and assess how early you’re starting them in activities, and how much pressure is put on them to succeed.
2. Overconnecting. No, I’m not talking about trying to connect with your kids. I’m talking about another kind of connectivity. Technology. In this day and age, we’re pretty much connected to the Internet 24/7. And that’s bad. Especially for our kids to see that in us. What does it tell a kid when you eat dinner with the family yet glance down at your phone every two minutes? How many times have you promised your kids you’d do something with them only to get caught up in an email or on Facebook and then run out of time to do that thing you promised? I’ve seen this video floating around the internet, but it’s worth checking out again—If This Video Doesn’t Convince You to Put Down Your Phone, Nothing Probably Will. The caption says, “We’re so consumed by our phones and social networks, that sometimes we forget to live.” Indeed. But the really bad thing is that this spills over into the lives of our kids as well. Many of my childrens’ classmates have iPads, iPhones, tablets, and more. My kids beg me regularly for these gadgets as well, and sometimes I’m sorely tempted to give in. But parents, hold off on getting them technology as long as you can. Kids need to be kids. They need to play outside with other neighborhood kids. They need to use their imaginations and yes, they even need to be bored so they can figure out how to amuse themselves on their own without staring at a glowing screen. For another good read, check out this article on why even Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids get their own iPhones.
3. Overparenting. You would do anything for your children, right? But don’t mistake that for doing everything for your children. Not too long ago, my kindergartner had to make a vehicle from a cardboard box for their transportation unit. Parents were encouraged to help, but the finished product was to look like the child made it. I helped my daughter glue on the yellow construction paper for her bus, and penciled in lines for her to paint over, but she cut out the circles for the wheels, painted the lines, and even drew people in the windows all by herself. She did a great job with it, and was so proud of it when she was done. When we got to school it was obvious that some of the vehicles were done solely by the parents. They looked professionally made, and it made you wonder if the student had anything to do with its design at all. You all know what I mean—you’ve seen science fair projects that were obviously done by parents, or social studies displays that are way too advanced for a fifth grader’s ability. Parents, when you do this sort of thing for your kids you are robbing them of the invaluable chance to do something for themselves and learn from their experiences. Sometimes they’ll do a great job, and sometimes the end result will be pretty bad, but they need to fail now and then in order to learn. And personally, I’d rather they fail a third grade project than get into their first job and fail to prepare properly for a presentation. Let them learn and, yes, even fail, now when the stakes are small. That’s the only way to teach responsibility in the long run.
4. Overprotecting. I recently came across an excellent article called The Overprotected Kid by Hanna Rosin. (I find it telling that part of the subtitle is “Hey parents, leave those kids alone.”) The article details a very unique type of playground in the UK that more resembles a junk heap than a playground. There are wooden pallets, old tires, an old barrel trashcan for kids to start fires… It sounds insane to most of us, but here’s the thing—there have been relatively few accidents there, and kids absolutely love it. They can make forts, swing on a rope across the water (or fall in trying), build things, and feel independent, probably because parents really aren’t allowed there. My boys would totally go for that kind of place. I can see them spending an entire weekend at such a place, and coming home excited and feeling grown up.
Obviously, it’s not wrong to try to keep your kids safe. I wouldn’t, for example, let my 2-year-old wander in the street. However, as kids get older they need a feeling of independency. They need to know that you trust them enough to figure things out on their own. The article tells us that “[a]t the core of [our] safety obsession is a view of children…'[the] idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.'” We’re subliminally telling our kids that they’re too dumb to make their own decisions when we hover nearby and try too hard to protect them. They may hear, You’re not smart enough to make your own decisions. I have to make them for you. Rosin’s article goes on to point out that it’s deeper than we may realize. Kids are born to try risky behavior, and if you’re denying them that chance in their play, it will come out in other, more dangerous ways as they get older. Instead, let them engage in “risky behavior” (at least, in their own minds) while they’re young so they get that thrilling experience of making their own choices and overcoming fear.
5. Overscheduling. Do you feel like all you do is run your kids from one activity to another? Nowadays kids are expected to participate in organized sports from 4 or 5 on, but we want our kids to be well-rounded, so we sign them up for piano lessons or ballet or 4-H or all of the above, then spend our afternoons racing from one thing to another, grabbing take-out from McDonald’s as we wonder why in the world we’re doing this to ourselves. This isn’t just bad for our own stress level, it’s terrible for our children as well.
A great resource here is the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. The subtitle is “Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids.” Let me tell you an alarming story Payne relates. When Payne was in his twenties, he worked with children in Asia at two different refugee camps. These people had been dispossessed by political instability, and now lived in little villages of cardboard boxes, ruled by gangs who kept order by fear. The children were fearful, sick, and in constant danger, and most had never known any other way of life. Not surprisingly, these children displayed all the classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. After leaving Asia, Payne went to England and worked for years as a school and private counselor. He describes the symptoms he saw in his young patients in England, and reveals the startling revelation he had. “What finally dawned on me was that the treatment plans I was developing for this group of children were identical to those that I had helped develop in Asia….What I was at last able to grasp was pretty remarkable. I doubted it for as long as I could, until I was certain: These children, these very typical children from an affluent country of the Western world, were showing the signs and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder… I realized that for both groups the sanctity of childhood had been breached. Adult life was flooding in unchecked. Privy to their parents’ fears, drives, ambitions, and the very fast pace of their lives, the children were busy trying to construct their own boundaries, their own level of safety in behaviors that weren’t ultimately helpful. These children were suffering from a different kind of war: the undeclared war on childhood” (p 8). Kids are kids. They can’t handle the frantic pace of adult life, nor should they be expected to do so. Free up their schedules as much as possible, and learn to say “no” yourself, while you’re at it. It’ll teach your kids that you can take control of your own schedule and not work yourself into exhaustion either.
So parents, take stock of your parenting habits and see if you recognize yourself in any of the above topics. If so, consider what you can do to change those habits. The good thing is that you can always unlearn a habit and make a new one, and your kids can as well. Let your kids be kids and learn things on their own. Give them credit. They’re smarter than you may think. Let them explore and discover the world at their own pace. Even if that means killing bees with a baseball bat.