Weighing the price of 'perfect' in family life

Parents face pressure to push their children into many activities and to be involved as well.

When her two children were small, Bugs Peterschmidt made a quiet vow: She would not become "one of those moms whose kids are in a ton of things."

But by the time her son reached sixth grade, he was involved in six activities. No wonder, perhaps, that when soccer sign-up sheets arrived, both of her children said no. They just wanted to stay home that summer. Rather than push, she let them follow their leanings.

"It was a huge success," says Mrs. Peterschmidt, of Plymouth, Minn., describing their summer. "Cousins came to visit, and we'd visit cousins." Instead of spending four evenings a week at soccer practice, the family enjoyed leisurely dinners at home.

Yet when acquaintances learn that her children have, for now, dropped all activities except music lessons, they respond with incredulity. In an era characterized by overcommitted children, overinvolved parents, and pressure to succeed at an early age, the Peterschmidts' brave approach is hardly the typical American way of parenting.

But here and there, small signs of change are appearing, which support decisions like Peterschmidt's. Several new books warn against excessive pushing and parental overinvolvement. A grassroots group in suburban Minneapolis is also challenging the competitive culture of parenting. Its organizers want to create a better balance between family life and outside activities.

"We need to have a cultural conversation about what we have wrought," says William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and a co-founder of the group Family Life First. He is also the author of a forthcoming book, "Putting Family First," to be published in August.

That cultural conversation begins with a fundamental question: What is a good parent? One who is heavily invested in children's activities, pressing hard to help them build impressive "résumés" of their accomplishments? Or one who guides gently from the sidelines, mindful that every added activity exacts a price from the whole family in lost time together?

Professor Doherty likens parents to recreation directors on a cruise ship. "A lot of this is driven by a sense of anxiety that their children not lose out, not be behind," he says. But pushing sometimes goes beyond simply serving children's best interests. Their achievements, Doherty observes, also reflect on how parents are doing as parents.

Calling pushing a "really big problem that seems to be getting worse, not better," he says, "Now we have 6-month-olds in music classes and swimming classes." Parents fear that if other children are attending these classes, they will be holding their own children back if they do not enroll, too.

What author Elisabeth Guthrie calls "push parenting" begins in the crib and the playpen. Toymakers' promotions for educational toys, for instance, tap into parents' concerns about children getting ahead. But what manufacturers are really promoting, she says, is competition.

That kind of subtle pressure throughout childhood is the subject of Dr. Guthrie's new book, "The Trouble With Perfect: How Parents Can Avoid the Overachievement Trap and Still Raise Successful Children" (Broadway, $22.95). In recent years she has observed a trend toward résumé padding and "résumé exhibitionism" for both adults and children.

"Just about no parent wants to push, but most feel they must," she says. "The great, gnawing fear is that if you don't push, if you relax and let the chips fall where they may, your child will fail, or at least not succeed."

Jim Taylor, whose book, "Positive Pushing," will be published in April, offers several reasons for parents' extreme investment in their children.

Many parents understandably want to ensure that their children will become financially successful. To that end, they push them to earn top grades and high SAT scores so they can get into the best schools.

In addition, the potential rewards of greatness, particularly in sports, have increased dramatically. That encourages some parents to pressure a child to become a professional athlete. As a cautionary tale, Taylor, who works with young achievers and their parents, recommends the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." It illustrates, he says, what can happen when parents become overly invested in their child's achievements and activities.

Taylor also laments the ubiquitous pop-culture messages that emphasize success and happiness, particularly success. Popular culture, he notes, offers extremely narrow definitions of success: wealth, fame, power, status, beauty. "Very few people can live up to that."

Doherty uses sports as an example of good parental intentions gone awry. When he was growing up in the 1950s, it would have been "mortifying" and "beyond the pale" for parents to attend sports practice sessions.

"We expected our kid world to be a kid world," he recalls. "We had zero expectations for parents to be observers and cheerleaders. A parent too much in evidence would have been embarrassing, as if we needed monitoring. We felt just as much loved as the current generation."

By the late 1970s, parental attendance at games had become mandatory. "It's a sign that you're a good parent if you go to all the games," Doherty says. "The really good parents go to all the practices, too. You have to be there for your kid, cheering your kid, protecting your kid."

Today, Doherty says, a good parent is defined as "somebody who is there for the kid's extracurricular activities, rather than someone who is home cooking a nice meal."

The other extreme, simply taking a laissez-faire approach and letting children do - or refuse to do - whatever they want, is not the answer either, of course.

Taylor emphasizes that parents need to push their children based on what is best for the children, not what is best for themselves. If children understand that an activity is in their best interests, then they will accept it, he finds.

How can families resist excessive pressure? The first step in any change, Guthrie says, is education - getting some insight into what is wrong with the family picture. She urges parents to heed the little voices within that say, "This is crazy. This is too much."

Taylor and other family experts remain pessimistic about the possibilities for widespread societal change. "The force of our popular culture, driven by money and superficial values, cannot be resisted," he says. But change can take place at a "micro-level," in families and schools.

When changes do occur, the rewards can benefit everyone in the family, Peterschmidt and others say. She cites the advantages her family experienced after her children cut back on activities.

"The biggest thing is that since we have done this, we are rested," she says. "Not only are our kids rested, because they're not in a ton of stuff, but my husband and I are rested, because we're not driving them everywhere. We weren't living in the moment when we were always busy. We were living by the schedule. The return on our investment of spending time together has been enormous."

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