How Parents can help Last month, my oldest son came home from school and announced that, for the third consecutive year, he had qualified to represent his grade in the school-wide spelling bee. “That’s wonderful!” I exclaimed. An awkward silence followed. “OK, mom, here’s the thing,” he finally blurted. “How mad would you be if I turned it down and let the runner-up take my spot?”
This gave me pause for two reasons:
1. This is my overachiever. The “can do” kid who eagerly seeks challenges.
Something was definitely up and,
2. He thought I’d be MAD? I HATE calling out spelling words!
Relief would be more accurate.
“Why do you want to decline?” I asked. His response? “It’s just too much right now.”
I listened as he went on to list his homework load, a looming SAT and an essay contest, not to mention basketball practice, games and Scout meetings.
I have to say, I was a little shocked. Mike and I have always tried to be very mindful of not putting unrealistic expectations on our kids. We are big advocates of free time, and as such, we allow each child to participate in only one sport and one other hobby each semester. In fact, Jack’s list of “pressures” was very short compared to many of his peers’. But it was his concern over whether or not I’d be “mad” that made me wonder, are we stressing our kids out without even knowing it?
Kids today have it much harder than my generation. When I was in kindergarten, staying inside the lines while coloring was a major accomplishment worthy of a coveted gold star. If today’s kindergartners haven’t read War and Peace, mastered a musical instrument, and become fluent in a foreign language, they are considered late bloomers! OK, I am exaggerating, but not by much. It’s a competitive world, and many of us try to give our kids a jump start on success before they are even out of the womb, wait-listing them at the “best” schools and enrolling them in every sport or activity, regardless of interest or aptitude. The result is that our children begin to realize at a very young age that when certain accomplishments or expectations are met, the adults in their world are happy—and that can lead to a lot of stress for a child.
“When we make demands that are not developmentally appropriate for our children, it creates a stressful situation,” says Dr. Madeleine Reichert, DMH. “We don’t honor where they are because we want to get a job accomplished. That creates a sense of anxiety and dread in the child.” So how can we eliminate stress from our children’s lives? We can’t, anymore than we can eliminate it from our own—nor should we! A certain amount of stress is necessary to effectively cause change. “Think of a muscle,” says Reichert. “You want to stretch it, not strain it. It’s all about managing the amount of stress you put on it.”
Avoid sending mixed or conflicting messages
A mixed message might be something like telling your preschooler that he is capable of dressing himself, but then doing it for him when you are in a hurry. Or telling your adolescent that you expect her to spend more time reading, yet having a television blaring in every room.
“Mixed messages are confusing and stressful to a child,” cautions Reichert. “They become unsure of how to please you.” Consistency is key with expectations.
Avoid activities that are not developmentally appropriate
If you want to sign your 3-year-old up for T-Ball because he will get some exercise and have fun with his friends—great! However, if you sign him up because you expect him to be the next Babe Ruth, rethink it. “When we expect a child to perform a skill that they don’t yet have, it can make them feel inadequate,” explains Reichert. It can also lead to what she deems the “imposter syndrome,” where the child thinks that in order to please you, he has to pretend to know things that he doesn’t. When it comes to sports, music lessons and other activities, keep your expectations realistic. Your 5-year-old is NOT going to be drafted by the Spurs, so relax a little if he can’t hit that basket yet.
Social media is taking the place of socializing, and kids are paying the price. It can be particularly stressful during the middle school years when children are naturally anxious about “fitting in.” Rather than developing real relationships and having growth experiences, however, they are developing virtual relationships and becoming concerned with quantity over quality. “If we could design something that we do not want for middle school students, social media is it,” says Reichert. “Their sense of self becomes caught up in ‘likes,’ and that is horrible developmentally at a time when they should be discovering their own identities.” This in turn leads to a ridiculous amount of stress during a stage when they are already anxious about being inadequate, and they begin to obsess over things that are completely irrelevant. If you allow your child to engage in social media, monitor it closely and limit the exposure. Encourage real relationships rather than virtual ones—and lead by example.
The Internet is one of the most useful tools that our children have at their fingertips. But it is also one of the most dangerous. Anything and everything is accessible with the click of a mouse, and children can find themselves in virtual worlds that they’re curious about, but not yet ready to experience. This can cause major stress and anxiety. “You wouldn’t drop your kid off at a bus stop downtown and say ‘have an interesting experience,’” says Reichert. “Yet we do it online all the time.” Again, monitor the time your child spends on the Internet, and if you can’t do that, then they don’t need access to it—period.
Children need free time to be creative. But in today’s world, they are shuttled from a seven-hour school day to other organized activities. “But my child wants to play three sports, sing in the choir and be the class president,” you say. Be that as it may, no child can do it all, and balance is key. It is up to you to quarterback for your child and help her determine what it is that she is really interested in. Then help her understand that it is OK to say “no” to things that don’t fit into that category. “We understand the need to unwind when it comes to our own lives, yet we can’t see the need for it in the lives of our children,” says Reichert, who says that the over- scheduling epidemic might have more to do with the parents than the child.
“We have to overcome this narcissistic need of wanting our child to be the best,” she cautions. “We have to honestly pay attention to when our children are the happiest and most passionate. We need to get hold of what drives us to drive our children.”
We aren’t talking about throwing in the towel in the name of overstructuring because of a setback or a disappointing outcome. We are talking about helping your child assess what is really important to him and what he has the time and energy to do.
“Kids need to understand that it is OK to say ‘thanks, but no thanks,’” says Reichert.
Which brings us back to my oldest child and the spelling bee. After listening to Jack give his reasons for wanting to decline, I realized that I should be proud that my son recognized his “tipping point.” That he realized that this was not something he was passionate about and that he was OK with turning it down. I accepted that for the wonderful thing it was, told him that we were proud of him for qualifying and that if he wanted to turn it down, we would support him and we wouldn’t be “mad.”
“Whew!” he replied. “Because I already did!” I guess he didn’t think I’d be that mad after all.