When Sarah and I first became parents almost 22 years ago, I recall someone saying to us, “Well, there really isn’t a manual for parenting – so you just need to trust your instincts and go for it.” Today, a quick search for “parenting manual” on Amazon will lead you to more than 1,400 "parenting manuals." So what is a parent to do? One could spend every waking minute reading these manuals and ultimately never have time to actually be a parent.
In the past week two significant bits of parenting advice caught my attention. The first was an article in the Wall Street Journal that has been summarized in the popular press as advocating “extreme parenting”. The second was a film Sarah and I saw calledA Race to Nowhere (http://www.racetonowhere.com), which questions the efficacy of parenting that pushes kids from an early age to be top students, musicians and athletes at the expense of family, friends, play and creativity (and strongly advocates scaling back the time committed to becoming "the best"). These widely discussed points of view could not be more different, yet both will surely create a following of parents who feel that one or the other represents some sort of "answer" to their daily parenting dilemmas.
In working with parents (and working through the challenges of being a parent myself), I have seen these approaches implemented to varying degrees. I’ve seen parents who are more "laid back" who have children who are "driven" and want the structure and expectations of "extreme parenting." I’ve seen parents who are "extreme" in their parenting and are constantly battling with children who don’t meet those parental expectations. And it feels as if I’ve seen and felt every shade of gray in between.
“Should I push him harder?”
“Do I need to back off?”
“Am I more interested in X’s success in Y than she is herself?”
“I know it is brutally competitive out there. Am I cheating my child if I don’t do all I can to foster traditional forms of achievement?”
And the list goes on.
My bias in all of this revolves around the significant time I’ve spent with high school kids who feel they have been pushed too hard to be someone they are not. When there is significant dissonance between parental expectations and adolescent identity, there is always at least some emotional trauma that I have seen (in the worst cases) lead to permanently fractured families and long term personal identity issues.
There is no "answer" to these ongoing dilemmas we face as parents. My advice would be to try to figure out who your child is becoming – what makes her motor run? What challenges does he enjoy most? – in the context of understanding that we all grow up according to our own developmental arc (I don’t know about the rest of you out there, but when I was 15 I had no idea of what my career would be, let alone have any sense of urgency about working toward it in high school!). I’d also suggest that you keep the long view in mind both in terms of the kind of a relationship you want with your children in 10, 20, 30 years and the fact that over time their interests and maturity will evolve.
Beyond that, I think the advice we got 22 years ago was pretty spot on: don’t think there is a manual for parenting; trust your instincts and go for it. And if you want to hear more about the debate swirling around extreme parenting, click here.