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The Big Answer


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Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success

a book by Madeline Levine

(our site's book review)

Counseling
Counseling

This is a timely, insightful book on the folly of pushing kids relentlessly toward success and college, at the cost of the kids' happiness and well-being. It disdains the practice that forces an either-or into college planning. Either forget about living and cram your mind until it bursts and study until you start losing your sanity, or get ready to flip burgers, because it is a dog-eat-dog world. Levine wants us to avoid the pressures of perfectionism, and high-performance parenting.

Kids: study like crazy or get ready to flip burgers, because it is a dog-eat-dog world
Kids: study like crazy or get ready to flip burgers, because it is a dog-eat-dog world

Madeline Livine has a psychology practice where she works with unhappy, overstressed teens competing to get into big-name colleges. The conclusion she has come to after years of seeing miserable teenages is that our current version of success is a failure. And the kids feel lost—where is the pleasure, contentment and connection they thought they would experience in high school? The kids who aren't depressed often cheat, take drugs, drink, or shut down, and some of the depressed ones do as well. Some just give up. In their pressure cooker environment, kids who do not test well need encouragement for less academic pursuits, like art, shop, etc., rather than being passed over.

Some pressured kids just give up and/or get depressed
Some pressured kids just give up and/or get depressed

Parents that are part of this pattern of pushing their kids tend to leave out of their kids' lives the connection and social joys that lead toward contentment or at least peace of mind. Sure, they mean well, but the kids need love, caring, communication, connection, and nurturing in general, and this type of healthy encouragement needs to be the secure base from which the kids make their own decisions about how much to study, what to study, how much of their life should be about fun and healthy socializing—a critical skill to learn. Learning how to relate to people is more critical than studing. Ironically, it may be the thing that gets them a job someday, while the socially inept with degrees in their hands get passed over. Keep in mind that the job of adolescence is identity formation, and if parents' pressures are intense enough so that the kids have little time to be, think, and socialize, the identity will not form in a healthy way and the kids will feel sad and empty.

If kids have little time to be, think, and socialize, their identities will suffer, and the kids will feel sad and empty—learning how to relate to people is more critical than studing
If kids have little time to be, think, and socialize, their identities will suffer, and the kids will feel sad and empty—learning how to relate to people is more critical than studing

Most of what these well-meaning parents do is actually wrong, even though the goal of getting them into good schools is okay, as long as they do not act on this goal by pressuring their kids. Levine tells parents that they need to be teaching empathy, encouraging the development of an autonomous, authentic self, and making time for dreaming, creativity and unstructured outdoor play. (See Children, Parental Guidance, And Emotional Intelligence.) Pressuring them to try to be sports heroes is just as misguided as pressuring them to try to be academic superstars. Becoming an empty shell crammed full of knowledge is a sad result of kids following the path of least resistance and caving in to parental pressures. Parents need to express their love and concern for their kids in more nurturing ways, because the current success-at-all-costs plan is stressing out both parent and kids, and the kids' needs are not being filled. Exhausted parents are asking themselves if pushing their kids to excel was worth all the money and sacrifices on the part of parents and kids that this whole rat race required.

Pressuring kids to be sports heroes is just as bad as pressuring them to be academic superstars
Pressuring kids to be sports heroes is just as bad as pressuring them to be academic superstars

It is a wise child indeed who, in spite of these pressures, finds a way to tune out these pressures and develops into a healthy young person personally, psychologically, and emotionally due to an intuitive nature, guidance from non-parents or helpful friends or counselors. But this type of resilience and developing a balanced life in such a manner is not the usual outcome of the pressure cooker. All kids are vulnerable to the stresses of the high-pressure forces around them, and it is easy to break their spirits and stress them out until they are depressed or give up. (See Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy—proven to work well for depression.) But as a parent it takes more courage to avoid jumping on the high-pressure bandwagon than it does to join it. Brave parents ignore what other parents are doing and prioritize nurturing their kids so they are happy and make good choices. These choices may even include chasing the bucks and studying diligently, but the important thing here is not so much what their kids do but whether or not they autonomously chose to do it.