Earlier Tuesday, I posted the first part of my interview with Madeline Levine, the author of the breakthrough best seller “The Price of Privilege” in 2006 and a follow-up “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” (Harper Collins) out Tuesday.
She talked about how parental anxiety and pressure on kids has only intensified since she first rang the alarm on the issue.
“If a parent of child feels that the competition is so intense, then every other parent and every other child becomes a competitor, and a sense of community ceases to exist. Of course when resources are scarce, we close down and make sure our immediate kin are well and protected,” she said.
Levine said this type of “every-man-for-himself ethos” (or in this case, every-parent-for-his-own-kid ethos) has intensified since the recent economic meltdown. But, she said, it can lead a child in precisely the wrong direction.
“Here’s the problem,” she said, “every CEO that I’ve spoken to emphasizes the need for a particular skill set, one that places the ability to collaborate high on the list.
“Since our problems are world problems and incredibly complex ones at that, it’s unlikely that a single person sitting somewhere and being struck by lightening will solve them. It’s far more likely that solutions will be the outgrowth of many people collaborating across countries and time zones. So the ‘every man for himself’ ethos is not likely to be productive ...”
Here are some excerpts of our edited conversation:
JD: Is this phenomenon, a version of what’s been called over-parenting, only an affliction of affluent families?
ML: Clearly affluent parents are, in general, better positioned to provide more opportunities, more oversight and more financial investment in their children. However, the issue of over-parenting, of actually depriving children of the very opportunities that are likely to make them more successful is not limited to the affluent.
It certainly extends to the upper middle class and the middle class and often to children of immigrant parents. I would not say that it is a particularly charged issue for the poor who have other issues to contend with. And the working class feels it is just getting by and has no time for the indulgences of those with higher incomes. So, I’d say it applies to a large swath of families, with a decided tilt towards those of greater means.
And, here’s an unpopular but still valid point. Affluent parents often get to be in that position by self-interest, singular focus and great motivation. It’s hardly a surprise that their kids can get a healthy dose of the same ethic. Because highly successful people can be very driven, demanding and perfectionist, they can mistake their business skills for parenting skills.
One of the greatest problems with over-parenting is that it blurs the psychological boundaries between parents and kids. This is known to have a particularly toxic effect on children. If you’ve invested disproportionately in your children than it is easier to slip into poor differentiation between your needs and your child’s.
Kids benefit from finding their own way, making mistakes and not being constantly pushed. This can be difficult for the hard-driving affluent parent who tends to set goals and expects them to be met. Child development is quite uneven, with moves both forward and backward. To the extent to which parents in general, and affluent parents in particular, allow their children to come into their own, to support their developing autonomy, to tolerate and even encourage mistakes and failures, kids are far better positioned to have the coping skills that they will need when they walk out into the world and into their own lives.
JD: If a parent takes away just a few lessens from “Teach Your Children Well,” what do you hope they will be?
ML: Now that my children are newly-minted adults, I look back and am amazed, and regretful, about some of the things that seemed so critical at the moment, and in retrospect, were so incidental to their development. Unfair grades, choosing the “right” school, missed trophies — those things were really the detritus of their young lives.
What matters is that they grow up to be good people, capable of close relationships, involved in work that they enjoy and to feel that they are living meaningful lives.
My biggest take-away? Subscribe to the “25-year parenting plan.” Worry less about the incidentals of the day and more about what your child’s character and coping skills will look like when they become parents in their turn.
Oh, and make sure that you’re in reasonable emotional shape yourself. Life, at least some of the time, is a party. Everyone, including you, gets to play.