The parent trap, part one

One of our favorites: a classic interview with Dr. William Doherty from the editors of U.S. Catholic magazine:

You’ve heard of the “overscheduled child,” no doubt. Family therapist William Doherty is one of the people you can thank for putting a name to that thoroughly modern problem and bringing it into the public lexicon. Since then, Doherty has taken aim at consumer values creeping into family life as well as marriage.

A professor in the department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, Doherty is the author of Take Back Your Kids (Sorin Books) and Take Back Your Marriage (Guilford Press), among many others.

You’ve written that we need to “take back” our children. Take them back from what?

From the consumer culture, and I don’t just mean material goods. I mean the individualistic “me first” culture. I think that’s what’s raising our kids. We parents are all part of the culture, and unless we examine it and critique it, we just raise our kids accordingly.

Do you think it’s harder being a parent today?

Every generation faces its own challenges. Our children don’t die as young because we’ve conquered some of the deadly diseases of early childhood. There are still families dealing with material deprivation, but not as high a proportion in this country as in others. We know more about child development. So in many ways it’s the best of times to raise children.

I think the distinctive challenge of this era is that parents are anxious, lacking in confidence. They feel they can never do enough and feel tremendous pressure. One set of parents is struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table, and another whole group has so many privileges in life but is also running scared.

What’s an example?

I just met on Sunday with a group of mother activists in St. Paul, Minnesota and we’re starting a birthday party initiative. A lot of parents now, particularly mothers, feel pressured to put on a production for their child’s birthday. It starts at age 1, when the party is clearly not for the kid.

My daughter knows a young working-class couple who spent $700 on their child’s first birthday. They rented the American Legion hall and catered a lunch for 30 people. And, of course, the kid had a meltdown.

The problem is that we define what a good parent is by what we buy for kids and what experiences we create for them. So even parents who aren’t materialistic in terms of spoiling kids with too many things often spoil them with too many experiences.

Earlier in my career I would have analyzed the psychological dynamics of this couple, but not anymore. There are a lot of people like them.

If you’re spending $700 on the first birthday, where will that lead when they are 8 or 9?

One woman decided to join this birthday-party group after her 9-year-old came home and announced that her 10-year-old party would be at the horse barns and age 11 would be at the amusement park.

When I did a radio interview on this subject, a dad called in to say that he had just spent $2,000 on his 16-year-old son’s birthday, and the kids didn’t appreciate it at all. He bought basketball tickets for them, but they just ran around the arena. And then he rented them hotel rooms-that’s what you do now when they get older: You rent hotel rooms. So yes, it goes up and up. And ultimately it’s not satisfying-it’s like too much candy. But kids will pressure their parents, and even parents who don’t get pressure from kids will feel it from other parents.

Where else do you see this consumeristic influence on parents?

Youth sports is another place where this plays out. Here’s a classic Minnesota example. The local hockey association sent a letter to the parents of every 6-yearold boy saying, “We’ve noticed your son is not yet in hockey.” Listen to the language: It’s as if he hasn’t been vaccinated. It continued, “We just thought you should know that if you don’t get him into hockey now, you can basically kiss away his chances for the high school varsity team.”

So you have this little kid, you don’t know what his potential is, but why would you deprive him of that possibility? So you get him into hockey, and early on it’s mild, but five years later you realize you’ve handed away your family life. You’re in traveling leagues, say, or you have games every Sunday. In fact, I’m working with a group in Minnesota that is organizing a boycott of Sunday youth sports.

Why Sunday?

Not only is it the traditional day of rest and family, but Sunday sports means that kids are doing activities seven days a week. There is no day of rest for the community. High school varsity teams and colleges have survived for a hundred years without Sundays. And hardly any parents like Sunday sports. But they do it anyway.

My mother would have laughed me out of the house if I said, “I’m having my birthday party at the amusement park.”

Why are parents so willing to surrender their authority to all these other people, including their kids?

That’s a great question, because it’s selective surrender. These days we don’t surrender to teachers, to clergy, to physicians, to the traditional authority figures. We view them as working for us. But the people who select our kids for teams and can supply these great once-in-a-lifetime experiences, we do surrender to them.

Parents who will ream a teacher out for giving too much homework or for giving their kid a “B” will not question the coach who says, “All the three-day weekends this year are going to be spent at tournaments.”

One parent will speak up, maybe. Nobody else will support him or her, but then out in the parking lot the others will say, “Do you believe Coach said that?” We’re sheep in the peer pressure of parenting. Parents are so worried about peer pressure on their kids, but it’s the peer pressure among parents that’s a problem.

So what’s driving these behaviors among parents?

In almost all cases it’s good values about doing better for our kids. But we raise our kids in tribes, and the norms of the tribe really affect us. The norms of our consumer culture are: More is better. Bigger is better. Super-size it. So Super-size parenting, too-why not? Super-size birthday parties. Super-size athletic events for kids, national sports championships for 10-year-olds. And if it’s for my child, I can feel less guilty than if it’s just for me.         …to be continued next week.

At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home, has won the General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the second straight year. Here’s a sample issue.

We offer very low rates for parish use, as well as our free Moms’ Night Out monthly discussion guides.

And don’t miss our popular single-page parish handouts on handing on the faith, helping kids understand the Mass, Lent, and Advent.

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