Long before the term “helicopter parent” became fashionable I noticed a disturbing phenomenon in my practice. Many parents are way too child-oriented these days, and that is not a healthy trend for anyone involved. Back when I was a youngster the dinner conversation consisted of adult stuff—Dad’s job, the goings-on around town, or what Mom was up to with her friends. My sister and I were just kind of there, “seen but not heard.” Occasionally I was scolded for not eating my vegetables or ordered to drink the rest of my milk, and every once in a while something bad I did at school would get rehashed for some hazing over a pot roast, but that was pretty much mealtime at our house. Generally speaking Jo and I simply sat with our heads down and ate quickly with the goal of avoiding our parents’ attention and returning as quickly as possible to our play. In that regard I do not believe the children of today are any different than we were. It is the parents who have changed.
Too often nowadays it is the kids who are the main attraction, and not just at the dinner table. More than ever the entire lives of mothers and fathers are centered around their children. I personally believe it’s best if a child grows up in a child’s world without omnipresent parents knowing and involved in every minor aspect of their existence. Kids must be allowed the opportunity to have a life separate from their parents. They need to make their own friends, develop their own hobbies, and make some of their own decisions without Mom or Dad’s knowledge or input. And if you do not allow your son or daughter to do this you may end up suffocating them with a pathologic parent-child relationship.
The key to re-adjusting the relationship is simple—just be a little selfish. Let’s be honest, that is a natural state for most of us anyway. Quite often the responsibility of being a parent forces us to confront decisions. Should you breast feed or not? Well, which would you prefer? Stay at home or go back to work? What do you want to do? Which is your personal preference? In situations such as these and countless others I suggest the mom or dad consider doing whatever is best for them personally, and I predict in the long run it will also turn out to be in the best interest of the child. And please, take the glare of the spotlight off your children. They never asked for it in the first place, and they don’t want it. Children would rather live in the shadows. An adult-oriented house is a much healthier environment for all concerned.
The topic of families needing to be less child-oriented these days leads somewhat tangentially into another important issue, that being the consuming obsession placed on preservation of a child’s self-esteem at all costs. And this criticism is not solely directed at the parents. A coach will applaud a kid who tosses up an air-ball on a free throw by curiously cheering, “Good form, Jenny! I love the arc you put on that one!”, as the basketball lands harmlessly five feet short of its target. Or the classroom teacher will comment on an illegible piece of garbage turned in by a fifth-grader remarking, “Eric, you put a much nicer curve on your commas this time. And so many of them, one after every word in your report! My, my! Do you like commas, Eric?” A big problem will arise when a child raised in such a fashion enters the adult workplace and is confronted for the first time with a boss who could care less about how hard Jenny or Eric tried if they didn’t deliver the goods. In the immortal words of that great philosopher/comedian George Carlin, most people who have low self-esteem deserve it. When your son messes up, it’s okay to tell him. If your daughter comes up short of the mark, let her know.
While we’re on the subject of the appropriate role of the adult, can anyone remember when a dad was simply a dad and not a “parent?” In some ways that wasn’t altogether a bad thing. Now, I am not necessarily advocating a return to the classic male-female stereotypes. More fathers than ever before are regulars at their children’s checkups, stay-at-home dads are becoming the norm, mothers are often the primary breadwinners, laundry and same sex couples are a commonplace occurrence. It was just a little simpler back in the day for the child to know who was her go-to parent in a given situation. There are two distinctly different roles to play, nurturing on the one hand and firmness on the other. Now there is no law that says the father can’t be the mothering, protective parent, and mom can be the tough disciplinarian, that does not matter. It’s just that when each parent is attempting to assume the same role simultaneously it can become a little confusing for the child. In yesteryear the mother and father didn’t compete with each other. Each of them knew and understood fully well what their specific job was in raising their children.
Let me share with you an anecdote from my childhood to illustrate this point. Funny, but I can recall all of this as if it happened yesterday, it made such a lasting impression….
When I was eight years old I played Little League baseball, and I was by far both the youngest and the worst player on our team. The coach would play me if, and only if, the minimum nine players showed up the day of the game. I played right field, of course, and I always batted ninth in the lineup. You get the picture. I was so terrible that once he actually offered the other team’s coach to field only eight players but his opposite number took one look at me—shoulders the width of a dollar bill wearing Coke-bottle glasses held on by a black glass strap—and shrewdly refused to take the bait. On those rare occasions that summer when I did play, I spent my time in the field hoping no one hit a ball my direction, and praying for a walk whenever I was at the plate.
Well, one hot, muggy August evening we were behind and down to our last bat. With two outs and nobody on base, the situation appeared hopeless. But then, against all odds, we miraculously began to rally. With a no ball, two strike count facing him our final batter scratched out a single. Then the next hitter bravely lined a fast ball safely into center field. Two batters on base and we were still alive. The spirits on the bench began to lift and ultimately to soar as the next hitter smashed the first pitch off the shortstop’s glove into left. All runners safe. The bases were loaded.
“Who’s next?” the team asked in unison, by now everyone excitedly bouncing up and down on the bench.
The coach consulted his lineup card briefly before giving a deep sigh and replying, “Barrett. You’re up. Grab a bat and get in there.”
The wind went completely out of my teammates’ sails, the silence broken only by an “oh, crap” or two muttered quietly under someone’s breath. As I disconsolately strode to the plate the coach began clapping his hands together and saying, “Come on, Barrett, you can do it!” and much to my amazement my teammates, apparently caught up in the moment and irrationally beginning to harbor a shred of hope themselves, took up the chant with an encouraging chorus of their own.
‘They believe in me!’ I thought to myself, tapping the plate and eyeing the pitcher. ‘Maybe I won’t disappoint them after all. Heck, I might get a walk.’
The aged (a twelve-year-old), rangy (five foot five if he was an inch) left-hander wound up and fired a bullet towards me, far faster than anything Nolan Ryan could have produced in his heyday, smacking hard into the catcher’s mitt, the umpire hollering, “Strike one!”
Ouch. My teammates continued their support unabated. Knowing I couldn’t let them down I moved on to Plan B, courageously inching closer to the plate hoping to get struck by the next pitch. If successful and not killed on the spot by his blazing heater I would likely be maimed for life, but what else could I do? They were counting on me.
My uniform rippled in the wake of the speeding projectile as I stood motionless. Determined, yes, but in truth I was simply frozen with terror. I breathed a silent prayer of gratitude as it missed me, realizing that if I had been hit by the baseball I would certainly have died. It was absolutely inconceivable that anyone could have survived being struck from the distance of a mere forty-five feet by such a missile. However, my relief was short-lived when I heard the groans of my teammates and the umpire calling, “Strike two!”
I had no choice, I was going to have to swing. Having made up my mind to do so I took a deep breath and awaited the villain’s next offering. Do or die, this was it. As soon as he started his delivery I shut my eyes tightly (this being my somewhat flawed batting style at the time) and swung as hard as I could with the usual result, a feeble and pitiful whiff.
I had struck out with the bases loaded.
The game was over.
We had lost.
Afterward Dad sat stone-faced in the front seat of our car on the way home uttering not a single word, and how could you blame him? Not only had I let down my teammates but I had shamed my father. How could he face his co-workers tomorrow after what had happened? How my mom must despise me, striking out like that in front of all her friends and causing my team to lose. What a disgrace! When I got home I showered quickly and went straight to bed, even passing on my usual bowl of cereal. No, sir, I didn’t deserve any Frosty Flakes, not after a performance like that.
This proved to be one of those nights that happen every so often in a child’s life where in the darkness everything just gets worse and worse and worse. In the middle of the night—I estimate looking back it must have been at least ten P.M. by then—I couldn’t take it any more and stumbled tearfully into my parents’ bedroom.
“What is it, Greg?” asked my mother, turning on the light. “Is something the matter?”
“Gooblegaga struck out yeaghadoodle bases loaded ikarmacasaqhacky let the team down gagitchamodamocka and we lost dopotizonabatuky all because of me,” I cried helplessly.
“Oh, you poor little dear,” sighed Mom, pulling aside the covers. “Why don’t you come in here and snuggle with me for a bit, honey?”
Unfortunately these nurturing words only served to make my wounded eight-year-old male pride feel immeasurably worse. I stood at the side of their bed and sobbed even harder.
At this point my father rolled over and said grumpily, “J_s_s Ch__st, Greg, you lost the g__d_mn game twenty-one to two. What were you supposed to do, hit a nineteen run homer, for crying out loud? Now stop your sniffling and get back to bed!”
I stood there in the dark of my parents’ bedroom for several moments considering this remarkable insight prior to marching back per his instructions. And by the time I crawled into bed I was actually smiling.
“Yeah, Dad’s right, alright,” I chuckled to myself before drifting off to a pleasant and worry-free sleep. “What was I supposed to do, anyway? Hit a nineteen run homer? That’s silly! No one can do that! It’s impossible!”
Now, by today’s standards you wouldn’t find what my dad said in any textbook on child rearing, but it was exactly what his son needed that night, and I believe a lesson exists in this story for all of us.
Sometimes your child will need one thing from you, sometimes another. The trick is to know what to give them when. Balance a good sense of self-worth with healthy doses of criticism and realism. Understand your dual roles, and be prepared to perform each appropriately when the situation arises.
And please, moms and dads, back off a little. Don’t be so intrusive. The following advice may sound blasphemous, but it needs to be said anyway to make the point.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO ATTEND EVERY SOCCER GAME!
Honestly, your child will have just as much fun whether you’re there or not, and an occasional absence will help foster a sense of freedom and independence. And then at those games when you do show up it will be all the more special.
You have your own life to live, and so do your sons and daughters. Stop smothering them. Give your children some room to breathe. Allow them the opportunity to learn on their own and develop self-reliance.
Just be a little selfish.