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Friday, August 11, 2006

Selfish parents, unhappy children

from a friend's post at

Parental pressure to succeed has created a lost generation, warns a controversial new book that is taking the US by storm

Denis Campbell, social affairs correspondent
The Observer


Well-off, smartly dressed and displaying an impressive array of talents in and out of school, they seem to have perfect lives and be destined for exciting futures doing important things. Yet a growing number of children from wealthy backgrounds are suffering stress, not because of their friends or worrying about whether they will get a boyfriend or girlfriend, but because of their over-ambitious parents.

A controversial new book - which has sparked a massive debate in America about the relationship between money and parenting - has blamed high-earning, high-achieving mothers and fathers for inadvertently causing their children's problems by pushing them so hard to succeed that they feel like failures. Parents interfere in their children's lives so much that they can't look after themselves. They give them every gadget and luxury imaginable but far too little time, love and affection.

In The Price of Privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids, American clinical psychologist Dr Madeline Levine accuses middle-class parents who earn at least £63,000 a year of failing to prepare their offspring properly for the adult world because they are so obsessed with ensuring their sons and daughters excel at everything they do. While superficially well-developed, their children are actually sad, lonely, confused and lack self-confidence because they haven't fulfilled parental expectations, Levine says.

'Why are kids who have everything doing so poorly?' asks Levine. 'We know that this group of kids has three times the rate of depression and anxiety disorders as ordinary teenagers, as well as substantially higher rates of substance abuse, cutting and suicide. The most dangerous feelings a child can have are of self-hatred, yet middle-class parents are unwittingly instilling those feelings by expecting so much.'

According to Levine, parents should take care not to pressurise their children to try to be outstanding at everything and accept that they will be only good or average at certain school subjects or extra-curricular pursuits, allow them enough time on their own to find out more about who they are and, crucially, always to be on hand to talk to their children about their day, their thoughts and how they are feeling.

Levine criticises over-intrusive 'helicopter parents', so-called because they constantly hover over every aspect of their children's lives, for example going into their school to challenge a teacher about a mark their child has received. Although they are trying to help, they are actually damaging their offspring's development because, she says, leaving children alone, and learning how to handle difficult situations, helps them acquire independence, coping skills, a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of who they are.

Similar trends are apparent in Britain, say clinical psychologists. 'Parents constantly striving for their kids to be successful, for example by arranging for them to do something like judo or horseriding every day after school - what I call over-scheduling - is pretty common, and more and more common, among better-off families', says Dr Rachel Andrew, a child and family psychologist in Burnley, Lancashire. 'I've been surprised by the number of kids aged 12 upwards, who have very successful parents, with difficulties ranging from depression and eating disorders to exclusion from school.'

The parents of such young people are doctors, dentists, solicitors, barristers and self-made business people. 'In very successful families you have very driven parents who can lose sight of their children's emotional needs because they are too busy being successful, making money and focusing on their own career. We are starting to see signs of the impact of all this in the diminished community spirit, [the] sense that each person is out for themselves and growing isolation of young people.' Worryingly, Andrew says that the age at which highly competitive parents start pressurising their children to succeed has fallen to as young as five or six. Like Levine, she laments that for some parents, their child being merely good at something is no longer enough. 'A growing number of parents seem to have forgotten that their children are individuals, and instead are trying to churn out career-driven robots.'

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, made headlines in May when he warned about children being made miserable because of the 'loving neglect' of their cash-rich, time-poor parents. 'What Dr Levine is saying strikes a chord with me, and will resonate with parents here', he says. 'Some parents have got the balance wrong between getting their child into what's deemed to be a good school and them getting qualifications, and their overall quality of life.'

Dr Levine's top tips

· Appreciate your children as they are. Don't waste time trying to create the perfect child you wish you had

· Don't damage their self-esteem by criticising their efforts too often. Don't reject them - that feeds self-hatred

· Basic warmth between a parent and child - hugs, kisses, listening, words of empathy - is the first pillar of parenting

· Discipline is vital. Be consistent; that helps kids develop self-control

· Spend time together. Eat your evening meal together as often as possible, and involve your children in as many rituals as possible, such as worship or sport

'Cricket, football, then maths tuition ...'

Debbie Garrett, 41, is a mother of four children in Corbridge, Northumberland

She says: 'My husband Chris and I think our children strike a good balance between school, extra-curricular stuff, being with their friends and having downtime. Our oldest boy, Jack, who's 12, does cricket, football, guitar lessons, basketball and extra maths tuition . Rosie, who's nine, has choir followed by Brownies on a Monday, swimming every Friday, trampolining on Sunday mornings and kumon maths class with Jack every Tuesday after her netball.

'The upside is that they are enjoying themselves and getting specialist input. And I'd rather they were being active and sociable rather than at home playing on the computer. But there are downsides, like not having a family meal as often as I'd like, and feeling like their permanent taxi service.

'In some families we know, the kids do something after school virtually every day of the week, especially children at fee-paying schools, where there's a greater range of activities. Some expect their parents to organise and structure their every waking moment, and are always asking, "What am I doing tomorrow?".

'There's definitely a social premium put on your kids doing extra stuff. You do compare what you are doing with neighbours and friends. If Jack and Rosie weren't doing "enough" extra-curricular things I'd feel I wasn't a good enough mum.'

from The Price of Privilege (Harper Collins) by Madeline Levine PhD

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