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Are You Raising a Ticking Time-Bomb?

David M. Perry
Dec. 8, 2016

How do we push our kids to succeed without pushing them too far? With mental health at risk, the whole community needs to help solve the problem of stressed-out kids. And it starts in elementary school.

My daughter's taekwondo teacher hands out report cards every two weeks. They are low-stake affairs with about a dozen categories, including does homework, makes bed, and practices. I'm supposed to rank her by checking off emojis, such as a smiley, no-expression, or frowny face. If she does well, she gets an extra black piece of tape on her belt. She's a good kid, so I filled the card with smiley faces, except for one category: bow to your parents. While it's fine for her to bow to her martial arts master, bowing to her parents seems weird. So I told her not to bother, and then checked the no-expression emoji box when filling out the report card.

Instantly, she panicked. "But I have to get all smiley faces or I'll be in trouble," she said, as tears streamed down her face. I stared at her, baffled and a little panicked myself. My daughter is only six! How could she be so grade-obsessed already, and over a martial arts report card, no less. How will she react when she gets a B+ on a real report card?

I wondered if my wife and I had done something wrong. We've always urged her to do her best and praised her accomplishments, but we've never been "tiger parents" -- we don't demand perfection every step of the way. Yet, she was crying.

When the Stress Starts
Parents are bombarded with conflicting messages: more homework; less homework; more unstructured playtime, more structured activities. The list of mutually exclusive do's and don'ts goes on and on as the stakes soar ever higher. First grade teachers have begun introducing college awareness into the curriculum, thanks to the notion that colleges are becoming more and more selective (which is both true and untrue, again adding to the confusion). How can parents encourage their children to succeed without creating a ticking time bomb?

Well-educated and professionally-successful parents are trying to find the right balance, but are likely erring on doing too much. A 2015 analysis of the American Heritage Time Use Study found that such parents are spending much more time on activities with their children. Once dubbed the "Rug Rat Race," this attention isn't due to parental affection, but the perceived desire to start preparing children to succeed as adults right away. Be top of the class. Have a diverse range of skills and interests . Get into the best college. Have a high-achieving job after graduation. While high-profile teen suicide clusters in wealthy areas like Palo Alto receive a lot of coverage (understandably), even kids as young as 5 are seeing doctors for stress-related conditions, such as migraines or ulcers.

Starting at the Elementary Level
I spoke to Dr. Suniya Luthar, Foundation Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, to ask her about how we might alleviate all the stress our young children are feeling while still encouraging them to succeed. Dr. Luthar is well known for her work on affluent teens, having discovered, by accident, that they share or exceed many of the risk factors of their counterparts of low socioeconomic status in terms of suicide and substance abuse. In trying to understand why and how to help children of all social classes, her interests have expanded to include younger children and their families.

She explained that while we have to address the crises among older children and their families, elementary school matters, because it's the place where we might be able to work preventatively. By the time a child enters middle or high school, "the horse is already out of the barn," she said.

Today, too many kids are miserable. "When children start to feel like their essential self-worth is dependent on the splendor of their accomplishments, they then become vulnerable to a host of problems," she said, "including depression, anxiety, delinquency, rule-breaking, substance use, self-harm, and so on."

So the stakes are high.

Signs Unhappiness is More than a Phase
How do parents know if their child is in trouble? Many children will hide their anxiety (or parents will just dismiss it as tantrums), but it's vital to pay attention to how children respond to negative events. Do they accept and grow, or do they collapse? Are they showing intense new levels of irritability and anger, which can be a sign of "masked depression?"

Clinicians have diagnosed depression in children as young as three, so it's never too early to be concerned about a change in mood or behavior. The first step is to pay attention and accept that even your young children can feel complex, meaningful, levels of stress and anxiety. Get nannies, sitters, teachers and coaches in the conversation too. Everyone should be watching how the children are responding to stress, friends, bullies, self-induced pressure and parental expectations.

A pediatrician I spoke to recently said that while every child will go through rough patches of stress or anxiety, parents should watch for signs that behaviors such as quickly escalating panic or anger make it harder for a child to get through his or her day. If you're noticing that emotional extremes (of any sort) regularly keeps them from participating in activities, then it's a good idea to talk to your child's doctor. Don't wait too long.

Finding a Balance
Play, even competitive play, is important eventually. Hilary Friedman, in Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Environment, talks about the main ways in which parents use competitive extracurricular activities to help children learn from both winning and losing. Extra-curriculars of all sort help boost "soft skills" such as teamwork and curiosity, and there's a direct link between extra-curriculars and academic achievement (and it's a major societal problem that they cost so much in both time and money), but that doesn't mean we have to push kids into high-stakes competition immediately.

Instead, we need to let kids play, but that doesn't mean abandoning enrichment and extra-curricular activities. Find one or two activities - and commit to them for a season. Start an instrument. Go to dance class. As children age and their inclinations emerge, you'll have to make choices around intensifying one type of activity or pushing for diversity.

Whatever your choice, don't let such activities fill up your week. Unstructured time and family time both contribute heavily to a child's development. Most importantly, keep the stakes low. The minute a child believes that their self-worth is tied to their performance in those enrichments, according to Dr. Luthar, you are potentially on a path to trouble.

The good news is that it's not purely the fault of parents. The bad news is that parents can't fix it alone.

  • Stop blaming one factor
    Everyone wants to blame someone else. Parents are constantly told that whatever goes wrong is their fault. Meanwhile, parents tend to fixate on the problems with schools, and no one is looking at the broader community. Dr. Luthar pointed out that children are influenced by all kinds of sources. "[Children] have their friends, they have teachers, they have schools, their communities, they have their travel soccer teams," she said. Parents, she said, are "certainly not the only influences."
  • Get schools on the same page
    Parents, teachers, and community leaders need to start the process of rethinking the messages sent to kids across the board. Dr. Luthar says that there's little disagreement among experts that there's a problem. But, she added, "if we're going to address this, we cannot have simple solutions, like 'if we just give less homework then everything will be fine' or 'if the parents only stop criticizing their kids then everything will be fine.'"

    Instead, she advocates (through Parent-Teacher organizations, for example) directly engaging the anxiety that young children are feeling, and making sure that we're teaching children to be whole people, not little bundles of nerves worried about getting into Harvard while still in first grade. "We need to put our heads together," she said.
  • Preach positive relationships
    A study on stress and well-being published by the Center for Research on Girls at Laurel School, found that adolescent girls benefited from mentor relationships "characterized by authenticity, engagement and empowerment" as the girls had increased levels of self esteem and prosocial behavior. Similarly with positive peer relationships, girls had lower levels of depression, anxiety, perceived stress and health problems. The study recommended that parents educate their children on what it means to have a "supportive" friendship and "the harmful role of certain aspects of peer competition."
  • Think about values
    There's nothing wrong with pushing children to succeed, but communities should expand their understanding of what success actually is. It's not just grades, but also being good people. Dr. Luthar argues that her research shows, "When kids feel like their parents disproportionately emphasize achievements over integrity and decency, then that's a core risk factor." The same can be said for schools, coaches, and all the other people who influence children. It can't be all grades, all winning, all the time. Being "good," rather than "good at" something, has to be part of what we teach our children. And if parents expect both excellence and goodness, they should explain which one is ultimately most important.
  • Watch your critiques
    While it's a parent's job to guide, nudge and (often) punish, the study from the Center for Research on Girls found that high levels of parental criticism were associated with increased problems for adolescent girls. "Girls benefit when their own performance expectations align with their parents' expectations... [and] when parental criticism is low. Parents should engage their daughters in conversations about the expectations they hold for themselves and work to promote, inspire, and support their daughters' efforts to meet these expectations." Create a feeling that you're all in this together, win, place or lose. It's important to also realize that some kids just won't be as motivated as you were -- or as you'd like them to be -- and criticizing them isn't going to help. But getting on the same page might help you all as a family.
  • Don't bail them out when they don't really need it.
    If everything is about winning, then any struggle becomes a threat to long-term success. Solving every problem for your children, though, won't help them thrive. "We have this measure in our work called bailing out," said Dr. Luthar, which measures how parents step in "to bail the kids out of whatever, you know, unfortunate circumstances [instead of] letting them take responsibility." It turns out that struggling through tough challenges as children makes for more resilient teens. Just make sure they know everyone fails sometimes, and it's okay.

What's Next?
Back to the Taekwondo report card. My daughter's martial arts master isn't really to blame -- he's just consuming the culture with which we've surrounded our kids. But maybe it's time to talk to him about avoiding turning something fun into something with all the trappings of school life. Meanwhile, it's a relief to know that my wife and I don't have to figure this out all on our own.

My daughter is a great kid and I feel lucky every day to be her dad. We will negotiate these rapids together.

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