Why Being a Sacrificial Mom Is Bad for Your Kids

Dear Dr. Borba,

I'm the mom of three darling daughters: they're precious, healthy, well-behaved, and happy young ladies. I know I'm lucky—I have a nice house, and my husband has a great job, I work part time, and I also make space in every day for my own stuff, the things I really care about, like photography, exercising, my best friends. But I just don't seem to fit in with the other moms. They spend virtually all day and night working on their kids. They've got their kids enrolled in all these activities, music lessons, and dance, arranging personal tutors for them and sending them to exclusive camps in the summer. They spend all day driving them around, dropping them off, waiting for them, taking them to the next thing, 24/7. And they tell me I'm crazy not to be doing the same thing for my girls. If I don't, they say, my girls will never be able to keep up with the other kids and be left in the shuffle. I don't want to be like them, but the truth is I also don't want to do the wrong thing and jeopardize my girls' chances for success. But I also want to make sure they turn out to be happy, caring human beings. I guess I really do want to do what's right but not if it means sacrificing my own life and my family's peace of mind. Can you help me?

—Jenny L., a mom from Atherton, California

All our obsessive and hyper mothering is not helping our kids become happy and mature young adults and may in fact be doing them more harm than good. Let's take a hard look at some more disturbing statistics, this time about our kids.

■ The U.S. surgeon general warns us that 13 percent of kids between nine and seventeen years old experience anxiety disorders.

■ In one survey, 43 percent of thirteen- to fourteen-year-olds say they feel stressed every day; by ages fifteen to seventeen, that number increases to 59 percent. The parents of these kids said the primary culprit was too many activities, and pressure to get good grades. When the researcher asked the kids, they said it was their parents pushing them to excel and do better academically.

■ Of the parents responding to one survey, 46 percent said that their children's biggest emotional issues were coping with stress and dealing with depression.

■ One-third of adolescents say they "worry a lot" about school, family, and world events, and nearly half say they have trouble sleeping due to stress.

■ In the same poll, 83 percent of kids say they are stressed about homework and pressure to excel; of those kids, 57 percent say their relationships with their parents is what's causing them stress.

■ The suicide rate among American teens ages fifteen to nineteen has increased 30 percent since 1970. In fact, suicide rates for children and teens tripled from 1962 to 1995.

■ In a recent national survey, college students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function over the past academic year. College coun selors tell us that there are more students than ever before on their campuses who are suffering from not only depression but sleep disorders, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, impulsive behaviors, and suicidal thoughts.

What Do the Kids Say?

If these statistics aren't a wake-up call, let's look at what our kids are telling us they really want from us. Do they really appreciate the frantic pace and all the classes and tutoring? Are all of our efforts really making them happy, confident, and self-sufficient? Not if you read the research, Mom. It tells a different story:

■ In one poll, 60 percent of kids ages twelve to fourteen said they'd like to spend more time with their parents.

■ Kids do want time with us—more time—but they're picky about the kind of time—not just this "quality time" stuff. But you get a higher grade from them in your mothering if the time you spend together is not "rushed, but focused and rich in shared activities."

■ Regardless of whether we're full- or part-time working moms or stay-at-home moms, kids tell researchers that our interactions with them make them feel rushed and harried. More than two in five kids feel that their time with us is rushed. And, just as we'd expect, our kids rate us more positively if their time with us is less rushed and hurried and calmer. In fact, almost 90 percent of the kids who rate their time with their mom as very calm give them an A for making them feel important and loved compared to 63 percent of those who rate their time with their mom as rushed.

■ A survey of eighty-four thousand children in grades 6-12 told researchers they do appreciate all that we do. They do enjoy spending time with us. But what they really would like is for the time that they do spend with us to be more relaxed time.

Of course, all our accelerated parenting and overextended efforts to be such perfect moms didn't crop up just overnight. The fact is, researchers and child development experts have told us for years to slow down. They cautioned us that this over-scheduled, overactive parenting isn't healthy and isn't getting the results we want. We've been warned repeatedly that unless we put on the brakes and check out of this "autopilot mother mode," our kids' emotional state would suffer. But over the years we've actually speeded up our pace and become more involved. We're no longer just managing our kids' lives: we're micromanaging their existence, right down to the very last detail. In doing so, we're moving even further away from what really matters when it comes to good mothering.

So let's just put on the brakes, at least long enough to review what these experts have warned us about all along: the impact that all this sacrificial, accelerated parenting has on our kids. It just might help us do something we may not be doing nearly enough: seriously thinking about whether all this micromanaging and the almost-smothering approach to "Mommy-ing" are best for our children and families.

The Impact of Stress

Experts now estimate that one in three American children currently suffers from stress-related symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches, and between 8 and 10 percent of American children are seriously troubled by anxiety. Pediatricians tell us that stress symptoms are now showing up in kids as young as three years of age. Childhood depression and suicide rates continue to escalate: more teenagers and young adults now die from suicide than from all medical illnesses combined.

Other experts in past years were concerned that a growing number of kids would suffer from burnout unless the pace and pressure decelerated. But we accelerated our parenting and hurried the pace even more. To succeed, our kids needed more activities and more schoolwork. What was cut? Any so-called unstructured time. Here's some more evidence about how our children's and our family's lives have changed over the past two decades:

■ Children's homework increased almost 50 percent.

■ Unstructured children's activities declined by 50 percent.

■ Family dinners decreased by 33 percent.

■ Family vacations decreased by 28 percent.

■ Children's free time decreased by twelve hours per week.

■ Playtime decreased by three hours per week.

■ Many school systems these days have abolished recess.

The Birth of Hyperparenting

There is no sign that kids' hectic pace is slowing down or that their parents are stepping back.

Elisabeth Krents, admissions director to a top Manhattan preschool, realized that micromanaging had reached a new height when she received a call from a parent inquiring about the school's age cutoff for their kindergarten program. When Krents asked for the child's age, the parent rather uncomfortably admitted, "Well, we don't have a child yet. We're trying to figure out when to conceive a child so that the birthday is not a problem."

Educators have a new, not so flattering term for parents who are just "always available and forever hovering": helicopter parents. Teachers readily admit they love working with kids— it's the parents who drive them crazy: the eager moms who push too hard, the protective moms who defend the cheater or bully, the rescuers who pay for the missing library book or bring forgotten homework, and the helicopter mom who is always, always there to make sure everything goes smoothly for her child. Their children's high grade-point average and honor roll membership are assured, but lessons in self-reliance have to take a backseat. A survey of U.S. teachers found "parent management to be a bigger struggle for teachers than finding enough funding or maintaining discipline or even enduring the toils of testing."

What about the impact on our kids? Well, they clearly feel pressure from their parents to achieve, please, and not fail. So they're doing whatever they can—and at any cost—to succeed. A recent national survey of almost twenty-five thousand U.S. high school students found that two-thirds cheated on their exams. Interestingly, 93 percent of the same surveyed kids agreed with the statement, "It's important for me to be a person with good character." But don't let a teacher ever accuse a child of "deceit" (that is, cheating). Doing so it seems almost certain to bring his parent armed with a lawyer to the school doorstep in a heartbeat, threatening to sue. That lowered grade, you know, all but destroys their son's Ivy League chances, for which his parents have been planning so long and hard. (Curiously, the detriment to the kid's character seems to get lost in the shuffle, but I guess that's something parents assume can be worked on once he's at Harvard?) Teachers have received so many parental lawsuit threats lately that the number of teachers buying liability insurance has jumped 25 percent in the past five years.

Accelerated, smothering parenting isn't contained at the schoolyard: parents realize that college admissions officials are looking for the "all-around perfect kid," so extracurricular activities are an absolute must for their résumés. That's where parent micromanaging takes on a whole new dimension, and where moms and dads begin behaving very, very badly. Umpires were the first to spot the disturbing new trend at their children's athletic events. The National Association of Sports Officials told the Associated Press that it was receiving two to three calls a week from an umpire or referee who had been assaulted by a parent or spectator. The issues were almost always the same: "My kid didn't get enough play time. . . . The umpire was unfair."

The complaints range from verbal abuse to an official's having his car run off the road by an irate parent. Youth sports programs in at least 163 cities were so concerned about the trend of parental overinvolvement and blatant incivility that they began requiring parents to sign a pledge of proper conduct in order to be allowed to attend their kids' games. Some have asked parents to watch a thirty-minute video on sportsmanship, and others have gone so far as to have a silence day, when any parent who even opens his or her mouth at the game is ejected.

Are the kids really better off with all our hands-on parenting? Do they really appreciate all the sacrifices of both our time and finances? Did you know that 70 percent of children who participate in sports drop out by age thirteen? And the principal reason kids give is that "it's just not fun."

What About Responsibility and Character?

We need to prepare our kids for the time when they will be responsible for themselves. We need to help them develop habits of character to equip them to face adult challenges.

—Dan Kindlon, Too Much of a Good Thing

Many moms are more than willing to help lighten their kids' heavy workloads. We know how hectic and jammed-packed our sons' and daughters' lifestyles are these days, so we've gotten darn good at doing science projects, finding misplaced library books, rushing forgotten homework papers or school forms back to school just in the nick of time. Our typing and computer skills have even improved from typing our kids' papers. And if by chance our kids don't do as well as we would hope, good ol' mom is right there to conference with the teacher or coach or tutor or music master. To make sure our children never think of themselves as failures, we've even gotten into the practice of giving out trophies at the end of every sports season whether the kids win or lose. By the time our kids graduate, their closets are filled with ribbons and plaques and medals.

Some of us consider all this indulging, rescuing, and smothering as spoiling our kids. Interestingly enough, some even admit their kids are spoiled. For example:

■ Nearly two out of three parents surveyed by a Time/ CNN poll said that their kids measure self-worth more by possessions than their parents did at the same age.

■ More than 80 percent of people now think kids are more spoiled than kids of ten or fifteen years ago.

■ Two-thirds of parents say that their own kids are spoiled and that they are to blame.

■ In a Newsweek survey, 75 percent of parents said their kids do fewer chores than children did ten or fifteen years ago.

■ The same survey reported that 73 percent of parents say today's kids are too focused on buying and consuming things.

But it is almost as though parents think that responsibility and character are not priorities. "Kids can't be perfect in everything," parents explain. "They work so hard and are getting great grades, so we should cut them a little slack." And slack is exactly what our kids are getting.

Forget those household chores: "There's not enough time." If the child wants a cell phone, credit card, computer, car, or new outfit: "She works hard and deserves it." After all, "The kids don't have time for other things" (such as building a sense of responsibility or skills that would enhance self-sufficiency). The grade-point average, the high test scores, and exemplary résumé that will meet the stamp of approval of college admissions officials are what matter most.

After all, the Sacrificial Mom will do anything to make sure that the kids have whatever it takes to get ahead in life. Their lives revolve around these children, who are given everything they could possibly ever want or need. Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon, who wrote both Raising Cain and Too Much of a Good Thing, contends that all this parental indulgence is actually smothering the development of our children's character and sense of responsibility.

"The body," explains Kindlon, "cannot learn to adapt to stress unless it experiences it. Indulged children are often less able to cope with stress because their parents have created an atmosphere where their whims are indulged, where they have always assumed . . . that they're entitled and that life should be a bed of roses." By always rescuing, caving into their every whim, and not allowing kids to experience frustration or failure, these parents are actually setting their kids up for even bigger troubles: not knowing how to handle life when they are finally on their own.

A national study of U.S. high school students confirms that all this best-intended parental indulging may well be backfiring. Consider these statistics from the Josephson Institution of Ethics about today's "best and brightest":

■ Nearly 62 percent of American high school students admitted to cheating on exams.

■ More than one in four (27 percent) stole from a store within the past twelve months; 22 percent stole something from a parent or relative.

■ Forty percent admitted they "sometimes lie to save money."

But most interesting might be the fact that nearly 92 percent said they were "satisfied with their own ethics and character." A bit strange, wouldn't you say, Mom? Something seems a bit awry.

What Happens When Our Kids Get to College?

What these parents don't realize is that despite this appearance of comfortable status, secure environment, and a pleasant social world, a multitude of hidden problems have caused a steady and alarming rise in the severity of students' mental health problems across the nation in college and universities large and small, public and private.

—Richard D. Kadison and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo,

College of the Overwhelmed

Our frantic, ever involved, hands-on, micromanaging parent mode remains strong even as our kids go off to college. The same helicopter parents from the preschool, elementary, and high school years are still hovering, this time trying to ensure that their kids have the perfect college experience. In fact, parents are so active right now in the college admissions process that many universities are concerned that their constant presence (and interference) isn't so helpful for sons and daughters needing (finally!) to sever the umbilical cord. From refusing to let their kids apply to schools that don't achieve a lofty enough rank in the U.S. News & World Report list of prominent colleges to completely rewriting their children's application essays (or hiring someone to do it instead—the hottest newer trend), parental micromanaging continues. And when it comes to the actual college orientation visit: parents are right there hovering and asking officials the majority of questions—even filling out their kids' forms. In fact, parents are so involved that many universities are looking for ways to free students so that they can tour campuses away from their parents' perpetual presence. And it doesn't stop once the kids go.

University officials complain that parents are making huge amounts of noise whenever or whatever difficulty arises at school, even dialing the university president directly. Counselors joke that college kids today need "parentectomies." In fact, their continued micromanaging has been so acute that many public universities are creating programs and hiring staff just to deal with problem parents.

But what message does all that nonstop parental activism really send our now twenty-something-year-olds? Sure it says, "I love you." But it can also transmit another, not quite so positive meaning: "You can't do this on your own." That may not be the message we want our kids to hear, but chances are it will be their interpretation. And it's the exact same message we've been sending with all our overinvolved ways all along: "Your homework isn't quite right, let me help." "Your science project could use more data, I'll get it." "This letter won't make the admissions cut, I'll rewrite it."

So what happens when our hurried kids do leave home sweet home for college after working so long and hard? How do they do without us right there to pick up the pieces? Admissions directors admit they've never seen freshmen with such superlative grade-point averages. It's their limited "coping" capacities that concern college counselors in particular. In fact, reports about our college-age kids' mental health are troubling—very troubling. It appears that the "hurried child" is now stressed to the max in college. Richard D. Kadison, M.D., one of the top mental health experts in the country, chief of the Mental Health Services at Harvard University Health Services and author of a must-read book, College of the Overwhelmed, paints quite a picture that we just may not be prepared for: "If your son or daughter is in college, the chances are almost one in two that he or she will become depressed to the point of being unable to function,- one in two that he or she will have regular episodes of binge drinking (with the resulting significant risk of dangerous consequences such as sexual assault and car accidents),- and one in ten that he or she will seriously consider suicide. In fact, since 1988, the likelihood of a college student's suffering depression has doubled, suicidal ideation has tripled, and sexual assaults have quadrupled."

Kadison calls these smart, much-loved college kids "overwhelmed"—and it's probably not how we dreamed our twenty-something-year-olds would be immortalized. What possibly could be overwhelming them? After all, don't these kids have it made? They've been admitted, for the most part, to the college of their choice. They've worked most of their lives to get to this point. Most have few if any financial concerns. They certainly have the study skills and the academic abilities to get through their course loads. (In fact, the admissions directors admit they doing so with flying colors.) So what is there to be so upset about?

Dr. Kadison tells us what is fueling these kids' stress loads: "powerful parental pressure and cultural expectations." All those pressures to please, achieve, and succeed have been building up over the years, and now that these kids are on their own—really on their own—the one person who usually picks up the pieces, soothes the worries, fixes the schedules, and organizes daily life is missing: the parent. The very person Kadison (and Elkind, Rosenfeld, Kindlon, and scores of others) has said all along was the major stress inducer.

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