Second-Hand Performance Anxiety: 5 Reasons Why Parents Fret Over Their Kids’ Performance

Welcome to the season of parental anxiety. As surely as winter melts into spring and Uncle Sam demands his yearly tribute, we start worrying about end of semester tests, registration deadlines for the “right” summer camps and the arrival of college acceptance (or, heaven forbid, rejection) letters.

That parents fret about their kids’ performance is no secret. Why and what to do about it is less clear. In this blog I’m going to explore some of the reasons behind the handwringing. Yes, we all love our kids and we all want them to be successful. But that has always been true of parents, and yesterday’s parents didn’t obsess over every test grade and spend every spare minute shuttling them to rehearsals, matches and tournaments…did they?

No. They did not. (Ask yourself: did your parents parent the way you do? Did your friends’ parents?)

You probably know my position on overparenting. However well-intentioned, it doesn’t do kids (or parents) any favors. Research has proven this again and again, and has shed light on the damage it causes in the form of stress, sleep-deprivation and a variety of shortfalls in personal development, notably resilience and coping skills. Yet before parents can stop pressuring, driving and controlling their children they must first understand what’s driving their anxiety.

• The risk of going against perceived community values. Peer pressure is a powerful force. That’s true for adults, too. When everyone else is hiring tutors at the first sign of an A-minus and pushing their kids to pursue two or three extracurricular activities chosen with an eye toward bolstering their college application, to do otherwise is to go against the cultural norm. Even if we know in our heart that deviating from said norms is best for our child, no one wants to be perceived as a “not good enough” parent.

So many parents describe feeling like “a salmon swimming upstream.” To watch your neighbors spend thousands to send their child to the top academic enrichment camp while yours hangs out at the local YMCA day camp all summer is tough. Even knowing he needs that break from the rigors of school, it’s hard not to second-guess yourself. It takes conviction and self-assurance and, yes, great love for your child. It is also part of your responsibility to be more tuned to the needs of your child and her healthy development than to community norms.

• The belief that not providing all possible opportunities and enrichment experiences will put your child at a disadvantage. Here’s the remedy for this one: realize that many of the strategies we use to optimize our children’s potentials are based on faulty thinking. Ironically, pressuring them to achieve, scheduling them to the max, and dismissing unstructured play as a waste of time is not only not helping our kids, it’s actually harming them.

For the most part, our children don’t need a puppet-master directing them to the “right” activities. They do need the space and freedom to find their internal motivation and develop self-efficacy.

Kids with no down time miss out on the vital developmental tasks of childhood. It’s through unstructured play and “hanging out” that children hone social skills, imagination, persistence, and a sense of self. The foundation gained in childhood is critical for eventually building a healthy adult.

• A dearth of career opportunities. It’s true that the economy is grim, that jobs are in short supply, and that our kids will graduate childhood and enter a super competitive “flat world.” I won’t deny this reality and I do understand why parents feel they must give their kids every advantage. But—again—the things we’re doing to provide that advantage are the exact opposite of what most kids need.

A singular focus on academics keeps kids from developing other life skills critical for success in a global economy: the ability to self-motivate, collaborate, problem-solve, and persevere when the going gets tough. These are the very skills business leaders say so many young employees lack; instead, they display a sense of entitlement and a distressing lack of work ethic and “grit.” When we turn our children into good-grade machines and neglect the rest of their development, we set them up to fail in the business world.

• “How else can I measure myself if not by my kid’s performance?” This question has two potential meanings. One is, if my child doesn’t excel academically, then how do I measure my success as a parent?The other variation is, if I’m not the parent of an academic superstar…then how do I measure my success as a human being? Let’s discuss them one at a time.

First, academic success is not the be-all end-all. Every kid is not a whiz kid. Every child is not above average. (Talk about a statistical impossibility!) Yet, whether the school system labels them as “gifted” or not, every child does have his or her own unique and marvelous gifts. Learning to fully appreciate and nurture those gifts—and not just the skill-du-jour—is, in my opinion, the key to successful parenting.

Here’s the thing: not every child wants to be a neurosurgeon. All can be fulfilled in their chosen professions. (Research is clear that income and prestige are no guarantees of happiness.) If you can let your child follow his passions and make his own way—and enthusiastically support his choices while offering love and guidance—you’ll likely create a happy, healthy, confident adult. Parent this way, with an eye toward authentic success 20 years down the road, and you can count yourself as a success.

The second iteration of this question (which might be phrased “If not a parent, who am I?”) raises deeper, more complex psychological issues. For a variety of reasons—our own insecurities, loss of connection to our roots, lack of community support—we put all of our eggs in one basket. We confuse our own identities and needs with those of our kids. We look to our children’s achievements as tangible evidence that our own lives have value—and when they fall short of our expectations, no wonder we feel anxious.

• An over-involvement with child-centered activities and a neglect of adult activities. For the reasons I just mentioned, too many parents put children at the center of the family. We spend our time in the bleachers watching them play sports. We allot our disposable income to their activities. We structure our lives around them. In the process we eschew date nights, friendships and activities we enjoy. Then, we wonder why we get so upset and frustrated when our “investment” doesn’t appear to be paying off.

It’s time to rediscover our own needs, our own identities, our own relationships with friends and partners, our own sense of fun — Our own life. Not only will this alleviate the anxiety we feel over how our kids are doing, it will go along way toward preventing the entitlement and self-centeredness so many kids exhibit.

Finally think about this: We simply cannot control our children’s future no matter how many enrichment experiences we buy and how many tutors we hire. Actually, this realization may be the most powerful catalyst for behavior change there is. It lets us off the hook and allows us to let go a little. It gives us permission to stop worrying about our kids’ performance and grades—their heads—and start paying attention to their hearts. It allows us to model an exciting and vital view of adulthood. When we can make this leap it will feel much better to our kids…and to us.

MLevine150wMadeline Levine, Ph.D., is a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator. Her New York Times best-selling book, The Price of Privilege, explores the reasons why teenagers from affluent families are experiencing epidemic rates of emotional problems. Her follow-up best-selling book, Teach Your Children Well, focuses on expanding our current narrow and shortsighted view of success and providing concrete strategies for parents. Her two previous books, Viewing Violence and See No Evil, both received critical acclaim. Dr. Levine began her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher in the South Bronx of New York before moving to California and earning her degrees in psychology. She has taught Child Development classes to graduate students at the University of California Medical Center / San Francisco. Dr. Levine lectures extensively to parent, school and business audiences both nationally and internationally.

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