The season of giving is here. And whether it’s due to Christmas, Hanukkah or any of the other holidays that coincide with the winter solstice, families everywhere scurry around trying to figure out what gifts they might buy to delight and dazzle their kids.
What lucky, lucky kids they are. Yes?
In some ways, sure. It is a blessing to be warm, well-fed, well-loved and growing up in the land of opportunity. But in other ways, no. Ironically, while cushioned with the trappings of abundance, many of our kids are deeply deprived. And what they’re deprived of is a childhood.
Think about it: today’s kids are perpetually stressed and hurried. Short of sleep. Overscheduled. Constantly pressured to get perfect grades, excel in their extracurriculars, get accepted into “the right” schools. It has to be this way, parents frequently remind them, if they’re ever going to be able to compete in a global economy.
“More, better, faster” is an exhausting way to live, but worse, it’s debilitating. It leads to emotional problems like depression and anxiety, substance abuse (honors students taking Ritalin to stay awake), social isolation and shallow relationships (how can you form friendships if you don’t have time for friends?).
And the overparenting that fuels this lifestyle wreaks its own damage. Steered, pushed and propped-up by parents, kids never develop the coping skills, the self-sufficiency, and the internal motivation they need to thrive as working adults. Heck, they may not even develop a working identity. (How can you find out who you are when someone else is always telling you who to be?)
That we’re actually harming our kids’ ability to live successful lives is astoundingly ironic, because—of course—parents believe we’re doing just the opposite. We believe we’re giving our kids a much-needed “edge.” Thus, the behavior I’ve just described is culturally sanctioned. It’s simply what parents do now.
Still, on some level we know something’s not right with the way we’re raising our kids. It’s hard not to tell they’re miserable and exhausted. Perhaps this is why we go overboard on the holiday gift giving: we’re compensating. Yet we need to realize that no amount of gift-wrapped “consolation prizes” can begin to make up for a stolen childhood.
Here are some of the “gifts” (and yes, some of these seem unlikely to appear on any wish list!) I would love to see parents give their kids this holiday season and beyond:
- Less overscheduling and more “PDF”™ (Play Time, Down Time and Family Time). In our frantic attempts to give kids an “edge” we have replaced free time (during which kids play, form friendships and just hang out) with lessons, practices, matches and tutoring sessions. Not only do kids miss out on some of the richest and most memorable parts of childhood, they lose the critical developmental work that happens in the quiet spaces between activities—relationship skills, coping skills, creativity and more.
Infuse some breathing room in your child’s schedule and you’ll see them blossom in surprising ways. You’ll also get to know them better…partly because you see them more, and partly because they’ll have the chance to get to know themselves
- The gift of failure. Sure, there’s a time and place for parental intervention. But most of us intervene too quickly, too often and in situations where it’s inappropriate. We micromanage our kids’ school projects, bring their forgotten book bags to school, step in to “rescue” them from social conundrums. Yes, it’s painful to watch kids struggle, but it’s the struggle that develops coping skills and resilience. Stop doing for your child what he can almost do for himself. When he was a baby he fell on his diapered bottom numerous times but, eventually, he got up and walked. Let him “fall” now and, eventually, he’ll develop the competence and the confidence he needs to do that which life demands of him.
- The freedom to be imperfect. When a single B on an otherwise A-filled report card results in headshakes and dire lectures about the future, kids quickly learn that “perfect” is the only acceptable result. First, this is untrue. The path to a successful life doesn’t always involve academic superstardom followed by an Ivy League degree. (Success is not a straight line, but an unpredictable squiggle.) But even if it were true, the stress involved trying to get there can be spirit crushing.
- Next to genetics, perfectionism is the strongest predictor of clinical depression we know of. Life is full of mistakes, imperfect days, human failings. By keeping kids from learning a healthy sense of perspective, we set them up for certain unhappiness in the future.
- More contributions and fewer entitlements. Your child may have a big physics test tomorrow, but that’s no excuse for letting her get out of helping you clear away the dinner dishes. She’ll gain far more from learning that everyone must pitch in to solve problems than from the extra 10 minutes of study she might get. (Yes, her test is important, but no more important than the work presentation you have to prepare for tomorrow, right?)
- Acceptance of who they are. Every child cannot be academically exceptional. Most children are not likely to be neurosurgeons or rocket scientists. (And high-prestige, high-income jobs are no guarantee of a happy life—there are plenty of CEOs who are miserable and carpenters who are fulfilled.) We need to learn that normal is okay. In fact, it’s more than okay.
- Every child has “superpowers” of his or her own, and we need to learn how to appreciate, respect and nurture those unique talents and abilities. We need to love the child in front of us, and not try to shape him into being the child our culture tells us he should be. Efforts to do so will fail, and our child will never feel loved for who he is.
- Happy, fulfilled parents who have their own (adult) life. Too often, parents confuse their own needs with those of their kids. They spend all their time pushing their child to study more and shape their family life around “supporting” him in the all-important extracurriculars. As they spend weekend after weekend sitting passively in the bleachers cheering as he plays soccer, they lose themselves. This does no one—parent or child—any favors.
- When everything is centered on your child, you’re likely to perpetuate an unattractive sense of entitlement and self-centeredness. So get a life! Get a hobby. Find a friend. Having interests of your own not only allows you to be less reliant on your children’s triumphs to feel good about yourself, it paints a more appealing picture of adulthood. (Maybe she’ll actually want to grow up and move out some day!
It’s fun to show your kids you love them. If lavishing them with Christmas and Hanukkah gifts gives you a warm glow, so be it. Just don’t neglect the things that aren’t things at all—namely, the skills, the habits, the mindset, the perspective and the emotional health your kids will need to create happy and meaningful lives. These are the gifts that matter, the gifts she’ll still have for years, for decades, down the road.
Madeline 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.