Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
The funny thing is the GenX and Boomer parents are making childrearing more stressful than it needs to be or ever was because they bring all their ambition and competitiveness to raising their children. Competitive child-rearing or the drive to create perfect children is driven by ambition displaced from yourself. Competitive child rearing has become a blood sport because educated, talented and successful GenXers and Boomers are competitive people.
A Focus on Me can be psychologically healthy as when we push ourselves beyond old boundaries and we thrill to unexpected accomplishment and a surge in confidence. A Focus on Me can also be unhealthy and destructive. The same is true: for Us involvements. When does a focus on your child become destructive? We’ve always had some competitiveness between parents about the accomplishments and potential of their children.
When I was a kid I grew up in the far reaches of The Bronx, in a small village of about four square blocks. Everyone knew everyone and everything about anyone. Every parent knew the order of the kids in each of their children’s classes: the first on the list was number one in the class. Every child felt the pressure to do well in school to uphold – or increase – the family status. But direct parental involvement was very limited.
The children, including two and three year olds of today’s Gen-X and Boomer parents, especially ex-career stay-at-home 30-45 year old mothers, are astonishing in their knowledge, their verbal skills and their sophistication. They go to good restaurants as well as petting zoos; they go to museums as well as amusement parks; they’re in preschool as well as gymnastic class … these children are polished like fine diamonds.
But competitive child rearing has reached an alarming level. A 48 year old successful CEO told me recently that he was terribly alarmed by his 42 year old wife’s response to their 3 year old daughter’s failure to get accepted by a preschool. His wife had been a successful executive and left work to raise their child full-time. When the child didn’t gain entrance to the school the wife didn’t talk to the child for a day “because she failed the interview”. “She’s only three I kept telling my wife but she doesn’t hear me, the father observed.” Though extreme, the wife’s reaction is no longer unusual.
The privileged children of today’s stay-at-home educated and successful parents have frequently become the overwhelming commitment of their caretaker parent. Someone drives them to school and then to private classes or athletics after school and on weekends. The children have the latest technical “toys” or tools, they fly to wondrous vacations … they are the recipients of a vastly disproportionate amount of the family’s money, focus … and ambition. The children have little or no free time, time in which they’re not responsible for achieving. Too often the children are pushed too hard in order to fulfill a parent’s ambition and justify a parent’s life choices – all in the name of love.
This parental, notably maternal behavior looks, at first, as though it is an extraordinary commitment to the children; it appears as though an Us goal is being achieved. But this level of involvement and ambition “for the children” actually reflects children as an alter ego of the primary caretaker. The goals which are actually being fulfilled are Me goals and they are not healthy.
Bleak prospects, early plateauing and massive layoffs are not the soil in which optimism grows. A generation, especially a generation of educated women, entered a post-feminist labor force and institutions of higher education which they took for granted because they didn’t have to fight to get in. They assumed unlimited work opportunities and when the bottom fell out, many opted to leave. There are more constructive ways to handle disappointment and stress than giving up your own ambitions and striving to achieve them through your children.