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Books Say Just Take It Easy, Sit Back, Enjoy Rewards of Parenthood

Family * Authors find that taking time to enjoy life's simple pleasures makes kids (and parents) happier, healthier.

May 21, 2000|From Washington Post

It has become many a parent's mantra, a near-unanimous whine of the affluent who multi-task on either coast: We are too busy.

We aggressively pursue all the activities we think will bring us and our families happiness. Empowered by cell phones and Palm Pilots, we can drive our daughter to a travel-team soccer match two hours away, reassure our boss we will meet our 6 p.m. deadline and confirm our doctor's appointment, all at once. So why aren't we satisfied?

Two new books suggest why. In the midst of all this running, their authors say, we haven't stopped long enough to figure out what things are truly important to us and how we can enjoy more of those things. As Katrina Kenison writes in "Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry" (Warner Books): "When we race through life we miss it."

Ominously, we may be shortchanging--even damaging--our children as we run, according to Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise, authors of "Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard?" (St. Martin's Press). "By the age of 18, 20% [of children] have suffered a major depression," they write. "Close to 9% of adolescents have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. . . . Should our goal be preparing our kids to get into the college of their choice or to live the life of their choice?"

Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist, and Wise, a journalist, are neighbors in Stamford, Conn., a wealthy suburb of Manhattan. They hatched the idea of a book after chatting one day about some of the parents they knew who were going to extremes to raise perfect children. "Hyper-Parenting" is filled with examples: the 8-month-old girl whose nanny was instructed to follow a step-by-step video promising to enrich a baby's intellect; the 7-year-old girl whose week was filled with piano lessons, gymnastics, religious school, choir practice, ballet and horseback riding; the 13-year-old boy whose parents took him to a psychiatrist saying that he was too laid-back and needed to be more aggressive in order to succeed.

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"Hyper-Parenting" traces the reasons why, in the authors' view, the current generation of parents is so driven. One reason is that we can afford to be. "We are the most well-off, most well-educated generation ever," said Rosenfeld, 54 and father of three. Past generations had enough to do providing food, adequate housing and decent schools. Fortunate parents today do not worry so much about physical resources so they've turned their attention to what used to be the domain of children themselves: their hearts and minds.

As well-informed as many of these parents are, they question their ability to parent well, according to Rosenfeld. This makes them even more hyper. "We don't trust ourselves, partly because there are all these experts telling us we can't," he said during an interview. Parents also feel competitive with other parents. "Who can hear the soft voice of reason in the midst of a stampede?" he asks.

Kenison's book provides that soft voice of reason. A former book editor in Manhattan, N.Y., Kenison, 41, left the publishing world to work at home in a suburb of Boston when her first child, Henry, was born. She was moved to start writing "Mitten Strings for God" at her parents' home in Florida, while reading "The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life" by Thomas Moore.

In that book, Moore suggests that finding joy in life begins by recollecting carefree feelings of childhood. Kenison, who lived in a small New England town for much of her youth, realized that she could do that easily enough. But what kind of memories would her two young sons have when they were in their 40s?

As she jotted down her thoughts over the next year--in between carpools, recitals and business trips--Kenison came to believe that change was possible by making "small shifts in thinking and behavior rather than full-scale self-improvement."

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"Mitten Strings" suggests what some of those shifts might be, based on changes that she and her husband, Steve Lewers, a former publishing executive, have made. Among the first, obviously, is paring down the family schedule. For Kenison, that meant her boys didn't start playing organized baseball until this year when Henry turned 10. Henry and Jack, Henry's younger brother, made up their own teams in the backyard instead, inviting Dad to play with them.

Cutting back also meant turning down invitations to parties--including an end-of-the-year party at Henry's school--when Kenison sensed that the boys needed more free time. And it meant forgoing elaborate decorations on Easter eggs when grocery store dye kits would suffice.

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