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Parents, take a deep breath

Expert after expert in child-rearing has told parents to back off. But anxiety still seems to be the rule in parenting.

March 12, 2011|By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times
(Ellen Weinstein / For the…)

In Bel-Air one bright and cold morning, a full crowd of moms, wearing sumptuous knee-high boots and beautiful sweaters, gathers in a church to hear Ashley Merryman, coauthor of the child development book "NurtureShock." After one mother asks about letting her son wait to start soccer, another wonders whether the late-starter might be too far behind to be competitive. At age 7.

Across town at USC, it doesn't take long for the small talk to turn to college among a small group of parents waiting on a Saturday for an advanced high school art class to let out. As one mother tells of her daughter's interviews with Princeton and Brown and her expectation not only of acceptance but also of financial aid, anxiety ripples almost visibly.

And every morning, children up to eighth grade walk to a mid-city Catholic school, their hands free. Nearby, their parents lug the lunchboxes, backpacks and class projects.

The hovering, worrying, competing and fear that inhabit many parents from the birth of their children well into college are alive and kicking. Didn't parents get the message? Expert after expert has advised them to calm down, back off a little, allow children to gaze at the stars rather than sign them up for a summer astronomy course. Plenty of outrage greeted "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," author Amy Chua's my-way-or-the-highway style, but the desire for children to have the best lives possible is still translating to heavily involved parents full of anxiety.

The battalions of mothers — and they're mostly mothers — managing their children's lives these days are talking about their anxiety. They see the frighteningly stressed children in "Race to Nowhere," a film in which teen after teen talks about how his or her life is all college prep and no play. They test their homes for hazards such as radon, and they provide lists of foods children may not have during playdates.

"There seems to be a conversation going on. It's kind of coming to a head," Merryman said. But no one knows yet how — or if — parents will change their behavior.

"I don't see the pendulum moving that much. There's still a lot of anxiety," said Joanna Port, the executive director of a new organization called the Parents Education League of Los Angeles which means to help parents through one of their most anxiety-producing decisions: choosing schools.

"Most of my parents are just scared," said Sonya Gohill, a pediatrician in Brentwood. "Scared they're going to do the wrong thing, not do enough, they're going to miss the boat. It's like they're in competition from the minute their kids are born. Whose kid is crawling first, and why does my kid just sit here in my lap?"

Parents hire doulas, night nurses, nannies, camp consultants, batting coaches, SAT tutors. They try to be deeply attuned to every pimple in their child's life path and scurry to remove it. They fret they've destroyed their 4-year-old's future if she doesn't gain acceptance to the Center for Early Education in West Hollywood.

They fear predators, or that kids are having oral sex at bar mitzvah parties, or that only 10 colleges in the country are worth going to, said Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" and "The Blessing of a B Minus," at a recent talk to parents at the private Westside Neighborhood School. She knows of a school where the washcloths were red so that children who got cut were protected from the sight of blood.

College officials are calling students "teacups" and "crispies" — the former so overprotected they're fragile, the latter pushed so hard they're burned out, said Mogel, a clinical psychologist.

Unable to let go

"If there was one piece of advice I could give, it would be to relax a little," said Susan Engel, the mother of three grown sons and a developmental psychologist at Williams College in Massachusetts. She wrote the new book "Red Flags or Red Herrings" to offer insight into the research about what parents can change and what they cannot.

Her first sentence reads: "You cannot dictate who your children will become."

It's a "dangerous myth, especially among middle-class parents," Engel told a group of mothers, that if you just parent well enough, make all the right decisions about schools, discipline, activities, friendships, "that you can fix your child, that you can tailor a child. But you can't."

So why are so many parents unable or unwilling to banish their anxiety?

"I think most parents really want to do the right thing," said Leslie King, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. "But when they hear all the opportunities other parents may be giving their children, their own hearts get lost, even parents who have that feeling that enough is enough."

To some extent, the irrational nature of anxiety is to blame, said David Anderegg, a psychologist and author of the book "Worried All the Time."

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