Helicopter parents, snowplow parents, bulldozer parents, jackhammer parents, Tiger Moms, Free Range parenting. The list of parenting metaphors seems to grow daily and you would be forgiven for some amount of confusion about what works and what doesn’t. In an effort to provide some clarity amidst the confusion, the district I lead has used its popular speaker series over the last ten years to address the over/under parenting dilemma and present paths for parents to choose healthy involvement in their kids’ experience while understanding how crucial it remains for children to have their own agency as well.
This month, our district presented a two-part mini-series titled, “Where Did Childhood Go?” After screening the acclaimed documentary Chasing Childhood followed the next week with a fireside chat with noted parenting advocate and best-selling author Julie Lythcott-Haims, there were so many nuggets of truth that I took away, but the three that really stand out for me are worth repeating.
The Power of Free Play
Researcher Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn and the Freedom to Learn blog hosted by Psychology Today, defines play as having these fundamental qualities: Play is self-chosen and self-directed; play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and, play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind. You can read Dr. Gray’s full blog post here. Julie Lythcott-Haims told us that play is when no adults are present. She put it so bluntly as to say that when an adult is there, kids are not playing. And when kids don’t play, they miss out.
It is not uncommon for me to walk my Menlo Park neighborhood with my dog on a beautiful afternoon, weekend, or day off and literally see NO children playing in the street or at the park. Having lived my entire childhood outside--even in BAD weather--it simply baffles me that so few children in our neighborhoods are out playing. It’s not that they aren’t doing something. Quite the contrary. Many are on wonderful vacations in Hawaii, spending their 5th hour on their video game SO close to victory, practicing with their club sports team that costs their parents tens of thousands of dollars, pounding the keys of the piano with their private teacher, or getting tutored in math despite being two years above expected grade level. I have no delusions that this reality will change; however, I hope we all--including myself--will consider how we might make some meaningful adjustment to getting our kids outside without an adult, without an agenda, without technology yet WITH other kids to figure out how to entertain themselves on their own.
The benefits of such unstructured play are without question and they are skills that colleges say students are lacking, employers report young recruits are lacking, and parents of young adults are left scratching their heads wondering, “How did that happen?” In unstructured play children learn creativity, problem solving, team work, compassion, emotional regulation…The list goes on and on.
Listen To and Take the Lead of Your Child
Every child is different. They have different needs, strengths, opinions, and wiring. We heard this message loud and clear from our viewing of Chasing Childhood, from the panel of education specialists following the viewing, and from Julie Lythcott-Haims. Julie shared the honest story of her journey to understand her son’s ADHD and anxiety and how after years of trying to mold him into a version of what she wanted him to be, she let go and dove into understanding who he truly was only to find a happier child and an even greater pride in what he had to overcome to realize his true self. Julie, no doubt, shared this story to say to all of us, “If I, Julie Lythcott-Haims, a parenting expert, have to learn these lessons, then there is NO shame in any of us admitting that we have some work to do in our approach to parenting.”
As Julie reminds us, the sooner we let go of our expectations for what our children will do, how they will behave, what they will excel at, and how they will show up, the more completely our children will thrive. It’s a journey. What works for one child, won’t necessarily work for another child even in the same family. Listen to them. What is their truth? Allow their truth to guide you in the parenting decisions you make? And make no mistake, the role of the parent to parent is essential. We are the bumpers in the bowling lane of childhood and adolescence. We are there to ensure they don’t gutter; but we don’t want to bring those bumpers so close that they get a strike every time, lest our children fall apart as soon as the bumpers are removed.
At the risk of repetition: Every child is different. As anyone with more than one child or with their own siblings knows, even within families, kids’ personalities, interests, risk tolerance, skills, etc, can totally vary from one child to the next. So why are we constantly comparing our kids to everyone else’s? Why do we have this narrow vision of what a “successful” child/young adult/adult is that entails academic excellence, multiple extracurriculars, a “top” college, all leading to a high-paying career in tech or finance? Julie pointed out that we all know better, but human nature takes over and we can’t help but wonder how our kids will turn out and we use other kids as the measure of their success. We even let our own worth as parents be dictated by how successful our kids are perceived to be. This can be especially toxic in my home community, Silicon Valley, where the drive to succeed is framed by our proximity to selective universities, tech billionaires, and the most expensive real estate in the country. We start to see access to these things as the barometer of success.
Julie shared another deeply personal story of her parenting journey, this time with her daughter. She fully expected this bright young woman to pursue a highly paid career, ignoring her daughter’s talent and interest in the arts. After some rough introspection, she realized that success is not about our kids fulfilling our dreams for them, it’s about their happiness and authenticity to self. Now, she beams when talking about her daughter’s artistic pursuits and has confidence that she will make her way because it is her way to make.
When we compare our kids to others, or to an idealized version of what we hope for them to be, or even to our own younger selves and perhaps our missed opportunities, we deny our children the right to be themselves. Imagine a community that valued equally the artists, writers, teachers, librarians, mechanics, and community activists along with the doctors, lawyers, venture capitalists, and tech titans. Imagine the difference it could make in young people’s lives growing up knowing that their individual gifts and pursuits were encouraged and fostered. When we fret over the increased stress and anxiety our children feel today, let’s take a hard look at the expectations we have of them and expand those expectations to include the myriad ways people can contribute to their world; they might just start to relax into a sense of purpose and belonging knowing their contributions matter.
And if you must compare - as humans are wont to do - wouldn’t it be a kick if we sung from the rooftop that our child was the dirtiest, or picked the coolest flower in the outfield of the baseball game, or made the funniest joke at the piano recital, or even chose the least expensive university out of the options afforded her/him? When we not only accept our children for who they are, but CELEBRATE their uniqueness, along with our appropriate role in helping them find their way, I predict we will finally solve the over/under parenting conundrum and end up right in the middle where we should have been all along.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.