Q & A with Authors
Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids: Dealing with Competition while Raising a Successful Child
1. There’s a lot of talk out there about pressured kids—why are you focusing
on pressured parents?
Pressure on children today certainly is a major problem. But pressure on parents is peaking too. That’s because the hypercompetition in our children's world often makes us worry if we’re doing enough to keep our kids from falling behind. We frequently face this dilemma: you don't want to push your child --yet what might happen to her if she doesn't take Soccer for Toddlers – or that extra SAT prep course?
2. Is this what you call the Pressured Parents Phenomenon?
Yes. It’s that worry and anxiety that comes over us when our kids compete. And today it seems like our kids are competing all the time! When your kid tries out for a play or for the local soccer team, takes the SATs, or waits for that coveted invitation to a party, you may get a lump in your throat, or your heart races, or you simply feel panicky. The PPP can also hit you at a parent-teacher conference or during high school parents' night. It will certainly hit you when another parent tells you all she's doing to get her child into the best college!
3. Why do parents feel this way? Is this a new phenomenon?
This concern about our children’s performance has always been there. It’s part of our biology to make sure our children survive and thrive. So we’re hardwired to tune into how they are doing. And, of course, we love our kids and want them to be happy and do well! But parents panic more these days because of all the competition our kids face. They have more tests, more auditions, more admissions applications than ever before. The message is that we have to make sure our kids are competitive. There’s so much pressure to have our kids excel. This ramps up our anxiety more than ever.
4. Does the pressure that parents feel affect our children?
Parents feel very uncomfortable when they experience stress as their children compete. But the big problem is that the anxiety and worry make us want to pressure our kids.
5. Why is pushing kids a problem -- aren’t parents just helping their kids
Unfortunately, while parents usually mean well, pressure often backfires. It makes kids feel controlled. External motivation takes over, replacing their intrinsic motivation to study or practice. What was play becomes work. If kids are going to excel --- whether in academics, sports, theater, or music -- they need an internal motivation, even a passion, to sustain them over the long run.
6. Isn’t it just a small minority--- the obnoxious, pushy parents—-who pressure their children for their own self-esteem or who live through their kids?
That’s what we used to think. However, our research has shown that a racing heart or a lump in your throat when our children have a big test, take a penalty kick, or apply for admission --- indeed, when they risk losing out in any way -- is very common. This worry doesn’t visit only competitive parents. It comes to all parents who love their kids and want them to succeed and be happy.
7. If pressure is bad for kids, what do you suggest instead? What’s your advice to parents who want their children to succeed in school, sports, or anything else?
Kids (adults too) need to feel autonomous – like they’re driving their own behavior. They also need to feel competent, and connected to those around them. Feeling autonomous, competent, and connected fans the flames of their internal motivation. So if you want to keep your child motivated, you can encourage these three feelings in him.
8. How do you help kids feel autonomous, competent and connected?
You can promote their autonomy by giving them choices, understanding their point of view, and supporting their independent problem-solving. You can help them feel competent by providing structure. And you can strengthen your connection by being involved in their lives and activities. In our book we give lots of tips for exactly how to foster these three feelings in your kids.
9. What about kids who aren’t self-motivated? Don’t they need pushing?
They definitely need help, but pushing backfires for all children. We suggest providing structure -- clear rules, expectations, and guidelines. That helps children stay on track. At the same time, if you involve children in setting up the rules and guidelines -- for example, listen to their ideas about when to do homework, how much time to practice piano – that will foster their feelings of autonomy. And when they have a say in the rules, kids are more likely to follow them.
10. Does promoting children’s autonomy mean letting them do whatever they want?
Absolutely not. Parents who are highly involved in their children’s lives, setting guidelines and expectations and providing consequences for kids’ actions, will raise successful and happy kids. Giving kids structure and encouraging their autonomy go hand in hand.
11. Are today’s parents too involved with their kids? Do they hover too much?
You can never be “too involved” with your children. You can’t support them too much. Support doesn’t mean intruding or taking over. But you’ll avoid that
if, while you’re giving support, you also encourage your child’s autonomy.
12. Did you experience competitive anxiety around your children?
Yes, absolutely! But like other parents I used to not talk much about feeling pressure for my kids to do well. In our culture that’s more taboo than talking about sex! But lately I’ve found that talking to other parents about these feelings is a great release. It’s so helpful to know that you’re not the only one who feels this way.