Hyper-parents need to get out of overdrive

Family: Parents should pay less attention to advice and equipment, and more to themselves, authors say.

February 27, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Do you spend the whole weekend shuttling your children to athletic events? Do you fret over a youngster's academic performance in kindergarten? Do you have a shelf lined with family advice books and magazines?

Answer yes to those questions, and it may be that you take your parental duties a little too seriously.

At least that's the opinion of Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld and veteran family writer Nicole Wise, co-authors of "Hyper-Parenting" (St. Martin's Press, 2000), who believe parents hurt their children by trying too hard.

"I saw a kid today who literally goes every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and he's 9 years old," says Rosenfeld, a child and adolescent psychiatrist. "He has no time to loaf. The kid's exhausted. Is that the way to bring up successful kids?"

Rosenfeld and Wise say hyper-parents are no rarity. The term applies to most of their family, friends and neighbors -- and even to themselves.

"It's our generation's story," says Wise, 41, a mother of four. "We're in the book, too."

Rosenfeld refers to himself as a "hyper-parent in partial recovery." Both he and Wise acknowledge they may even live at Ground Zero of the hyper-parent experience -- the upper-middle class suburb of Stamford, Conn.

Rosenfeld maintains offices in two of the wealthiest communities in America -- neighboring Greenwich, Conn., and in the Upper East side of Manhattan.

But they believe the problem is more than just a dilemma for the affluent. Middle-class families are overbooking their children, too, with guilt-induced parents who want to give their children every possible advantage.

"I don't know anyone who isn't [hyper-parenting]," says Rosenfeld, a father of three.

Their book is rife with examples: Mothers who play Mozart to their wombs, parental shouting matches over the proper way to toilet train, couples who spend their Sundays supervising their son's homework, and a mother and father who seek therapy for a 13-year-old boy because he lacks a "killer instinct" for success.

There was even a father who promised to pay his nanny an extra $500 every time his child reached a developmental milestone early. (Have him walking before 12 months? Time to write a check.)

The authors point to the proliferation of mail-order catalogs with baby products from bath thermometers to devices to make a baby sleep on his side as more evidence of the trend. Does anyone really need those things?

And then there's the explosion of parenting advice-givers and educational materials from videos to software that promise to make infants smarter or read earlier.

"Much of the 'stuff' we buy does not improve our lives. In fact, it has a rather insidious effect," they write. "In some ways, the assumptions that underlie such purchases may actually increase our angst. Having shelled out hard-earned money in the hope of finding solutions to our problems, we end up even more frustrated with ourselves -- because with all this help and expensive equipment, we still can't make the machinery of our lives run as smoothly as we really think it ought to."

That's familiar territory for Marjorie Kelley, an admitted hyper parent and Columbus, Ohio mother of four who has bought her share of bottle warmers that plug into the dashboard and books by child-rearing "experts."

But when she recently e-mailed Rosenfeld to share her experiences, she told him about the question she once posed to her children, who range in age from 2 to 10: "If you could have anything you want, what would you like most?" Each gave a variation on a single answer: More time with Mom and Dad.

"Hey, I'm a nurse and I struggle with this every day," says Kelley. "You love your children so much you want to give them every opportunity you can. But sometimes, you lose sight of what's important."

Rosenfeld suggests that parents begin to go wrong when they believe they have the power to determine a child's outcome -- as if we could make a child smarter by giving him the right crib mobile or a better person if he reads before age 5.

Even though "we know that idea is nutty," he says, it's hard to stand back and not do it.

"Everyone around us is doing it. How can we be remiss about such a sacred trust as raising our kids?" he says.

Worse than being nutty, the hyper-parent can be harmful, too, the authors insist. A parent who spends all his time as a chauffeur soon resents it -- while his children feel guilty and resent the parent's resentment. Parents who constantly worry may produce children who become just as anxious about life and who see themselves as defective.

"Many people are hyper-parenting because they grew up in a dysfunctional environment and they want to do it better," says Wise. "But if you're not having your own life, not only will you eventually become hostile and resentful, but you will fail to give your child a proper role model."

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