Parents give much, expect little, author says

October 21, 2003|By Susan Reimer

The grown-ups at Friends School were given their own reading assignment this summer, and this week is the big test.

Head of school Lila Lohr asked faculty, staff and parents to read Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, by Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon, and the author will be at the school auditorium Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Lohr hopes the grown-ups learned something.

"I think what he is talking about is the most serious issue schools like ours are facing," she says.

When she says "schools like ours," she means private schools that seek to educate the children of privilege.

Not necessarily children of the rich, but certainly children whose parents find a way to pay for the premiums they think will ensure success and, therefore, happiness.

Private school is part of a pattern of indulgence that might include credit cards, cars, computers, cell phones and TVs and DVD players in bedrooms.

But the "stuff" of privilege is only part of what alarms Kindlon, who broke from the academic pattern of studying children of the poor to study children of the middle class.

In seeking to give our children a life free of want, he says, we also try to make sure their lives are free of pain. We too easily cave in to their demands, and we too quickly bail them out of trouble of their own making.

As a result, Kindlon found in his research, our children are not just self-centered and spoiled, they are prone to alcohol and drug abuse. And they grow up to become unhappy adults, ill-equipped to handle the challenges from which we are no longer able to protect them.

We love our children so much, says Lohr, "that we relish and savor every moment, refusing to cloud these days with discipline and limits."

Lohr also says that parents are working so long and hard to provide every advantage - and over-scheduling their children's lives to take advantage of every opportunity - that there is no time left for the business of being a parent.

"I look out and see the numbers of our families who do not carpool. And I think it is because that is one of the few times they get alone with their kids," she says. "That may be the 20 minutes of the day.

"The result is when something happens, there isn't the backlog of communication and understanding that you need to get through the tough times."

For many of us, our children have become our religion: We are devoted to them and they give our life meaning. But this devotion can be smothering.

"Our children are too precious to us," said Kindlon in a telephone interview. "We don't have anything else that we are as unequivocal about."

We give them too much and expect too little, he says. We are confused about whether we are the authority figure in their lives or the companion.

"Some of this confusion is related to your own fatigue," says Kindlon. "It is the same with parenting as it is with any job: You are at your worst when you are tired. You don't have the resources or the energy to do it right.

"Parenting is a hard job. You have to train for it. You have to get enough sleep. You have to take care of yourself so you are in a good enough frame of mind to handle it."

This might mean turning down the extra assignments or the added responsibilities at work that will bring more money.

"Don't kid yourself that it isn't going to affect your parenting. There are financial realities that have to be dealt with, but don't delude yourself into thinking that you can short-change the parenting job," says Kindlon.

The truth is, these decisions do not affect just your family life and just your children. The decisions you make to indulge and pamper your kids have a trickle-down effect:

On the lower-middle-class kids who need to work long hours at a part-time job - neglecting their schoolwork - to have a car like the one you have given your child to drive.

On the children of the truly poor, who resort to crime to get the money for the clothes and jewelry like the ones your child charges to your MasterCard.

It would be bad enough if our indulgence as parents hurt just our children. But it does not.

Because once you have a child, all children are your children.

Dan Kindlon, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, will speak Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Friends School auditorium, 5114 N. Charles St. The event is free and open to the public. Doors open at 7 p.m.

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