January 4, 2007
Affluent Teens: Do polished exteriors hide impoverished interiors?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)When parents value material goods over other things in their lives -- friends, family, work -- they also rob their children of crucial connections, since at its worst this materialism "turns even our most valuable relationships into commodities," Levine said.
Feeling connected -- to family, friends, and community -- has been shown to have a protective effect on both physical and mental health. But recent research shows "an inverse relationship between socioeconomic status and connectedness between teens and their parents," Levine said. Although this might seem counterintuitive, "the frantic shuttling to activities and the excessive monitoring of schoolwork in affluent families are often mistaken for emotional availability, but are a poor substitute for the kind of affection and acceptance that is important for healthy child development."
Other child experts agree. Los Angeles psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee," said in an interview, "We're starting to worship at the idol of achievement. If kids bring home good grades and participate in the 'right' extracurricular activities, everything else is secondary. Where is family citizenship, responsibility in the household, all those different -- but equally important -- obligations?"
But what can well-intentioned parents do? After all, aren't we all part of a larger culture that rewards the very qualities -- achievement, competition, acquisitiveness -- that Levine tells us are so out of control?
First and foremost, parents can examine the pressure they place on their kids to be successful. Although it's "clearly part of parents' job to set the bar high," Levine warns parents not to have unrealistic expectations or make kids "feel only as good as their last performance." Not only does this make parental love "feel conditional," it also creates teens who become "good performers but not very good learners, since true learning is about effort, mistakes and improvement."
She advises parents to address the most fundamental level of their relationship with their child, cultivating what she calls an "inviting listening presence." As she explains, parents need to "set aside their own preoccupations long enough to be attuned to the needs of their particular child -- without imposing their expectations and demands on the child."
Try, she said, to see "the child who is in front of you -- not your fantasy child."
For her part, Mogel said she teaches a similar concept, fundamental to her own prescription for sound parenting, through a Chasidic proverb: "If your child has a talent to be a baker, do not expect him to be a doctor."
This can be a challenge, since "we all project some of our own histories, losses and sadness onto our kids," Levine said, "but we can't make them the receptacles of what was wrong in our childhoods."
Parents should also do less for their children. Successful in their own careers, parents sometimes "run their homes like corporations," reflexively stepping in to do things their children should do for themselves -- such as protecting them from getting an F in homework after forgetting their work at home; or from taking a half hour to find the socks you know are buried somewhere in the mess that is their room. Although she said "it can be incredibly painful to let your child struggle with problems or rejection, it's actually a gift of love." Again, while this may seem counterintuitive to many of today's parents, Levine is not alone in her thinking -- hence the "blessing" of the skinned knee that is the central metaphor in Mogel's book.
But this doesn't mean parents should "stand back and be cold," Levine said. When you allow your children to "manage things just outside their comfort zone, you are actually expressing your confidence in them, and they begin to develop their own internal solutions."
Though her book explores these and other parenting strategies in depth, Levine said that parents "can't be expected to swim against the tide on their own." She and other psychologists around the country are advocating for "pervasive institutional change" through various approaches, including advertising campaigns, parent education and school reforms.
She is particularly optimistic about a research and intervention program directed by Denise Pope, a Stanford University lecturer and the author of "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic and Miseducated Students." Called "SOS" (Stressed Out Students), the program encourages decreasing the amount of homework assigned -- thus changing how much time kids have to "kick back" -- while educating parents about the risks of academic stress.
So far, 70 percent to 80 percent of participating kids have reported a reduction of stress, and their standardized test scores have not declined. Levine concludes her book with this reminder: "We've all been injured, neglected, 'unseen' or missed in some ways," and there is no such thing as a "perfect" parent (any more than there is a "perfect" child).
She urges compassion, not only with our kids, but with ourselves. And if we strive to encourage connection, conscience and caring, Levine is confident we can help our kids safely navigate the appropriately rocky road to adulthood.
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