Why pushy parents do more harm than good

Pushy middle-class parents believe they're doing the best for their children. But this 'support' may be scarring them for life, says psychotherapist
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Indy Lifestyle Online

So school's out for summer, and the mood of relaxation is almost palpable. The weather helps, of course, but it's more than that. The days can be free for living easy now, and in many middle-class households it's a long time since that was the case. For many families, this last academic year will have been all about academic stress. Whether it's SATs, GCSEs, AS or A-levels, a lot of parental blood pressures will have risen in the struggle for good grades, and a lot of bank balances been depleted by the bevy of tutors employed to realise that aim.

The emphasis here is on parental stress because of a worrying factor in this exam equation. Behind the scenes in many middle-class homes, there is a pernicious growth of an unhealthy form of boundary blurring. As one mother put it recently: "We are in the middle of exams." Under the guise of wanting what is best for them, there is, among many parents, a widespread and worrying over-identification with their children's academic performance. Tales abound of parents poring over course work and literally taking it into their own hands. Of youngsters being bribed and regimented into revision timetables that they didn't devise. Of parental "life" being put on hold in order to keep an ever-present eye on the exam-laden student.

In a new book just published in the USA, the psychologist Dr Madeline Levine claims that children from affluent middle-class homes are three times more likely than other children to suffer from depression and anxiety in later life, and are more vulnerable to drug abuse, self-harm and even suicide. The reason: their "helicopter parents" hovering over their lives.

So what is going on? Why do so many parents feel the need to obsessively and often deceitfully take control of their children's performance? Of course, living vicariously through one's children is nothing new. The parent who is proud when an offspring achieves what is deemed to be of value and ashamed when they fail is an age-old predicament. Similarly, pulling strings and networking in order to give your darling an advantage in the market place is as old as the hills.

And often, in the immediate gratification of the short term, the end will seem to justify the means. Towards the end of August there will no doubt be a swell of pride within many homes as candidates receive batches of A and A* results. Parental egos will bathe in the glory, and the nail-biting angst, endless tutors and fish-oil supplements will all seem to have been worthwhile. But sooner or later, for some youngsters, the darker side to this blurred achievement will show itself.

A lot has been written about every child's struggle to become emotionally separate from the parents. But far less is said about parental reluctance to let a child be, and trust who they are. Nowhere is this reluctance more evident than in education. Under the mantle of "doing the best for the children", parental frenzy to "do well" through the children is rife. How many middle-class parents give more than that helping hand during homework, just to make sure that their child's grade or mark is high enough? And who is this really benefiting? How many children are carted off after school to classes in Kumon maths or French, or tutored to the stressed hilt in preparation for that place in that school? And what message does that give them? Does it really make them happy, confident little people?

I fear not, because I sometimes meet them, often years down the line, in the consulting room. Listening to the stories of these educationally over-controlled people, there is often confusion over where a parent's identity ended and their own self-expression began. Sometimes the distress they bring is acute, and shows itself in symptoms such as self-harm and eating disorders. Sometimes it is a more chronic self-doubt and poor self-esteem. Whatever the symptom, what often comes across from such people feels like a form of theft. Bright and often successful, they remain intractably insecure. It is as if something integral to their wellbeing has been robbed from them. Instead of feeling proudly and confident in their own potential, they suffer a niggling doubt that they are never quite good enough, and a fear that they will one day be found out.

So what can be done to make parents wake up and see what, under the banner of "helping", they are in fact creating? I suspect not a lot. The competitive angst about schooling and the attendant fear of not "keeping up" is now so deeply entrenched in the middle classes that this widespread intrusiveness is unlikely to abate overnight. The fine line between helping constructively in order to bring out the best, and taking over and doing it for them is crossed, time and again, in order to appease these anxieties.

Parents will continue to do their offspring's work and even write their CVs and job applications as long as they themselves need that immediate gratification of "success". Maybe all that can be done is to become informed and aware of the potential fallout. Deep down, no one wants to rob their child of his or her self-belief.

Deep down, we all know that the greatest gift anyone can give to their child is a loving and trusting validation of their essentially different-from-us selves. If we could really see that pushiness comes at a cost, and the cost is long-term damage to self esteem, then maybe the desire to take over and just do it for them will lessen. If we could really understand that when "helping" slips into taking over and the underlying message we are giving out is "you're not clever enough to do this on your own", maybe a space between parental involvement and a child's own authorship can begin to emerge.

It's a tall order. But as Kahlil Gibran argues so beautifully in these lines from The Prophet, learning to trust our children's way of doing things is a vital and integral part of what it means to be a parent:

"Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts...

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward not tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth."

elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

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