Have Our ‘Demands’ Stunted Our Kids?

By Debby Shulman

I’m a Mom of three, and a college essay consultant. November 1st has come and gone and there is a collective sigh of relief among many of “my” high-school seniors.  That early decision/early action deadline is gone and with it, the stress and anxiety of putting together that ‘perfect’ application. Hours spent drafting and rewriting, pouring over every little word is finally over … at least until the next round of applications are due. One of the hardest and most emotional components to this process is putting together an essay that speaks to who the child is, which is relatively easy for adults. But for our children, it is a different story.

 Why is it so hard for our kids to write about themselves?

I have thought about this recently, and it has become clear that some young adults have not developed a sense of self, an awareness of who they really are and what they are all about. 

For years, they have spent a great deal of time trying to please their parents; running up and down the soccer field, casting nervous glances to the sidelines as their parents scream in ecstasy and chastise in disappointment. Nervously awaiting the arrival of a report card that will cause the inevitable shouting match about the unnecessary, sub-standard grade in a course otherwise thought to be less challenging. Social dilemmas that are met by an angry phone call by a parent questioning the behavior of another child, justifying their own child’s bad behavior, all to the profound embarrassment of everyone.

It’s no wonder these young people-pleasers cannot articulate who they are; their parents have defined them for so long and in so many ways, it has become nearly impossible to acknowledge that they know who they really are.

And in many ways, WE ARE ALL GUILTY.

For some time, I have followed Madeline Levine, a well-known adolescent psychologist who authored the book, “The Price of Privilege” and who is interviewed in the award-winning film, “Race to Nowhere.”  Dr. Levine speaks to the chronic, empty compliments, disingenuous over praise, and intense scrutiny by competitive parents over sports, academic achievement and test scores.

The trend among children who suffer at the hands of these well-meaning but tremendously misdirected parents? Quietly depressed, anxious and somewhat entitled teenagers.

The depression stems from an inability to garner genuine approval, even under the guise of happiness.  Losing the game is always fine, but not if Mom and Dad criticize the other players and opposing team all the way home.  Getting a B on that math quiz might not attract the praise it really deserves, because Mom and Dad feel that an A is within reach.  All of these responses intended to boost self-esteem and encourage better performance, leave some teens feeling lost.

Who they are is not good enough, who they try to be might be unattainable.

We lesson our children constantly.  The benefits of wealth and overcompensation are everywhere.  If you are not doing well, get a tutor.  If your child wants to play better ball, find a private coach.  What kind of message are we sending?  I am guilty of the former.  I cannot teach my own child math, it will kill both of us, so I have succumbed to the tutor.  Is it a necessity?  Probably not, but it eases my mind to know she is getting the reinforcement needed. For those who know me well … the B or even the occasional C is always acceptable and sometimes, embraced. But this is not always the case.

When we do not hold our children accountable for their own feelings and emotions, they come off feeling vacant.  Unsure of what to feel, they assume that they are deserving of the empty praise they hear at home and unfortunately expect it at school.

Not surprisingly, I hear from many classroom teachers that when a parent is unhappy, they not only call the principal first, but also treat the teacher with blatant disrespect.  They accuse first and listen later.  They have no interest in taking responsibility for what might be their child’s deficits; they merely want to make others be responsible.  Our children see this, and it breeds entitlement.  The pervasive attitude is that they deserve much better than what is being offered.

Dr. Levine speaks to this in her book and acknowledges that when parents protect their children from their own vulnerabilities, their own challenges and disappointments, their children might not be strong enough to handle every day frustrations academically or socially.

Parents are panicked with worry and ultimately OVER-INVOLVE themselves to a point where the child or teen is left feeling empty.

The occasional set-back or bad grade leaves the teen fearful of the repercussions they will get at home.  And so they sit in my office and at the ripe age of 17, arguably have a difficult time telling me who they are, and what they stand for, save for the cliché responses that are of course, lacking in substance and worth.

More often than not, my students respond to my continued probing about what resonates with them, what they believe in, or an experience that had a lasting effect with a high degree of success. Dr. Levine points out that without reservation, we are all trying to do the best job we can living in an environment that is unusually wealthy and extraordinarily competitive.

We need to make sure our children know we love them because they are GOOD PEOPLE — not good athletes.

We need to encourage them with praise for doing the right thing and being accepting, loving friends. The evidence Levine provides is striking; her suggestions are brilliant.  Offering a more substantial form of affectionate reinforcement will create independent, self-assured, less entitled teens.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare: Debby Shulman (love her) is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois. 




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