In a recent essay for The Boston Globe, writer and mother Kara Baskin cheers on a new trend among parents who choose to step back from demanding academic perfection from their kids and over-scheduling them with tutoring, music lessons, and other enrichment activities.
Now, in the wake of a mental health crisis among youth, a changing economy, and parental exhaustion, mothers and fathers are deemphasizing so many of these activities and lightening the pressure on their kids to enter an Ivy League. Speaking for these parents, Baskin declares, “We are tired, our kids are stressed out, and our values have changed.”
As an Advanced Placement English teacher and a father, as well as a millennial who grew up in the midst of the so-called “Mommy Wars,” in which mothers (primarily those who worked and those who stayed at home) had innumerable arguments over the best way to raise children, I would agree with at least one of Baskin’s points.
She’s right that parents and their children have become less interested in crafting the perfect college resume and are instead looking to minimize the cost of higher education and maximize its utility. I can attest that my students have shown far more interest in vocational programs now than they did when I started teaching 15 years ago. And there’s thankfully much less social stigma attached to opting out of a four-year university and choosing to earn an associate’s degree at a community college and enter a trade.
However, I have to disagree with the rest of her argument. Yes, the world has changed, and parents, in general, have relaxed their expectations somewhat after the Covid-19 pandemic, but this isn’t the result of some collective epiphany of today’s parents, nor is it really a good thing. Furthermore, cheering on the parents who have given up on pushing their children will likely compound the problem of poor mental health and overall stress.
Much of the problem in Baskin’s argument lies with her terms and her framing of the Mommy Wars. For no good reason, she conflates the different parent caricatures — helicopter parents, tiger moms, crunchy moms, soccer moms, free-range parents — each of whom take very different approaches to raising their children. While parents would sometimes boast that their way was the best (self-proclaimed tiger mom Amy Chua probably takes the cake for this), they would often learn from one another and do what worked — usually finding some kind of middle ground between pushing children and giving them room to explore their passions and find themselves.
In other words, there has always been an ongoing discussion on striking the ideal “academic and social balance,” as one of Baskin’s parents puts it. Very few parents went to extremes with their kids — the tiger moms and free-range parents were always small minorities. Most parents took what seemed to be the happy medium at the time: scheduling children with plenty of extracurricular activities, yet going easy with expectations, heaping on the praise, and indulging them with TV and video games so that they feel good about themselves.
This actually resulted in the opposite problem of neurotic overachievers: Many of us millennials were overconfident underachievers. We boldly took on debt to attend colleges we had no business attending and earned degrees that had little bearing on the world. After college, many of us struggled with basic adult responsibilities like having a family and keeping a job. Needless to say, our self-esteem and general happiness continue to suffer after the glory days of childhood in the ’90s — which seems to explain why so many millennials are so eager to go back to that time.
A great essay from 10 years ago, “Six Harsh Truths,” from the satirical website Cracked, speaks to this problem of indulgent parenting that prioritizes self-esteem above accomplishment. In so many words, the writer Jason Pargin explains that this approach has led to a generation of adults, particularly men, who are miserable because they aren’t good at anything. Employers don’t like them, women don’t like them, and they don’t like themselves. Pargin’s solution is simple: Get to work and develop some useful skills.
This advice clashes with the advice that Baskin gives parents 10 years later, which is to “tune out the programming push” and to broaden one’s definition of success. Even though this is fine up to a point, it can easily slip into the same indulgent parenting style that hurt my generation. Parents will excuse the underperformance of their children in the belief that they are unburdening them of stress and guilt. For their part, the children will grow up learning less and doing less than they otherwise could have.
Worst Way to Deal with Anxiety, Depression
Paradoxically, this is probably the worst way to deal with anxiety and depression, for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is that such parenting will fail to cultivate the key virtues that accompany independent, productive adulthood. As Pargin repeatedly insists, no one in society cares about who a person is, but about what he can provide. So many kids today are led to believe that their weaknesses and needs will be affirmed and rewarded. By the same token, many of them probably realize that this isn’t realistic and feel sad and nervous about their bleak prospects.
The less obvious reason is that the push against over-programming can paradoxically lead to over-programming anyway. Even if parents are convinced that they are burned out and tired and that it isn’t that important that their children earn perfect grades, master the violin, and join every sports team, this doesn’t necessarily translate to kids having more free time to enjoy life and be free.
More often, this means that the parents will give themselves a break by outsourcing the care of their kids to whatever school and after-school program they can. Or, like the parents of millennials pacifying their kids with a Nintendo 64, they pacify their own children with a smartphone and tell them to play in their rooms. Although this will make the kids desperately sad and lonely, the parents can convince themselves that this will relieve their children’s stress and help them accept themselves.
In light of this latter challenge, Baskin and other parents should rethink how they approach successful parenting in this day and age. It isn’t so much a matter of over-scheduling or under-scheduling, too much pressure or too little pressure, or being too strict or too permissive.
Rather, it’s a matter of domestic stability, strong relationships, and good habits. If parents spend quality time with their kids, minimize their time on the screens, and model and encourage personal discipline, their children will be happy and successful.
It’s simple, yet surprisingly difficult in today’s society. But it’s possible if we swallow our pride, recognize past mistakes, and commit to doing it right this time.