The Sweet Spot

Parents today who are struggling to find some balance in meeting the demands of work and family, are often confronted with what might be thought of as the worry of the month. Various media diligently report on the latest research that points to some problem arising with children to which parents are contributing.

Recently, there has been much written and discussed about both stress and resilience. On the one hand, the concern is that children are being subjected to too much stress due to limited educational opportunities. This has led to pressure for academic achievement in order to secure the most desirable educational opportunities.

On the other hand, the criticism has been leveled that children these days are lacking in resilience. This has been attributed to the so-called “helicopter” parenting in which parents are accused of being over-protective and trying to protect their children from any kind of stress. Here the cell phone is indicted as the new umbilical cord keeping children tied to their parents.

This is a strange criticism in a society that has resisted providing child care or other supports that would enable working parents to feel confident that their children were safe. Unfortunately, the cell phone has been a major means of reassurance, no matter the downside, that the “kids are alright.”

Supporting the observation that young people are unable to deal with any kind of stress are reports of the demand for “trigger” warnings if material in class readings or discussions may upset certain vulnerable individuals because of race, gender, class or anything else that may be provocative in some way. In other words, it is no longer safe for education to be what we once thought education was – exposure to many ideas.

Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College advises parents that the right kind of stress can actually be beneficial, some level of stress promoting resilience. This is particularly important for young people whose brains and bodies are uniquely sensitive to the impact of experience. An example is that of the teacher who knows how to push students without making them so anxious that they give up. Dr. Friedman describes this as finding the sweet spot for stress.

But parents search for that sweet spot in so many areas as their children grow. What is the right amount of freedom to allow their children? How much should they help them with their homework? What movies are appropriate for their children? How about their use of the internet, the telephone? Where do you draw the line as a parent between too much or not enough?

Dr. Friedman goes to research studies involving cortisol and brain scans that demonstrate the results of too much or too little stress. Maybe researchers can pinpoint the “sweet spot” biologically or neurologically that way but that can hardly help parents through the stresses of everyday life with their children.

This calls to mind Linda Fentiman’s book “Blaming Mothers,” and the role that supposedly objective legal constructs play in holding mother’s responsible for their children’s health and well-being. Fentiman points out that the meaning of concepts such as negligence or reasonable person is highly subjective, open to the judgment of the observer. One person’s safe is another person’s dangerous, and if the legal system disagrees it is the mother who is held accountable.

The same is true for stress. Added to the subjective interpretation of parents is the range of children’s vulnerabilities. In the end it depends on knowing one’s own child and reading as best one can that child’s reaction to stressful situations, hoping to find the sweet spot.