The newly disclosed scandal involving parent bribery to ensure prestigious college admission for their children has raised many questions about our current culture. In the forefront has been the issue of economic inequality as it relates to the educational system, bribery and fraudulence simply being the end point in the many ways children of the affluent are advantaged.
The support system afforded children of wealthy parents includes quality primary school education, outside tutoring, access to various extra-curricula activities and often a social network of potential influence. Also important is the advantage that comes with the ability to pay full tuition. Schools may offer support to students once admitted but compensate by seeking to admit those who do not seek aid at application for admission.
Another question raised is why the importance and significance that has been attached to admission at a handful of schools? It would seem that this has little to do with the excellence of the education offered or whether the school in question is right for a particular student. It is as if the name of the institution is in itself a password that will gain entry into a world of success.
Of course, the particular individuals who have been named and highlighted in this scandal has also focused attention on the nature of celebrity in our society. A whiff of entitlement lies in the acclaim given celebrities, suggesting to them it is their due to get whatever rewards they seek.
It is not clear whether any of the young college applicants involved had any knowledge of what their parents were doing. Of course, they now know, and one can only speculate about the impact on these young people of their parents’ actions, ostensibly on their behalf. The message seems to be that their parents considered getting into particular schools to be of greater importance than their education itself. Also, their parents did not believe they were good enough to get into these schools on their own. This in addition to affirming a value system that says it is acceptable to lie and cheat in the service of getting what you want.
The fall-out from this scandal has also once again, pointed a finger at “helicopter” parenting and the degree to which parents are involved in their children’s lives well into what was once considered adulthood. It is unfortunate when illegal, unethical and immoral behavior is viewed as the logical extension of involved parenting. In the criticism leveled at parents there is a tendency to hold parents responsible for the nature of our society and culture rather than as trying to do the best for their children within the constraints of the society as it exists.
There are reasons that parents maintain a hands-on approach to their children’s lives longer than was true in past generations, providing ongoing financial support even as children continue to live or return back to living at home. College graduates face enormous debts as a result of student loans, with fewer work opportunities that can provide life sustaining salaries thereby remaining dependent on parents later than previously expected.
Parents have been criticized for the seemingly greater emotional dependence of older children on their parents. But psychological or emotional independence is hard to achieve without financial independence. As children remain financially dependent, this may justify for both parents and children the greater involvement in their children’s lives and decision making.
In the present world, the nature of these relationships is established early on, with both parents working out of the home, without good available child-care, and the need to maintain connection by cell phone.
No wonder parents are protective of their children.
The pattern in relationships between young people these days seems to be one of living together before marriage – or at times no marriage. Years ago, the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead declared that everyone should be allowed one marriage free – meaning an easy divorce if it didn’t last. Her exception was once there were children involved marriage required a different commitment.
Living with someone is itself a commitment, which can be unexpectedly challenging. A young man who was living with his girlfriend told me he had learned the difference between neat and clean. He demonstrated by gathering some papers lying on the desk and putting them in a tidy pile. saying what he did was make them neat, it was not clean. Clean meant throwing away the ones that were useless.
While amused by his girlfriend’s differing definitions, he clearly was also proud of having mastered the distinction between them. This led into a discussion about having to learn about differences between another and oneself. Having to accommodate to these differences can be challenging when it may involve changing something about oneself – as in thinking of oneself as neat and discovering it doesn’t meet another’s idea of clean.
In a women’s conscious raising group some years back, the women raised complaints about the theory that men would share in household chores. They agreed that a man washing the kitchen floor was useless – not their idea of clean – and invariably had to be done over. Along these lines a father complained that he couldn’t handle the baby the way his wife could.
I asked the mother of teen-age twins who have often been commended by others for their behavior what her secret was. She seemed surprised and said all she has done is tell them what is expected of them in various situations. When I identified that as setting appropriate expectations she elaborated, explaining that she taught them what the appropriate behavior should be ahead of time.
There is a connection between learning from a mate what is expected and the learning that takes place from parents as young children. From infancy on parents have the job of socializing their children who begin life focused on their own needs and gradually have to learn to consider the needs and wishes of others. This is a process that at some points confronts both children and their parents with the fact that they may not always want the same thing.
As children mature they develop their own voice and at times may defy parents wishes or assert their own wishes that may differ from those of their parents. Such conflicts are characteristic of the child-rearing years and present parents with the challenge of giving recognition to children’s wishes while maintaining appropriate expectations for their behavior.
The ability to consider the needs of others while still considering your own needs is not easy, and it is even harder to teach to young children who have not yet developed an awareness of the needs of others. The not yet socialized behavior of young children can be provocative and often leads to various attempts at getting their compliance to adult wishes. It would be so much easier for parents to just be the boss and children to obey – or so it may seem.
As parents, being boss and giving orders is often a fallback position with our children and at times this carries over into adult relationships. Having experienced that as children ourselves, deferring to someone else’s wishes may feel as if they are boss.
But considering someone else’s wishes doesn’t mean they are boss. Also, asking for what you want doesn’t make you boss.
The current goal of providing public school preschool programs for three-year-old’s can actually be traced to the work of Edward Zigler who died last month. A Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, he was well known as the “Father of Head Start.” Throughout his career he worked to better the lives of children and families and pioneered in applying an understanding of developmental psychology to public policy.
One of the original architects of Head Start, Zigler was an initial planner of the program during the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty, a program that has since served over 35 million American children and their families. His concept of a comprehensive early childhood program came naturally to Zigler who considered himself an “original Head Starter.”
The son of immigrants, Zigler was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, where as a young child he attended an immigrant settlement house program where he and his family learned English and received health care, meals and social supports. This experience led him to believe that young children are best prepared to learn when their health and social-emotional needs are met and their parents are involved in their schooling. His ongoing research brought attention to the importance of meaningful family involvement and the essential role of parents in the lives of their children.
The daily life importance of the social supports to families meaningful to Zigler in his life are worth noting in the appraisal of Head Start in the years since its inception. Praised initially as one of the programs introduced by Johnson to lift people from poverty, Head Start was meant to provide for low income children the kind of early life exposure to learning afforded those of means.
Somewhat expansive and unrealistic goals were then set such as improving school readiness for children in the program, improving children’s cognitive development, social and emotional development and communication skills. As the early groups moved from Head Start to grade school, the criticism offered was that although the children made gains in these areas while in the program, these gains were not sustained as children moved forward academically.
Academic outcomes have been reevaluated over the years with varying results. As in the education system generally, the push toward early introduction of academics infected Head Start programs as well as the private preschool world. This only led to an intensification of the goal that Head Start ready children for grade school entry. An experienced, long time Head Start teacher said in a recent conversation, “It’s that American love of numbers,” meaning achievement ratings.
What tends to get lost in the discussion of outcomes is the meaning of the program to the children and families served. The teacher quoted above talked about the families in her program, the number of single mothers working to support their children, the lack of affordable child care and what their lives and the lives of their children would be like without the program. She described a father visiting and crying upon hearing his daughter sing with the group – he had never heard her sing before.
In the 1970’s, Ziegler collaborated on a bill to provide affordable child care for working families with fees based on income. It was approved by congress but then vetoed by President Nixon who was overwhelmed by mail from those opposed to women working outside the home, raising the fear that children would be raised in centers rather than by their mothers. These same objections were initially raised to Head Start.
Ongoing conflict over women at work continues to pervade public policy and the lack of social supports that would improve the lives of families.
The developers of the new game, Chinese Parents, are planning for an English version of the game. The Chinese computer game in which pretend parents raise a digital child has been described as giving players the opportunity to use their “tiger mother” skills. This reflects the perception of Chinese parenting as highly authoritarian – or parents know best. It will be interesting to see how American parents relate to the goals and choices in raising children the game encompasses.
Chinese parents are encouraged to cram their kids with many test papers and extra lessons while at the same time making sure their virtual kids have time for sports and games in order to live balanced lives. Reports of students jumping off buildings due to too much academic pressure can be detected as an influence in the parent choices offered.
American parents share a concern for their children’s academic achievement and there has also been significant expression of concern about undue stress children are experiencing as a result. However, American parents have never been accused of “tiger mother” parenting. The more widespread criticism has been made of the supposed helicopter style of parents here.
In this context, helicopter parenting is meant to suggest hovering. It is not so much the use of coercion, threats, or bribes to enforce parental wishes but rather encircling a child with numerous additions to school work and parental supervision. Parents have also been accused of helping children with their homework – or rather actually doing the work for them.
Yet instead of feeling the power of the tiger mother, many parents describe feeling powerless in the face of their children’s behavior. The so-called hovering is the parental attempt to have children carry out their wishes rather than an expression of confidence that their word is a child’s command. The nature of the parent/child relationship is shaped differently from the Chinese version early on.
Amy Chua, who gave us the picture of the tiger mother, described American parents as too worried about their children’s self-esteem, about how they will feel if they fail. Yet it may be the parents’ feelings that loom larger than the children’s. Parents do not like it when children are angry at them and worry about loss of love from their children. Any attempt to use tiger mother methods fills them with guilt, whereas the tiger mother herself would be unmoved by a child’s response.
The Chinese Parents game seems not to address the issue of mothers working outside the home. In this country, the impact on child-rearing as well as child-care has been enormous. The absence of universal, affordable child care remains the most significant unresolved issue related to the change in women’s role.
Although there is now more widespread acceptance of the fact that many mothers are now in the workplace, our society as a whole has not yet realistically confronted the implications of a woman’s changed role. Instead, there is widespread resistance to the idea of mothers no longer as the primary caretakers of their children. This resistance has prevented any movement towards significant supports for parents including family leave benefits as well as subsidized child-care centers.
What once was considered a choice has become an economic reality for many families, yet women themselves struggle with feelings of guilt about not being there for their children. They still see child care as primarily their responsibility and the reality is that in many instances they are left with the need to patch together the hours of care needed for their children while they are at work. The so-called hovering is often the attempt by parents to compensate for their physical absence.
Reality bites in a real world lacking the options that might exist in a parenting game.
A nurse in a maternity hospital once told me that the way to have three good kids is to have six and throw the first three away. It is unlikely that any parent would like to follow that advice – although the feeling of wanting to might come over many parents at some point. Now a new computer game in China, Chinese Parents, enables you to start over with a new digital child if things haven’t worked out as planned.
The mission of the game is to raise a son or daughter from cradle to college. The goal is to get a digital child into a top college, a lucrative career and a compatible mate. While initially a digital son was the only option, newer versions include daughters. However, the game includes reminders that girls don’t need to do as well as boy in school, and that the ultimate goal of hard work is to marry a good man.
The Chinese “tiger mother” parenting style was under considerable discussion in this country some years ago and can be found in this game. On the other hand, players can choose between pushing their digital children to achieve conventional success or allowing them a degree of childhood freedom. Apparently, Chinese parents today are more likely to wonder whether unhealthy amounts of stress are turning their children into automatons.
Amy Chua, the “tiger mother” author, compared Chinese and Western parents, writing that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem and worry too much about how their children will feel if they fail at something. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe their children can get them – and if they don’t, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. Also, Chinese parents believe they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.
The parenting game seems to embody some of the conflicts Chinese parents today are experiencing. Economic growth has created more opportunity for advancement but has also raised expectations for career success. As the life of the digital child progresses, parents arrange courses and activities such as piano lessons, swim classes and coding. Yet the game reflects how much psychological pressure the child is feeling and the digital child may crack with too much homework.
The developer of this game hopes to produce an English version and it will be interesting to see if the choices offered American parents reflect the goals and conflicts of the Chinese. One similarity seems to be the idea that a multitude of extra-curricular activities and opportunities are essential for advancement and ultimate success. In China everything leads up to the highly competitive college entrance exam that decides the fortune of many young people.
American parents are also concerned about their children’s educational achievement and potential for admission to highly ranked schools. This would appear to be less a matter of increased economic opportunity than decreased educational opportunity. The cost of higher education and the poor quality of much public education has led to competition for admission to a limited number of schools.
Schools and teachers have also been under pressure to achieve goals that have changed through various attempts at improving outcomes. The result has been increased pressure on students from both teachers and parents. The conflict between the pressure for success and the wish for a more traditional childhood is one of concern to many parents and observers.
The fact is that the goals and choices of real – as well as make-believe – parents are shaped by the larger society in which they raise their children.
In the 1990’s during a trip to Russia, I had an opportunity to interview a number of women. This was a time when women in this country – including mothers – were going to work outside the home in increasing numbers as part of the struggle for women’s rights and equal opportunity with men.
In the Soviet Union, women’s participation in the work force had long been a matter of fact, rather than aspiration, both as an ideological and practical matter. Children cared for in government provided daycare was also a fact. Yet all of the women I spoke to spontaneously expressed a similar point of view. They were baffled as to why American women were fighting to join the workplace.
From their vantage point, American women were so fortunate in being able to remain home as housewives and mothers – something these women could only wish for. They could not understand why women would fight to give that up. They especially longed to be able to care for their own children instead of having them cared for by others in situations that were not always to their liking.
This experience came to mind when reading about women in Japan who work more than 49 hours a week and typically do close to 25 hours of housework a week. Their husbands do an average of less than five. In addition, preschools may require daily journals recording children’s temperatures, what they eat, their sleep hours and playtime.
Japan’s economy is apparently in need of working women, yet although raising women’s employment rates to the same level as men could increase the country’s economic output significantly, the actual opportunities for women are limited. While many employers accommodate women’s domestic responsibilities by providing shorter work days, at the same time they are penalized in terms of salary and opportunities for advancement.
In the 1980’s, during the massive influx of women and mothers to the workforce in this country, Arlie Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist wrote “The Second Shift,” a study of how families were coping with the everyday reality of working mothers. She found that women came home from a full day of paid work to another round of unpaid housework and childcare – a “second shift.” She estimated that women were working an extra month more than their spouses every year.
Revisiting her thesis twenty-five years later, research showed that women were still doing about twice the housework and child care as men, even when working full time. Hochschild reported a “stalled revolution.” The revolution was women going into the workforce, but the workplace and the men they come home to had changed less rapidly, or not at all.
The attitude of the Soviet women all those years ago reflected their belief that American women had a choice, which they themselves did not. The rebirth of the women’s movement at that time encompassed a focus on choice – namely, that women should have a choice in the directions of their lives, with opportunities open to them that were open to men.
While working outside the home was initially seen as a choice, it has since turned into an economic necessity for many. What has become clear in the process is that the concept of choice as it was imagined was in itself unrealistic. Reality as it is encountered does not match original expectations. This may be because the expectations in themselves were unrealistic.
A basic idea in the changing role of women was that the gender division of labor in the home would become equal. Although there have been steps taken in achieving that goal, the reality is that the constraints women are experiencing in that regard are greater than any feeling of choice.
Nancy Pelosi can be a model for mothers everywhere. She is quoted saying that as a mother of five and grandmother of nine, she recognizes a temper tantrum when she sees one. But it is not only recognition that is at work – it is the quality of the response.
Mothers generally also recognize tantrums but can be stymied in their response. Two and three-year-old’s render big, strong parents helpless by their behavior. In part this is because an adult reaction is often one of trying to stop the behavior, forcibly or otherwise – a no win effort.
Pelosi’s confidence in her own understanding of the situation leads to unshaken expectations for appropriate behavior – without useless attempts to stop what is inappropriate. No threats or angry rebuttals. Just calm expectation.
Some attribute Pelosi’s success to her having real power in her position. We are accustomed to thinking of power as the means of achieving our ends. Historically and culturally men have had that power and have used it, at times, for controversial goals. That power model extended to the family – “father knows best”, but also had final say. Yet somehow, mothers’ influence has been pervasive. Take note of the jokes of comedians and the words of novelists.
Lost in the reliance on power is the role of a different power. This is the power within relationships to influence the behavior of others. We know that as children grow, they learn to modify their self-seeking behavior, motivated in large part by the wish for parental approval. The loss of approval carries more weight than threats or punishment.
Children do not graciously accept parental authority. They are defiant and rebel in various ways. Three-year-old’s tantrum in an attempt to find their own voices. Teen-agers seek their own power in place of parental authority, not yet having learned the responsibility and risks involved in the use of power.
Pelosi appears to recognize a developmental context for unacceptable behavior. She apparently referred to the demand for a wall as “a manhood thing.” This tells us that understanding why someone is doing somethings can help us figure out what to do about it.
Being stuck at an earlier stage of development leads to inappropriate demands that can’t be met. Having a tantrum if you don’t get your way isn’t successful even for a three-year-old – unless it intimidates your parents. As a mother, Pelosi gets it. You don’t reward inappropriate behavior. Cancelling the State of the Union address politely, without anger, delivered that message.
Childhood behavior that demands gratification without considering the needs of others too often makes others angry in turn. Pelosi’s experience as a mother has taught her the use of mother power. The absence of anger means the absence of a partner who will engage in childish attempts at self-assertion.
At the same time, rejection of childish behavior does not imply an unwillingness to search for other more constructive ways of meeting a need that has been expressed. The importance of compromise is something mothers teach as an important part of their power.
Compelling compliance through the use of authoritarian power doesn’t work well with children – or adult citizens. Nancy Pelosi offers a model of a mother’s power that can work with both.
In the ongoing discussion about the conflicts that exist between work and family life, the magic word always seems to be balance. The implication is that the solution lies in finding the right balance between the demands of each. But what does balance mean, and how does one find it?
The idea of balance suggests equality – the scales weighing evenly on each side. But that doesn’t reflect life in the real world. Certainly not the reality of the work world or of family life. The world of work consists of demands that one is obliged to meet, demands that allows little room for family needs that often impinge.
The reality is that children require care, requiring the need for substitute child care when parents work outside the home. Children sometimes get sick, complicating further the need for that care. Even when children are of school age there are demands for a parent’s availability to meet with teachers or to follow-up on special needs that may arise, summoning parents to school.
But this limited picture of reality does not consider the kind of care parents would like to give their children. It is here that the kind of conflicts parents experience come into play. These conflicts are a result not only of the demands of work, but also of both social and internal pressures.
The external social pressures come from often changing ideas about child-rearing methods and meeting children’s needs. In these days of social media there is advice galore on the best way to deal with the various developmental stages and behavior of children. Parents are held accountable if problems arise or if children’s behavior fails to meet expectations.
Internal pressures come into play when parents lose confidence dealing with their children. This loss of confidence comes from not trusting one’s own knowledge of one’s child. The idea that there is a “right” way to do everything reinforces that lack of trust. Lacking confidence in turn often leads to a lack of assurance in responding to children.
Parents become uncertain when they read some problem into a child’s behavior which they think needs some special response. Much of this behavior is often the result of children not acting in accordance with parental wishes, or becoming defiant. A parent will say about a preschooler, “I can’t get her to stop kicking me.” Or of an older child, “He pays no attention to anything I ask him to do.”
The loss of parental authority may come from the feeling that a parent is away at work so much that time spent at home should not be spent as a disciplinarian. But the issue is not discipline so much as the need for firm, assertive authority. Authority is not the same as authoritarian. It is neither, “I’m the boss” or letting the child be boss.
Children’s behavior can provoke anger. Feeling that anger can make a parent fearful of his or her own aggression – the fear that a response will be dangerous. But unlike their children, adults hopefully are mature enough to control their angry feelings and respond with needed assurance to their children’s behavior.
The pressure of dealing with these kinds of family interactions is part of what makes the combination with work outside the home so stressful. But the fact is that under the best of circumstances this dual functioning requires daily compromises. There is always the question of which needs will take priority in any given situation.
Perhaps the issue is not one of balance but of an ability to live with conflict and make compromises that will never be perfect.
What do we mean by autonomy? The dictionary defines autonomy as being “self-governing, independent.” But autonomy means more than independence in the sense of being able to take care of yourself physically.
Self-governing implies being able to take responsibility for yourself and for your own behavior. The dictionary definition includes the phrase, “subject to its own laws”. Intended as a reference to independent nations, this idea could be applied to children, particularly at certain points in their development. It is just at the point that children decide they should be subject to their own laws that conflict can develop between parents and children.
Parents often express concern about changes in their children’s behavior. Sweet, lovable children seem to turn overnight into willful, defiant little people. These children, usually two-year-old’s who had been easy to raise and manage, seemed all at once to have arrived at a point of asserting their own likes and dislikes, their own ideas of what they wanted to do and didn’t want to do, and their disinterest in their parent’s agenda. In short , they had decided they should be subject to their own laws, not their parents’ wishes.
This mysterious behavior is the behavior of emerging autonomy. All the children’s endowments, both innate and acquired through experience, have come together to produce the assertion of self that often is expressed as defiance of parents. As the butt of such expression – while struggling with the difficulties caused in simple day to day routines by our children’s resistance to our wishes and refusal to cooperate – we may see this as negative behavior to be nipped in the bud.
Actually, there is a positive side to this emerging autonomy. Children’s increasing language skills, perception, memory, intelligence and mobility are all operating now to help them gain mastery of their environment. The potential for such mastery has been there from birth. Infant research in recent years has shown how even newborns with little capacity for mobility exercise preferences with regard to sensations they seek and perceptions they form. They are able to turn their heads from side to side and will turn to mother’s voice in preference to some other voice. They also prefer a human voice over other sounds.
Observing in an infant program, I watched as a mom put her baby down in one spot and then went across the room to hang up her coat. Like a shot, the baby took off crawling toward her mom. But it was not her mom she was after. She had spotted mom’s tote bag on the floor and began pulling things out seeming to be looking for something she knew was in there.
One can see toddlers’ pleasure in accomplishing simple tasks, such as throwing their paper juice cups into a waste basket. Two-year-old’s love to help the teachers carry blocks to be put away, or make choices about activities to pursue. Developing language skills play a big role in helping children gain mastery of their environment and pleasure in the feeling of mastery.
An important part of growing up is finding a balance between one’s own desires and the need to respond to the expectations of parents and then others. In this process children test out their own voices and assert their own wills. The kind of response they get can help determine how confident they will come to feel in their own point of view, their own values and their own ideals.
Children talk back in the process of learning to speak up. Our challenge as parents is to help our children express themselves, support their emerging autonomy, yet learn to operate within parental and social boundaries.
Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan may recall a lyric that says, “Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream.” The message here appears to be that the meaning of things may not always be on the surface. We may have to look at, or hear things in a different or deeper way, to understand what is meant by what is said or done.
This may be a useful way to think about children’s behavior. As parents, we look for meaning in our children’s behavior before they communicate verbally. We read the cries of babies, interpreting them to mean the baby is hungry, tired, or needs a diaper change. As they grow, their behavioral communications may become more complicated, conveying a wider range of feelings and wishes.
The challenge to us as parents is to consider the motives underlying our children’s behavior and emotional experience while taking into consideration a child’s perspective. Our ability to understand the world from a child’s, rather than from an adult point of view, is what enables us to respond in a more sensitive way to our children.
Some years ago, I was leading a group of parents whose children had little or delayed language and it was interesting to find that in getting to know the children it was possible to understand what they were communicating through their behavior. But just as speech itself can sometimes get garbled, the behavioral communications of these children were often indirect and not immediately clear.
At times, parents did understand what certain behaviors meant, and were able to respond to the children in meaningful ways. At other times, when a child’s behavior was provocative, or in some way unacceptable, the parent involved would read a negative meaning in the behavior. The behavior was seen as a sign of the child’s lack of comprehension or some other deficit of development. This would leave the parent feeling hopeless about knowing how to respond in a meaningful way.
A powerful example of this was a child whose behavior led his mother to believe that she had no meaning to him and, therefore, had no ability to influence his behavior. He often would scratch her and she felt helpless to stop this behavior. He would come into the room where the mother’s group was meeting and stand patiently behind his mother’s chair.
His mother viewed this as misbehavior and tried to order him back to the nursery school room. The other mothers, however, saw this as her child trying to be close to her and challenged her perception of his behavior. Once she could understand his behavior in a different way, it opened to her the possibility of responding to him in a way that would be more meaningful. Before too long, the child no longer needed to scratch her to get her to respond to him.
Although this example is of a child with serious communication problems whose communications were, therefore, more difficult to understand, it actually points to a pitfall that exists for all parents at times. When a child behaves in a way that we don’t like, or embarrasses us, our own emotional reactions can get in the way of seeing the behavior as a communication. Then our response becomes one to our own feelings rather than to what a child’s behavior is actually saying.
Understanding a child’s behavior as his or her means of communication is empowering to parents. Most parents are good at it and are already doing it. The next step is providing the words a child can use the next time a similar situation arises.