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COMMENTARY—February 7, 2002

The Pushy Parent Syndrome

There is little doubt that I have been afflicted with the Pushy Parent Syndrome.  I was always consistently loving and tolerant until my son entered second grade. 

When my son was in second grade, he had a dynamic teacher who asked her seven- and eight-year-old students to write a summary of a current events article from a newspaper every week.  For some reason, it never occurred to me to ask why my son needed to do this homework exercise.  Was my son mature enough to comprehend a news article?  Well, the answer was a resounding “No,” yet we persisted in completing the homework.

Invariably, my son chose a news article from the sports section, but even these articles were often difficult to comprehend.  It is one thing for an adult to read a newspaper, but it is another for a young child to interpret the article and then, write down the specific points of the article.  It was then that I first became afflicted with the Pushy Parent Syndrome.

I would help my seven-year old son cut out an article because I wanted to make sure that he did not ruin the article.  He would then sit at the dining room table and continue to sit quietly.  Obviously, he was bewildered.  Instead of helping my poor son, however, I would just call from a few yards away and ask if he was making any progress.  Needless to say, he could write nothing. 

I would then proceed to try to help him by asking him to answer the five Ws, which were “who, what, where, when, why, and how.”  My voice gradually became more strident and, soon enough, I would be frustrated.  Meanwhile, my son remained confused.

It is unfortunate that I did not think twice about the ludicrous nature of the situation until a few years later.  One day, I turned to my husband and said, “Why on earth would a second grader have to report on current events?”  The answer was obvious:  the homework assignment was ridiculous and unfair. 

The children were too young and immature to do this type of assignment.  Instead of using my brain to analyze the situation at the time, I assumed wrongly that the teacher must have been right about the children's capabilities. 

The fact that my son did not complain aloud must have convinced me that he was capable of doing the work.  As a pushy parent, I urged him to work harder.  I was convinced that he could do this assignment, especially since I knew that he was bright.  Yet the assignment had nothing to do with his being intelligent.

The fault lay not with my son and his sincere efforts, but the absurd nature of the assignment.  Years later, my daughter was asked to do a similar assignment, but she was given a children's newsmagazine from which to choose an article.  Even that was a bit challenging for a six-year-old, but it was a tad more reasonable.  In effect, the assignments given to my children were sometimes outrageous and inappropriate.

Another example of a silly school assignment occurred when my son was in the fifth grade.  He was given a very large project to do at home, and he was given a timeline of things to accomplish over a span of six months.  As a ten-year-old boy, he was expected to apportion his time, do research on his computer and in the library, make charts, write articles, create interviews, and print out pictures. 

Naturally, as the children amassed their masterpieces, parents were required to offer assistance.  When I read the guidelines for this project, I asked my husband if I was in fifth grade.  It was obvious that the parents would be doing a great deal more than just driving a child to the library.

The pomposity of this assignment led me to pull my son out of fifth grade.  What did this teacher think she was accomplishing by having her students’ parents publish a tome?  If she actually did some teaching and supervision, then this project could easily have been an integral part of the classroom agenda, and the children could do their writing and research in class.  Oddly enough, my husband and I might have been the only parents who were revolted by the inappropriate nature of this school assignment.

By then, I realized that this project would send me into a full-blown case of the Pushy Parent Syndrome.  Was I going to subject my son to the humiliation of working on an inane project to prove that he was capable of working on a school assignment under my supervision for six months?  Perhaps we would have felt differently if our son showed an inordinate interest in the topic, but this project was an archaeological dig.  It was complex, if not terrifically boring. 

I saw clearly that what he was being asked to do was completely unfair.  I must admit that I did not enjoy the prospect of working with my son on this particular project.  In any case, the objective of the project was ridiculous.  What was the purpose of sending our son to school if the bulk of the work was not done in the classroom?  The answer was simple:  there was no reason, and we promptly pulled him out.

While home schooling my son, I manifested occasional symptoms of the Pushy Parent Syndrome.  When my son was not particularly keen on working with his science workbooks, I became a tad annoyed.  We made great progress, however, in most of his subjects. 

We paced ourselves without a curriculum, and he was doing great.  After a semester at home, my son returned to another school for sixth grade because he wanted the social interaction of being with other kids.  As mentioned in the previous essay (January 31, 2002), I did experience another bout of the Pushy Parent Syndrome, but I resolved to cure myself of it.

Over the past several years, though, I have learned that I am only one of thousands and thousands of parents who are afflicted with Pushy Parent Syndrome.  It is a disease of our times, and it is truly a manifestation of the intense competition that pervades our daily lives.  Competition is not new, but we routinely and wrongly aggrandize the need for competition.

Despite the oft quoted Darwinian concept of the survival of the fittest, competition is not what has enabled human beings to survive.  In his seminal work, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, the naturalist Petr Kropotkin wrote in the early 20th century about the overriding importance of cooperation and mutual aid in survival.  He wrote that he looked at bleak landscapes in Siberia and expected to see fierce competition for scarce resources, as predicted by Darwinian theory.  Instead, he saw primarily examples of cooperation.  In nature and in human existence, cooperation is just as, if not more, important than competition is to survival.

One could easily say that cooperation occurs between the pushy parent and the child, but this is not necessarily true.  Inherent in some pushiness is the idea that the child can do better.  Yet by what standard can or should the child do better?  Often, it is the standard set by the teacher or the parent.  Well, what if the standards are too high or unreasonable?

In recent days, I have come to realize that my expectations, particularly of my son, have been unreasonable.  I fell prey to a very common misconception of success in life.  I am living amid a mass of pushy parents in Los Angeles who seek the best schooling for their children.

We are all enthralled by the idea that our children will thrive in school so that they can get into an elite college.  From there, our children will be fabulously successful and happy.  Who knows if this is really true?

I know that I am a product of this type of schooling, yet I was never fabulously happy or successful to the degree I expected.  It is only now, while in my forties, that I can see that I have earned the right to be happy and fulfilled.  I have faced my personal struggles and become a happier person.  Moreover, I did this without my mother pushing me.

It amazes me that I am surrounded by parents who push their kids hard.  I once noted to my friend that her good friend, a mom with three kids, looked so mellow.  My friend looked at me and said bluntly that this mother was intense and that the kids were being trained rigorously to compete and succeed.  At home, she told me, there was a great deal of yelling.  I would never have guessed that because all I ever saw was a facade of calm.  It figures that I would have been deceived since one of the arts of competition is deception.

After careful deliberation and consideration of what is truly healthy and loving for my children, I have decided that what they need from me is not pushing but simply unconditional love.  As my son told me a short while ago, “Please just let me be me.”  I will let him and his sister be themselves. 

There is no guarantee in life.  We can, however, do our best to love our kids and respect them enough to know that they will find their own path to happiness ... just as we parents have.

Revised April 13, 2006




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