Parenting is always a hot topic. The answers aren’t always so definitive when it comes to what is best for our children. We all have set notions of what we believe to be the best path, but that varies as much as weight. Parenting isn’t a science. What is consistent is that most parents seem to be doing what they believe is the best for their child…being the best they can be in the moment.
This week “Our America with Lisa Ling” focused on the extremes in parenting. From parents with children in year-round elite schools to un-schooling children to breathing sports….all done a tad to the extreme. I did my best to sit openly without judgment. Most of the situations appeared to have started normal and then tipped over the edge into extreme taking it a little too far. In watching I realized that the issue was not about being extreme – it was about lack of balance.
The show began at the uber-elite school, Bowman Institute, in Los Altos, California, a year round program focused on pushing the potential for each child, a school to children from executives and engineers from Apple, Google and other successful Silicon Valley parents. At 6 years old, the parents of twins Drake and Dominic are already focused on graduate school and setting the foundation for the real world. Now mandatory collared shirts and chewing with their mouths closed didn’t get them on the show. The lifestyle of constantly striving to achieve was what impacted viewers. At first the parents appeared to be like most driven parents – wanting the most of each opportunity for their kids. However, as one child spent 9 hours a week in tennis (since they don’t believe in team sports where children blend in) I began to wonder about what messages were being sent to these kids. During tennis, young Drake placed his baseball cap on backwards (as many tennis players do at times) which led to a quick squash by his parents. “No, no, no, no. You cannot wear your hat like that,” mom instructs Drake. Only for dad to chime in “Pretty soon it starts with hat backwards then tattoos and who knows where we go from there.” With so little freedom of expression I can’t help but be concerned. I was raised in the same Silicon Valley environment. Luckily my mother fostered many areas in my life including self-expression. However, I knew kids like these and honestly – they were the ones using cocaine, drinking and rebelling in ways that their parents never dreamed of. The pressure was intense and many of them ended up cracking. It is hard to be perfect. Everyone is an opponent. Everything is a competition. Everything is about being the best. Where we as a society tend to admire many of these characteristics there is a need for balance. I mean…aren’t we already in an ego-based society? Working as a societal team isn’t such a bad thing. Or is it? Striving to be your best is always a good thing, but working together for a greater good is just as important. As the kindergartener Dominic sat in his mother’s bed running his multiplication table, he pleaded to stop. However, his mom pushed him on. Despite his weariness, there was no break for him. There was no choice.
The next set of parents was polar opposites – it was all about choices. You never would have caught their children in year-round school. Matter of fact, you wouldn’t even catch them in school. They are un-schoolers! Learning through life experiences with an unorganized approach. The children determine what and when they want to learn and how. Everything is their choice. It isn’t that the parents don’t understand the value in structure. Both were once part of the Marine Corps. But when it comes to their 3 children, they chose not to enforce the tight grip of structure on them. Struggling to find balance from the pressure, they opted to remove it entirely. As they discuss their children’s interests (Mars, art and researching), I couldn’t help but think about where these kids will be in 15 years. “Every subject you learn in school you don’t use in your career. I mean, I don’t,” their father shared. As Lisa delved more into the story we learn that at one time the parents did have the children on a charter school’s curriculum. As an aunt of a home/web schooled nephew, I know these subjects can be intense and extensive. I know he is excelling by all standards. When her second child came along and was diagnosed with autism, the parents found it hard to stick to the curriculum and manage a growing family. Within months they decided to un-school their children to allow more flexibility. I didn’t even know that was legal! Will fostering the creative spirit be enough for these children? Will they be able to succeed in life without having the formal education? This is the hard part for me. I can see ones’ argument about taking a statistics course, but basic history, science, health and math? We all know how important history is. You have to understand the past in order to create a better future. Plus, America is no longer the leader in the scientific world and our math skills are not so hot either. With a population where debt is leaving some people homeless, how can we not use every resource to better educate our kids? In my experience, it is the great work and thoughts of others that stimulate us to grow our own base of knowledge and vision. It is possible that these parents incorporate that into their kids’ life, but with clips of playing video games and swimming in the pool, I have to wonder if this the act of a loving parent or a worn-out one?
There are tiger moms, un-schooling moms and then there is the sports dad. Lisa’s next story took us into the heart of a competitive and ambitious father. Every morning, Terry has woken his sophomore son to a 2-hour workout session before school. He was in constant training. A 2nd-degree black belt, his son always strived to be the best he could be…conquering his fears. “By the time he burn himself out, he’ll already be in the NFL,” his father shared. However the burnout is not the only concern. Injuries can destroy hopes and their body. His father wasn’t concerned about that. He was more focused on keeping his son off the street. Terry was raised gang banging in Watts amongst the Crips and the Bloods. He left that life behind him and was determined his son would never go there. He was better than that. In a community of father-less kids, Terry has stood out as a strong and reliable role-model. For his son, his good grades and skills in football are all stepping stones to the NFL and success. I don’t see this as extreme as other cases. Maybe that is because sports are embedded into our society so deep that yelling, over-involved parents have become the norm. But what I do worry about is his back-up plan. I am all for dreaming big without doubt, but one bad hit, one jacked up knee and everything could end. If his self-esteem and self-worth are rooted in sports, what will he do then? Once again there seems to be a loss of balance. This approach is risky both physically and emotionally.
The Smiths were by far the most extreme. These parents wanted their daughters to be “stars” and the first step was pageants. At 2 ½ their first daughter had already been in over 7 competitions. “I truly believe that if you are prettier you will go further in life,” the mom shared. I paused knowing that in part she was being honest and in sadness knowing that this is exactly what I believe we shouldn’t be teaching our children. Watching clips of her daughter throwing tantrums on the runway and trying to pull out her headpieces, you have to wonder who all this is for. Certainly a 2 year-old isn’t asking mom to be in a beauty pageant. Their mom talked of how beauty pageants foster self-esteem and I completely disagree. They actually teach the opposite of that. At 1 ½ years-old they are being spray tanned, hair extensions are being added to their head and they are covered in make-up and polish. The message is clear – you aren’t good enough without all this. You aren’t good enough on your own. “You have to do what you have to do to win.” Spending over $10,000 that year on pageants, mom recognizes the value may be better spent on saving for college. However she informed us that “I’m not getting my thrill doing that.” By accident their girls ended up in the same competition against each other, a mother’s worst nightmare. Touching up the girls to get them ready, their mom gives them “pageant crack”, liquid sugar, hoping to bring out a little hyper sunshine. Shoving candy in their mouths, fake tans and hair extensions, more make-up than I wear…all in hopes of becoming a star. None of this feels right. The mom knows. She admitted that after her second daughter was born she still believed her first daughter was prettier. She knew it sounded horrible but was being honest. With their older daughter less than enthusiastic about the show, their youngest seemed to be quite comfortable. Mom was certain that her youngest would take the crown. However, her older daughter won leaving her perplexed. When she asked the judges, she was told “it’s kinda all about the face.” Personality and talent doesn’t matter at all. For the first time, their parents began to question their decisions. This topic is always hard for me. In a society oozing with pedophiles, I can’t stand to watch young girls painted up like hookers. I am sorry but I am saying it. It concerns me and it should concern all of us. When a mom dreams big for her daughter to become a star as opposed to a doctor or teacher, what message are we sending our young women?
I find that behind each parenting choice is usually an unresolved childhood issue. For elite mom, she was pulled from Gifted & Talented classes and raised to be married. She rebelled and became a savvy business woman who pushes their children – it became their way of life. For un-school mom, she was pushed too hard towards perfection via Catholic school and strict parents. After a career and the Marine Corps and finding herself resentful of her own past, she opted to remove the structure all together for her own children. The sports father fought his own gang past and was determined to give his son every opportunity he wished he had taken. Pageant parents who want to feel special themselves and want to give their children more out of life, hoping it will bring them fame and fortune. Aside from the similarity of parent-issue driven choices, they have something else in common – none of these children had a choice in the decisions. Their path was determined by their parents like most children. The only question is at what cost? Fostering creativity, individuality, talents and abilities are not bad things, but there has to be balance in life. If not, the children may spend a majority of their lives looking for it.
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