Why does modern parenthood—the sum of the norms, requirements, and expectations of being a parent today—seem designed to make mothers and fathers feel inadequate, no matter how much we do? And how can we, as parents, maintain a sense of balance and perspective inspired by Stoic ideas?
I’ve asked myself this as a mother of two children in school, who feels constantly inundated with ads and advice touting new programs, activities, sports, lessons, tutoring, camps, coaching, private schools, and test prep. Many of these promise to give kids a leg up in getting into the best possible colleges, and ultimately getting good jobs and becoming “successful” young adults. And I always wonder: Am I doing enough for my kids?
I hear versions of this question from a lot of other parents. And the same angst. I am writing about this topic now during the college admissions season, as I hear tales of woe from fellow parents of high schoolers struggling through the grueling application and acceptance process with their students.
The pressure on parents has its origins in the murky business of raising a young adult in today’s highly competitive world. There’s no clear or objective measure for why one student is accepted to a college, one receives a scholarship, one gets an internship, one earns a job offer, while others don’t. Because no one really understands or can logically explain how unpredictable college admissions and job hiring systems work, the tremendous pressure cooker on families continues to grow. (Not to mention the very deep worries about paying for college and grad studies, a terrible burden all around.) So we keep trying to do more to position our children for positive outcomes.
As a Stoic, my insight is this: Parenting older kids as they navigate middle and high school often feels like an overwhelming exercise in trying to control what is outside our power to change or even logically understand. It’s a situation that has the potential to drive any of us—parents AND kids—crazy, if we don’t apply Stoic principles. Let’s explore why, and a few Stoic-based ideas that could help.
Got Those Intensive Parenting Blues
Recent studies have demonstrated the extreme pressure parents are under to do more for their children, to spend increasing amounts of money and time to prepare them compete. In sociological terms, what’s happening now has been labelled “intensive parenting.” I call it intensive stress. The New York Times reported on “intensive parenting” this way:
Parenthood in the United States has become much more demanding than it used to be.
Over just a couple of generations, parents have greatly increased the amount of time, attention and money they put into raising children. Mothers who juggle jobs outside the home spend just as much time tending their children as stay-at-home mothers did in the 1970s.
And the article went on to describe the hands-on “help” and care mothers (and fathers) are providing:
The time parents spend in the presence of their children has not changed much, but parents today spend more of it doing hands-on child care. Time spent on activities like reading to children; doing crafts; taking them to lessons; attending recitals and games; and helping with homework has increased the most. Today, mothers spend nearly five hours a week on that, compared with 1 hour 45 minutes hours in 1975 — and they worry it’s not enough.
This is not completely new. When I was growing up, my mom owned the book The Hurried Child by David Elkind (first published in 1981), and I read it, too. Elkind argues that young children are being pressured to do many structured activities and classes and make early achievements that cause them to grow up too soon. They are unable to pursue the meandering exploration that’s inherent in young kids. Young children need more time to play, not more math drills and music lessons.
The book was the first of its kind to emphasize this point. Unfortunately, it did nothing to stem the tide of hurried—and stressed—children, which has risen further and further in recent years as evidenced by data gathered by researchers.
The Risks of Going Against the Tide
Nowadays, letting kids just explore and find things they care about on their own seems much harder for parents to allow. First, there’s the risk that our kids might not explore so much as get sucked into a whirlwind of tech-driven addiction to video games, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc. And second, we, as parents, risk being perceived as “bad” moms and dads if we can’t or don’t want to participate in this rat-race of activities, classes, sports, tutoring, prep, and more.
What’s surprising is that we’re not being called out on this by other adults—it’s by our own children! Here is an example: “My friend has been doing this sport since she was 3, was on two competitive teams last year, and she’s amazing. I can’t start now. I am so far behind, I’ll never catch up. Why didn’t you make me do this sooner?” Why indeed? Because I wanted our children to explore a range of activities and become well-rounded human beings capable of choosing what they like to do.
I’m not the only one getting these comments. A work colleague mentioned that now that his son is a junior in high school, the teen wishes his mom and dad were “Tiger Parents”—the kind who require that their children perform at the highest possible level in numerous academics, activities, arts, and sports starting in preschool, and who exert pressure and funds to guide their kids to earning national awards.
Bucking this trend, especially in school environments filled with ambitious and often well-heeled kids and parents, feels impossible at times. My husband and I tell our children that their own gifts, talents, character, and interests will propel them through their schooling and whatever comes after. Their intrinsic motivation, hard work, ethics, emotional intelligence, and creativity are, in our view, the secret sauce to having a positive future. They need to make their own choices about what to invest time and energy in. Sure, others will win awards or competitions. Does that matter?
But the culture bends towards “success,” and kids imbibe that early on. The way this is harming kids was brought home to me when I did a presentation on stress to a middle school class recently as a volunteer. When asked about their personal stressors in an anonymous exercise, several of the 11- and 12-year-olds said that they are not getting enough sleep—either they had trouble falling asleep, or they didn’t have enough time to sleep due to their busyness. It was shocking to me that even before they are teens, kids are worried about lack of sleep. Others are stressed by their efforts to get perfect grades and get top scores in tests. Others by competitions in sports or music.
If the system for educating our young people for work could become more rational, logical, and comprehensible, we could change the incentives that drive parents to push their kids so hard, and that encourage stress in our kids. In doing so, we could perhaps reduce the rising levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues in teens and young adults. We could possibly even have an impact on the alarming rate of teen suicides, which has gone up 56 percent for American teens in the period 2007 – 2017, and is now the second leading cause of death for American young people. We could also begin to address the huge inequalities plaguing our educational system and economy.
But our crazy patchwork of college acceptances, scholarships, internships, and opportunities is likely to remain this way far into the future, with competition for slots only increasing as more students from around the world seek a good education and job.
Stoic Lessons for Teens and Their Parents
So until things change, I’ll be constantly reminding myself of my Stoic principles as I raise my teens. And I remind my kids too.
The top two principles to keep in mind: developing the faculty of choice, and remembering how the dichotomy of control divides the world into things we can and cannot control.
It’s up to my children to choose their level of effort at school in their academics and their extracurricular activities (within limits of affordability, location, need for sleep, etc.). But many things are outside their control. The students around them, their teachers, their school culture, college admissions boards, and hiring committees are and will remain outside of their power.
As parents, we should stop pretending the we can, or should, control other people, whether that’s our children or college admissions officers. Kids are not computers or robots.
Ultimately our children have to be allowed to be themselves. Students ought be able to exercise freedom and choice, even if it leads to missteps along the way. Yes, we can guide and help and encourage, and try to teach. But our children are people. They must learn for themselves how to use their reason, and what a good life looks like. This is the core of the Stoic message, and it applies to older children as well as adults
Maintaining a healthy perspective and questioning how external achievement is connected to real personal worth—the kind consisting of good moral intentions and ethical decisions—is of great importance. Stoicism emphasizes that prestigious jobs or accolades from powerful people are not valuable. They are not the key to a good, or a happy, life. And we must recall that we, as parents, are not responsible for our kids’ success—it is not a badge of honor for mom and dad.
In the end, being a “successful” person will entail autonomy. My hope is that children who learn independently how to make choices and commitments, and who apply their efforts to growing their knowledge and achieving in their own way, will live well in adulthood. Their true goals will be to follow the Stoic virtues: to work towards justice for all people; to exercise self-control; to achieve wisdom, in ways large and small; and to be brave enough to be themselves, rejecting the anxieties powered by a highly competitive world.
Meredith A. Kunz writes The Stoic Mom, a blog that focuses on how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent’s—or anyone’s—life. She is working on a longer project about women and Stoicism. You can follow her on Twitter @thestoicwoman.