My wife and I were once “abusive” to our children. It occurred in the early years of our parenting. Convinced that we could raise the perfect children, we spent almost all our spare time enrolling them in educational and sporting activities, chauffeuring them around to their various lessons and practices, and then cheering them on in their many weekly performances — often in competition with other similarly zealous and abusive parents who had the same foolish ideas about raising children.
When you have your first child, you think he represents the Second Coming. “This is the reason I was born,” you think. “This is the reason the world exists.” You lavish him with every advantage you had or lacked. You watch his progress, note the changes, tell your friends about him. When you have your second child, you do the same but with less intensity. You sense that you might have overdone it with the first. By the time you have a third child, and especially if there have been several years in between (as in our case), you throw in the towel.
You realize that all your over-parenting didn’t amount to much. Heredity and the social environment you can’t control will both take their toll. You know you can’t fight it. Do you know parents who spoil their kids in the name of love? Parents who seem to believe that their purpose in life is to produce wonder children — always happy, superbly confident, and extraordinarily successful? I’m talking about parents whose lives are routinely dictated by the social and academic calendars of their children. Weekday afternoons and evenings devoted to after-school activities. Weekends pretty much non-stop sports, lessons, and parties.
As if letting children alone is a form of child cruelty. As if sacrificing one’s life for one’s offspring is noble. I am in the middle of a phone conversation with Jane when, suddenly, she is talking to someone else. Apparently, her child has interrupted her with a question or demand. Instead of telling him to shut up and wait his turn, she forgets about me while she tends to him. Jane hardly notices what she is doing. She doesn’t apologize. I am dumbfounded. I wonder what kind of petulant behavior we can expect from this child. It is natural to believe, when we don’t know any better, that our children deserve every bit of time and attention we have to give.
There is a great deal of media support for this view in books, in magazine articles, and on television. Rude, self-centered children, whose parents are forever trying to satisfy their never-ending, always escalating demands, populate practically any movie made by Steven Spielberg and his ilk. It was refreshing to run across a book that takes a different point of view. “The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Syndrome” takes the position that it may be better to let your kids control more of their own time. Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, the author, recommends limiting the number of formal activities you put your child in. “Think before you sign your child up for something,” he says. “Do the benefits outweigh the sacrifices?”
Instead of making the child the center of your universe, make the family the center. The family starts with the parents but includes the kids. Family activities — things you do together — are good for your kids, even if they don’t think so at first. On a recent week-long vacation in Nicaragua, our family did crossword puzzles together and took Spanish lessons in two groups (beginner and intermediate). We also played cards, horseshoes, and — believe it or not — charades.
After some initial bitching, each event went over harmoniously. As one day followed the next, the initial resistance to such low-tech ways of having fun was replaced by what appeared to be mild enthusiasm. Childhood is preparation, Rosenfeld reminds us, not a performance. Yes, we all want our children to be as wonderful as we know they can be — but a major part of having a good and productive life is learning how to be good and happy in a family situation. Turning off the television and banning video games is a good way to start.
That said, here are 10 antiquated rules for raising pretty good kids:
1. No more than one extracurricular activity at a time. And try not to get too involved. When you go to games or performances, don’t root more loudly for your child than you do for others. And never, ever complain to their coaches or teachers about how much play time they are getting.
2. Give your children plenty of time away from you. You are not supposed to be their best friend, so don’t take up all their after-school and weekend hours. Let them make their own friends and find their own places to play. Don’t worry so much about how dangerous it is out there. It’s no more dangerous than it was when you were a kid. It’s just that you are more paranoid than your parents were.
3. Make them do chores. Aside from having them clean up after themselves and keep their rooms cleaned (zero-tolerance policies on these), assign them weekly family chores like washing floors or folding laundry. Teach them that family work is shared by all members of the family. The older they get, the more they can do.
4. Make their weekly allowances embarrassingly low. Michael, who is 15, gets about $3 a week. That seems insane even to me, but Kathy sticks to it and it has had a profound and beneficial effect on our children. They don’t hit us up for money.
5. Let them earn money. They won’t be able to buy much with their allowances, so give them a chance to work for extra cash. Paid jobs take place after the non-paid family chores are done. Wages are generous but not excessive.
6. Make them save half of what they earn. Use the “Seeds of Wealth” system to ensure that your children not only understand the value of saving but actually build the beginnings of their future wealth by putting away 50 cents on every dollar they make or are given.
7. No television. We don’t have a TV set — and that has been a major blessing. But if you don’t want to give up your idiot box, at least restrict its use to an hour or two each weekend day.
8. No video-game players. By now you are thinking that Kathy and I are nuts. But we have successfully banned all Game Boys, Play Stations, etc. from the house — and it’s worked surprisingly well. Every so often, I get the feeling that our kids may have loaded some games onto their computers and that they play them occasionally — but the important thing is that they know how we feel about them: We hate them!
9. Not every child is capable of straight A’s — but unless your child has a learning problem, you should be able to get a solid B average out of him. When the grades fall below that, lay on the penalties. When they meet your modest (B) expectations, give them a modest reward.
10. Pay attention to them. OK, I never did do much of this. But Kathy did. And it seems to have paid off. She continues to be involved in their lives through conversations about their chores, their schooling, and their friends. She knows the players, the dramas, and the feelings associated with them. This has developed into a connection that I’m missing. Would have. Should have.[Ed. Note. Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]