Parents on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Three new books explain why you're always freaking out about your kids -- and tell you to ignore the experts.

Published May 20, 2003 3:55PM (EDT)

I used to be a fairly easygoing person, but becoming a mother threw me into a state of low-grade but chronic anxiety. I fretted over my two sons' refusal to eat vegetables, their sibling battles, their taste for violent cartoons. Problems seemed to be evidence not that my children were normal flawed human beings but that I was a bad mom for not fixing them. I was frazzled when they misbehaved but remorseful when I yelled. If I let the boys play in front of the TV set while I grabbed half an hour of peace -- OK, God help me, an hour -- with a cup of tea and a magazine, I couldn't really relax. I feared I was dooming them to lives of, well, I wasn't sure exactly what, but I worried about it anyway.

In occasional lucid moments, I wondered why I should feel selfish for wanting time to myself, evil for every perceived misstep, and personally at fault for my children's failure to be perfect. Besides, my kids were healthy, bright and cute, so what was my problem? When I finally began to figure it out, I felt like the horror-movie baby sitter who finds out the threatening phone calls are coming from inside the house.

What I realized was that, while my anxiety may have originally stemmed from inexperience as a mother and assorted child-rearing dilemmas, it was now being exacerbated by the very experts whose books and magazine articles I relied on for guidance. The child-rearing gurus indicated that if I followed instructions my kids would turn out well, the way muffins do if you measure ingredients carefully and bake for the recommended time.

If not, the result could be considerably worse than burnt muffins, and I'd have only myself to blame.

Which, of course, left me uneasy about every slip-up, every inconsistency, every flare of temper, every weary capitulation, every momentary lapse of attention. Much of the advice seemed impractical or ineffective, but I didn't dare ignore it entirely. Who was I to question the science of child development? I'd turned to the experts in the first place because of questions about my parenting abilities, and their answers implied that I had plenty to worry about.

Now, several refreshing new books assure me that I'm not insane -- or if I am, I'm not the only one. Offering a bit of sympathy to exhausted adults for a change, these books confirm that lots of modern, middle-class parents are nervous wrecks. They also lend support for my theory about why, suggesting that the child-rearing experts who appeared and proliferated throughout the past century are at least partly responsible for sending parents on this guilt trip. Most startling, these books suggest that the advice I assumed was based on incontrovertible scientific data is more often a weird hodgepodge of overblown research findings, preconceived notions, marketing strategies and a sprinkling of wishful thinking.

In "Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America," Peter N. Stearns writes that middle-class Americans in the 20th century came to view children as extremely fragile, despite the prosperity and medical advances that had extended and improved most kids' lives. Moms and dads became newly distressed about everything that might affect their vulnerable offspring: sleep, discipline, homework, chores, entertainment, self-esteem.

Stearns cites a number of reasons people started worrying, including smaller families (which focus more frantic attention on fewer kids), geographic separation from grandparents and their child-rearing experience, more divorces, time-strapped working mothers and the anxieties connected with hiring child-care help, new technologies such as TV and computers whose effects on young brains weren't clear.

Decades of pop psychology had taught us that if we're screwed up, it's our parents' fault. Now that we had kids of our own, we were facing the unsettling flip side of that assumption.

As parental uncertainties increased, pediatricians and child psychologists rode to the rescue. However, Stearns writes, "the experts compounded the worry," offering advice that was generally labor-intensive, often contradictory and frequently alarmist. Many promoted the belief "that children could easily be damaged beyond repair."

Even the kindly, pragmatic Dr. Benjamin Spock, who opened his best-selling manual with soothing words ("Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do"), went on to "invoke the specter of 'parental ruination' often enough to remind parents of their tremendous responsibility," Stearns writes. That paradox -- assuring parents of their competence, then issuing instructions for handling a laundry list of potential problems -- was a theme echoed by many of Spock's successors. Far from trusting parents' natural instincts, the experts had apparently concluded that raising children was too difficult a task to be left to amateurs.

Yet, despite their claims to the latest knowledge on child development, some of the white coats seem to have gotten no closer to real kids than the other side of the lab's two-way mirror. "It is conceivable," rhapsodized author John Watson in the 1920s, "that some day we may be able to bring up the human young through infancy and childhood without their crying or showing fear reactions." Nearly 100 years later, however, scientists have yet to cure children of negative emotions.

Stearns' focus on the whole last century as the era of anxiety may be counterintuitive to adult readers who nostalgically remember their own parents as relatively relaxed. But his approach provides some comforting perspective; as I agonize over my children's PlayStation habits, it's nice to know that some late 19th century critics spoke out against teddy bears (warning they'd divert affection from mothers and "foster a craving for novelty and variety that life cannot satisfy").

David Anderegg's "Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It" covers some of the same ground. But in place of Stearns' scholarly survey, Anderegg, a child psychologist with a clinical practice, offers a chatty reality check. He shows how the media and panicky parents blow minor or rare events into "crises" and "epidemics." (Like Stearns, Anderegg reminds readers that there really are crises affecting American children, but that they involve problems like poverty.) He debunks various recent scares -- child abduction, school violence, killer nannies -- deconstructing them with statistics, research and common sense. Having just heard how to protect my kids from sexual predators in a "Today Show" segment tucked cozily between the weather report and the cooking tips, I welcomed his calming words.

Unfortunately, Anderegg often sounds too much like just another self-help author. He claims that parents worry because their thinking is twisted by "displaced anxiety" and they're failing to face their own hidden motivations. Hey, after showing me how sensationalized media reports are making me crazy, don't turn around and tell me it's all in my head.

Besides, some of his supposed efforts to dispel worry have just the opposite effect. Thanks to his chapter on television, I now understand exactly how I am harming my boys -- diminishing their creativity, damaging their concentration -- when I sneak out for those tea breaks.

"If you read wonderfully engaging books to them early on, they will learn to love to read, because reading will always remind them of warm and close parental attention," Anderegg assures me. Well, I read to them plenty, but for some reason they still like watching "Batman." For this, Anderegg offers a perfectly bizarre tip: "Place a picture of a nice cold beer on top of the television set. Then imagine that, when your child turns on the TV, he is drinking a nice cold beer instead. Do you really want him to do that?" Um, no, because if anyone needs a drink right now, it's me.

Curiously, almost all of Anderegg's examples of media crisis-mongering come from newspapers, TV and newsmagazines. Perhaps averting his gaze out of professional courtesy to fellow parenting authors, he pretty much ignores the many frightening books (and parenting-magazine articles) on some of these same topics. For example, a chapter on "the overscheduled child" makes no reference to a well-known book of that name that warns about the very risks that Anderegg pooh-poohs.

Readers seeking a more skeptical examination of child-rearing expertise will find what they're looking for in Ann Hulbert's meticulously researched and anecdote-packed "Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children." Hulbert takes us into the labs -- and the living rooms -- of a century's worth of experts, finding examples of advice that, by modern standards, often sounds laughably wacky, if a little heart-rending. Mothers at one time or another have been instructed to toilet train 3-month-olds, to let babies get exercise by crying, to refrain from kissing or cuddling their offspring. "Never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning," dictated one 1920s author.

Under Hulbert's cool-eyed analysis, our presumably more enlightened era's experts (certainly more prolific; the number of child-rearing guidebooks quintupled between 1975 and 1997) don't get off much easier. What I found particularly thought-provoking is her suggestion that it's the twinkly-eyed, liberal softies, the ones I tend to be drawn to, rather than the right-wing disciplinarians, who tend to be the most demanding on parents. While hard-liner and conservative John Rosemond emphasizes letting kids play independently, the grandfatherly T. Berry Brazelton and his sometime-collaborator Stanley Greenspan prescribe extensive daily blocks of one-on-one activity that would all but require a stay-at-home parent, Hulbert writes.

As for science, Hulbert shows that after a century of study, researchers haven't come close to discovering the best way to raise children. Measuring the long-term effects of childhood experiences is notoriously difficult: Controlled studies are unavailable, cause-and-effect relationships unclear, variables -- from genetics to family structure to socioeconomic status -- too slippery to sort.

Of course, that hasn't stopped the experts (or celebrity popularizers) from regularly declaring breakthroughs. For example, a 1997 campaign, I Am Your Child, headed by movie director Rob Reiner, with help from Hillary Clinton, warned that if children aren't provided with a stimulating environment that includes a lot of parental interaction during their first three years, their developing brains permanently atrophy. "There was only one problem," Hulbert writes. "Along with most of the media, Reiner failed to note the fact that no such new evidence of neural vulnerability actually existed." On the contrary, research suggested that young brains are genetically programmed to develop under almost any circumstances -- no flash cards required.

Meanwhile, studies on twins and adopted kids have cast doubt on the whole advice industry. Parents' influence "could not actually be shown to count for much in determining the personalities that emerged," Hulbert reports. The implication -- though unproven -- is that, unlike muffin recipes, child-rearing practices have little effect on how the product turns out.

Stressed-out moms and dads, then, may be entitled to lighten up a little. But, I can hear the experts snapping back. "It's the parents who don't worry that I worry about," an authority once told me. Worried parents, in other words, are conscientious parents. Isn't a little constant anxiety a small price to pay for the sake of your child?

One answer might be that your child doesn't really benefit. Although these authors don't uncover much evidence that kids are harmed by parental anxiety (though Stearns does speculate about a link between a growing incidence of depression among children and parents' frantic insistence on their happiness), neither is there reason to believe that the worrying helps kids, or makes parents more effective.

Certainly, there's evidence that this cloud of anxiety is hurting parents themselves. Polls show parental satisfaction steadily slipping. "Every inquiry from 1950 on shows a decided margin in favor of childlessness as the happier state," Stearns reports. Noncustodial divorced fathers are more content than custodial dads. Empty nesters like their lives better than parents whose nests are still occupied.

This hardly seems fair. Few expect children to bring 18 years of nonstop bliss, and some people make the reasonable decision not to have them at all, but surely those who want kids deserve to be happier than they were without them. By now, though, parents are so accustomed to putting our children's needs first that it sounds almost blasphemous to suggest that our feelings are important, too. Besides, anxiety is a hard habit to break.

Maybe we could think of it this way: If we start changing our attitudes now, then someday, when our kids become parents, they won't have to face all these worries.

By Katy Read

Katy Read is a writer in Minneapolis.


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