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Parents driven by fear of failure

By Andrea Gordon


The parents are worried, so the children are hurried.

While the factors driving the modern family are many and complex - from the explosion of technology to the influx of mothers into the workforce - parental fear may be at the heart of today's rushed approach to child-rearing, some experts say.

Fear of everything from media exposure to sex and violence to peer pressure to waning support from public institutions and a society that isn't looking out for their kids, says Alan Mirabelli, executive director of Ottawa think-tank, the Vanier Institute of the Family.

Perhaps most of all, there's fear their kids won't be equipped to compete in the future.

"Are we going to raise children in a culture of fear or are we going to raise them in a culture of love? That's always been the tension," says Mirabelli. "And I have a feeling fear is winning."

Some might argue that today's parents are micromanagers because, unlike those who raised families during the Depression and World War II, they don't have enough real worries. But Mirabelli says it comes down to a different context and a different set of challenges.

"The one dread I have about topics like these is that we will blame parents," he says. "Parents are products of a culture that surrounds them and part of it is we've been, since the '70s, moving towards this notion that we are supposed to be independent and self-sufficient." 

He notes that while parents 25 or 30 years ago had the modest goals of providing their offspring with more than they had, the current driving force is a desperation to equip kids for a dog-eat-dog world.

When fear sets in, it's natural to try to exert control - wherever possible. So amid a societal mantra that we are failing to keep up, and fresh memories of corporate downsizing and the collapse of the dot-com boom, that's what many parents are trying to do. They do whatever it takes to give their own children a leg up. But, Mirabelli wonders, in the process are they passing those fears along?

They've done it by demanding tougher schools, a heftier curriculum and standardized testing to measure performance. Outside the school system, they fill in the gaps with tutoring, music lessons, art classes, gymnastics and hockey. For those who can't afford it, there's the additional stress and fear that their kids don't stand a chance.

"It's not a question of bad motivation," says Mirabelli. "Parents do what parents have always done. They want a better way of life for their children and so they take steps and sacrifices ... to make sure their children have those opportunities." 

To juggle all this, many adopt a workplace mentality in the home. Family meetings, agendas to track schoolwork and activities, meals gobbled separately around tight schedules. Backpacks on wheels so kids can transport their hefty workloads back and forth to school. Homework battles have become a regular feature of family life. 

In Ontario, tightening the curriculum to four years from five "added a sense of `hurry and get on with your lives,'" says Phil Hedges, executive director of the Ontario School Counsellors' Association.

The pressure to be well-rounded comes from universities that have more applicants than spaces. "It doesn't seem to be enough to have done well and have a part-time job," says Hedges. "It's ` what else have you done?'"

Even more troubling is that this approach appears to be backfiring for so many. It is estimated as many as a quarter of high school students will drop out or are at risk of failing as a result of the tougher curriculum.

David Elkind, renowned child psychologist and author of The Hurried Child, says hyper-parenting is a reaction to a world changing so fast we have no idea how to prepare kids for it. Parents can't envision the society their kids will inhabit as adults, so they try to cover all the possibilities, cramming in as much as possible and operating on the principle that earlier is better. "This works against the notion of `let children be children.'"

But even more fundamental factors have changed the nature of childhood. Technology is a big one. And not just since personal computers became a fixture in middle-class homes.

In his 1982 book The Disappearance Of Childhood, social historian Neil Postman argued its demise has been inevitable for many decades. He traces it back to the invention of the electric telegraph in the early 19th century. 

Childhood, wrote Postman, "was an outgrowth of an environment in which a particular form of information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be psychologically assimilable ways. The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning."

If the telegraph began the process of making information uncontrollable by allowing it to travel faster than human speed, TV and the Internet brought it to whole new levels. 

When kids can flip through hundreds of TV channels and tune into a live war or log on to watch a Paris Hilton sex video, Postman's definition of childhood is obsolete.

The lines between kids and adults are being further blurred by another phenomenon identified by University of Toronto anthropology professor Marcel Danesi in his recent book Forever Young. The current culture, which worships youth and immaturity and promotes the goal of having it all, sends confusing messages to children and teens.

At the same time, high tech, mass media and consumerism make parents feel they have lost control of their children's early years. Advertisers and marketers treat even young children as coveted consumers. Society grooms them as future employees with spending power.

That sense of losing control is heightened by kids' skills on computers, the central role tech plays and its potential perils.

"My concern sometimes is I don't know enough about it to be informed," says Elena DiBattista, a Brampton mother of three. "It wasn't part of the culture when I was growing up."

The speed of technology can also have troubling effects on children, according to California psychologist Larry Rosen, an expert on human-computer dynamics.

They have become chronic multi-taskers, accustomed to flitting back and forth between the cellphones, instant messages, Google searches and video games that simultaneously make demands on their attention. And it takes a toll, says Rosen. The demands of technology mean people are chronically distracted by unfinished tasks.

Today's kids are growing up with the notion that multi-tasking is the only way to function, he said from his office at California State University.

"They get this illusion that their brain is capable of doing absolutely anything."

All this opening and closing of computer windows gives them the sense of accomplishing more than they actually are. The constant demands for quick responses, while playing video games or responding to MSN, speeds their brain function, increases adrenalin and gets them hyped. While adults know enough to take a break, most kids don't have the maturity or self-discipline to recognize that. "After a while you end up getting frustrated and anxious because your biological and neurological system is completely on edge."

In study after study, parents have reported their kids come off games in an altered state of aggression, anxiety, even anger. The adrenalin rush gives way to a depression in the brain chemistry. He says this cycle of "techno-stress" can have a permanent effect on the way humans function. "It changes our interactions and the most important thing is it changes our communication."

It can also change family dynamics - by encroaching when parents take business calls on their cellphones while shuttling kids to activities and when kids spend more time interfacing via text messages than through face-to-face conversations. And instituting limits is a source of fights.

Arlette Lefebvre, child psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and a leading advocate of media literacy, is a computer buff and Internet enthusiast. However, she says the role of media and technology has such a profound impact on kids' emotional, social and physical well-being that it should be incorporated into routine pediatric checkups and psychiatric evaluations.

She says technology calls for kids to develop attention spans with breadth instead of depth, though it's too early to understand how multitasking will affect long-term learning and brain development.

While the media are gaining power in kids' lives, the role of community may be shrinking. And experts say this is another source of fear among parents, who don't trust the neighbourhood or even governments to act in the interests of children. 

"What you have today is a situation where the social institutions which once supported healthy parenting are not doing that," says Elkind. "So parents have to be much more vigilant." 

Funding for schools and social supports is inadequate. Child care spaces are in short supply. 

Gone is any sense of collective child-rearing, adds Mirabelli. "The notion of interdependence has faded from the lexicon. Who's got time? Everybody else tells us politically, socially, `you had the children, they're your problem.'"

In her new book, Dark Age Ahead, urban visionary Jane Jacobs argues that such an attitude leaves families in peril. Community and family are so tightly connected, she says, they can't be considered separately.

"Two parents, to say nothing of one, cannot possibly satisfy all the needs of a family-household," she writes in her chapter called "Families rigged to fail."

Jacobs has other reasons for a communal child-rearing approach. "The neuroses of only two adults (or one) focusing relentlessly on offspring can be unbearable. The diverse viewpoints and strengths of many adults can be educational and liberating."

Clive Chamberlain, youth and child psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says community breakdown can be seen in kids' "promiscuity of affiliation." Families often don't know their neighbours, youth are less connected to local schools, community centres or places of worship. Relationships dissolve more readily. It is not uncommon to attend a school across town, or to change sports teams or clubs from year to year.

"Kids seem less bonded to almost anything," says Chamberlain. "That's a worry because those things keep us together and help us establish who we are and consolidate relationships and give us continuity."

Hedges says high schools have traditionally been an important connection for many kids, primarily through extra-curricular activities, but academic demands and part-time jobs mean fewer kids today have time to get involved. 

"I do think there's a growing consciousness and anxiety about what's going on with kids," says Chamberlain, citing increasing violence in schools and neighbourhoods, the demoralization of teachers, and substance abuse. "There's enough of that stuff happening that there may be an emerging yet latent public consent for a change in attitude."



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