Forget the tiger mom. If you want to raise happy kids, you should take a hands-off approach
When a Missouri mom learned last month that her 16-year-old son had been cut from his school’s varsity soccer team, she did what any parent would do when faced with their child’s disappointment and failure. She filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming discrimination.
Well, maybe not any parent. But certainly the ones who think they are responsible for their child’s happiness.
The suit has since been dropped — the parents are pursuing a civil rights complaint instead — but it’s still the kind of news that hits parents too close to home. Not that we’d ever take legal action against a school, but that protective instinct, the parental rage of “How dare you say my child isn’t good enough,” we understand it. Most parents have at least walked that line.
Which is exactly what the book “Bare Minimum Parenting: The Ultimate Guide to Not Quite Ruining Your Child” (BenBella Books), out Tuesday, so satisfying. It’s written not just for Missouri moms with legal trigger fingers, but any parent who dreams their child is destined for greatness. In other words, every parent who’s ever lived.
Deep down, we all secretly hope our kid will become the next Einstein or Mozart. But as author James Breakwell, a comedy writer and father of four girls, reminds us, it’s probably not going to happen. “We’re all headed for mediocrity,” he writes. “Some people just waste time and effort struggling against the inevitable. Spare your kid years of heartbreak and let them be average from the get-go.”
Amidst all the jokes, Breakwell builds a compelling case: Whatever you do for your children, no matter how hard you push or how much you spend or how many advantages you give them, it won’t make a difference.
Breakwell’s not an advocate for lazy parenting. “It’s not about neglecting your child,” he tells The Post. “It’s about not pointlessly overachieving.” He’s also not fan of parenting science. “I’ve never been in a situation where I thought, ‘Boy, if I just had a Ph.D. in child psychology, I could nail this.’”
It may sound cynical and fatalistic, but his argument isn’t “Your kid is screwed, don’t even bother.” It’s more about the self-flagellation of modern parents, and why they should stop agonizing so much. You’re not going to ruin your child, Breakwell argues, any more than you’re going to be the reason he or she achieves greatness. Relax and let yourself off the hook or you’ll miss out on everything wonderful about being a parent.
Breakwell’s message signals a backlash to the helicopter parenting trend symbolized by the 2011 book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which advocated a vigilant, hyper-controlling child-rearing style. In the last six months, two other parenting books have also encouraged a more laid-back approach: “How to be a Happier Parent” by KJ Dell’Antonia, which implores parents to “do more by doing less,” and “Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear,” by Kim Brooks, who was charged with delinquency of a minor after leaving her 4-year-old son in a car unattended.
The changing cultural tide isn’t just on paper. In May, Utah became the first U.S. state with a free-range parenting law, allowing children more freedom to roam without adult supervision. A new study out of the University of Minnesota, published in June, found that helicopter parenting was linked to increased rates of behavioral and emotional problems among children as they aged.
“Almost no one wants to be a helicopter parent,” claims Lenore Skenazy, the founder and president of nonprofit Let Grow, who made headlines in 2008 when she let her then 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway by himself. “But it’s almost impossible not to hover when a society has come to believe that kids can’t do anything safely or successfully on their own.” With crime at a 50-year low, she says, it’s safer to let kids play outside than it was during the ‘70s ‘80s or ‘90s when children had more freedom. “We’re trying to remove that shroud, that deep distrust of our kids, our communities, and fellow human beings,” Skenazy says.
But even as many parents are resisting the urge to coddle their children, some are pushing their obsessiveness to new extremes. They’ve recently been dubbed “lawnmower parents” — a name coined in an online community for teachers, used to describe parents who “mow down” their kid’s obstacles and “go to whatever lengths necessary to prevent their child from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure.”
The battle lines are clearly drawn, but some parents, like Wendy Wisner, a mother and lactation consultant, think any criticism of parents goes too far. “What might look like overbearing, like lawnmower parenting, might actually be perfectly fine within the context of what that parent and child are working on at the moment,” she says.
Breakwell disagrees, arguing that any parental attempt to control a child’s life and emotions is ultimately meaningless. “Making their happiness your top priority is the fastest way to ruin their life,” he writes in “Bare Minimum Parenting”. “If happiness is your only goal for your kid, you might as well buy them heroin.”
A worrying parent could ultimately be doing more harm than good, introducing their children to anxiety rather than sheltering them from it. A 2015 study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that a mother’s stress is associated with more reported emotional and behavioral problems among children and adolescents. “Parents have less capacity for supportive parenting when distressed,” says study co-author, Melissa A. Milkie, a sociologist at the University of Toronto.
Parents “claim they just want their kid to be happy, but that excuse doesn’t hold up,” Breakwell writes, especially when you see how hell-bent parents are to get their kids into an Ivy League college. A 2014 Gallup survey of 30,000 college graduates found that the type of school they attended — large or small, public or private, very selective or less selective — had no impact whatsoever on their feelings of well-being in the world. “Harvard isn’t known for producing cheerful graduates,” Breakwell writes. “Just rich ones.”
What’s more, history is rife with examples of notable thinkers and icons who achieved greatness despite no parental guidance or support whatsoever. George Washington’s mother was famously uninterested in his accomplishments, writing him letters on the front line requesting groceries and even blowing off her son’s inauguration as the first president of the newly independent United States.
“Countless factors played a role in putting that scientist on the podium,” Breakwell writes. “But none of them can be traced back to the ostensibly life or death decisions new parents beat themselves up over every day.”
Most of a parent’s efforts will have no long-term impact, he writes. The right daycare doesn’t matter (“No defendant has ever gotten off the hook by telling a judge, ‘It’s not my fault, Your Honor, I went to a subpar preschool’”), whether parents work from home or an office doesn’t matter (“Think of everyone you’ve met as an adult. Without knowing anything about their childhoods, could you tell if their parents worked or stayed home? If you say yes, you’re lying”), and even worrying about their personal safety makes no difference. “There are more ways for your child to die than you can possibly imagine,” Breakwell writes. “But worrying about them won’t do any good because it won’t actually prevent bad things from happening.”
Thinking we need to exert more control is the “ultimate act of narcissism,” Breakwell adds.
Considering how much stress parents put themselves through trying to raise uber-successful kids, a more hands-off philosophy is reassuring — and it might even be an eye-opener for litigious mom who still can’t believe their sons aren’t athletic superstars.
“Here’s a dirty little secret: Your kid isn’t going to make it in the NFL,” Breakwell writes. “Or in the NBA, WNBA, or MLB, for that matter… There’s nothing wrong with not achieving greatness at sports — or greatness at anything else.”