The Secret to Happier Parenting

We're running ourselves ragged taking care of our children. But it's better -- for us and our kids -- if we're less hands-on.
mother and kids

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Although I don't think of myself as a "hyper parent," the kind whose children -- with their daily obligations and social commitments -- have taken over her life, let's visit the evidence, shall we? Tonight my husband and I will trade car-pool duties to ice hockey for our 11-year-old and swim practice for our 8-year-old, on opposite sides of town, a hustle we repeat several times a week. After checking homework, signing permission slips, and setting up playdates, I'll confirm plans with the babysitter -- not for a date night, but to attend parent meetings at school. Our 2-year-old is too young for most activities, but there's no time anyway. Sometimes when I do have a quiet moment to reflect, say while sitting on a plastic mushroom in the playspace at the mall, I wonder, "Where did my life go?"

That's not to say I don't treasure my children or my time with them, which I do, immensely. It's just that, frankly, it's work being a parent in 2014. Our generation of parents is not only expending more mental energy on our kids -- from tallying their screen time to monitoring their sugar intake -- but we're with them more than ever too. In 1995, mothers spent an average of about 12 hours a week actively attending to their children, not including regular time "around" their kids (like at dinner or during solitary play), according to a University of California, San Diego study. By 2007, that number had risen to 21 hours. That's nine additional hours of hands-on parenting every week. (Fathers still trail moms in child care but in that same time period they too doubled their hours of hands-on parenting.)

On the surface, it's great that we're spending more time with our kids. Where things have gone wrong, however, is the pressure that parents feel to invest every morsel of energy into our children and their budding future -- and the guilt we feel when we can't be there because we're working, exhausted, or both. "Mothers used to send their children out to play and not expect to see them until dinnertime, so kids learned to amuse themselves, be self-sufficient, and solve their own problems," says Leslie Bennetts, a mother of two adult children and the author of The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, a whole book about the dangers of women sacrificing their own life in the name of "good" parenting. "But women today feel incredible pressure to supervise every waking moment of their children's lives, micromanage every activity, and involve themselves in every challenge their kids might face."

I mull over Bennetts's take, and think ... "busted." I have a window open on my tablet about a parent-toddler swim class. I've been feeling mildly guilty that my youngest doesn't have her own thing, in part because I work full-time here at Parents. My friends likewise routinely talk about how they're "bad moms" because they missed the sign-up for peewee tennis lessons or couldn't attend the latest midday celebration at their kid's preschool.

How does a mother get to a place where she feels lesser-than because she hasn't signed up for Aqua-Tots? "The pressure to manage kids puts a ridiculous amount of stress on mothers and makes them feel horribly guilty for working or having an independent life," says Bennetts. "We shouldn't feel guilty at all."

Overpacked calendars

Kids playing

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Just a generation ago, children's activities included Little League ball and maybe Saturday lessons at the local dance school. Now, kindergartners try out for "elite," "travel," and "performance" teams that have their parents crisscrossing the region all week. There are baby massage classes and baby yoga classes. There's after-school academic enrichment -- Kumon courses are reportedly an $800-million-a-year business. That's not to mention violin and origami lessons. (Confession: One of my kids has taken both.)

Where is this drive to keep adding items to our calendar coming from? It stems at least in part from other parents. "Competitive parenting is contagious," says Parents advisor Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., author of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids. "Hearing other parents talk about their children's activities and successes can make us wonder, 'Is my kid going to be okay?' and 'Am I doing enough?'"

Of course, none of this is to say you shouldn't participate in activities you and your child enjoy. "There's nothing wrong with classes. What's wrong is the idea kids don't get anything out of occupying themselves for a while in a play yard, or walking home from school slowly, or just playing," says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry). "I spent so much of my childhood looking for four-leaf clovers, and I don't know exactly what that did for me, but I know it didn't hurt me."

Along with the burden of keeping kids always learning and busy, moms and dads now supervise or tag along with their children everywhere, leaving pooped parents little time to recharge or pursue their own interests. "I never miss a baseball game," said one working mom in a recent news article, even though her young boys tallied up to six games per week.

However, it's not reasonable for most of us to arrange our life and job (as this woman had) around our children's activities. And why should we? "It's difficult for parents to feel at peace with missing a child's event or game. But if you step back to ask how much value your attending everything adds for your child, the answer is: not much," says Parents advisor Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow. "The value is in your child's enjoyment or playing. Your standing on the sidelines is not always of help. Sometimes, it's even a distraction." Gulp.

When Dr. Thompson lectures parents, he gives them an easy assignment. "I ask people to think back on a sweet moment from childhood, something that sticks with them to this day," he says. "When I ask, 'Were your parents present?' only about 20 percent of hands go up. The other 80 percent tell a story of accomplishing something on their own that was challenging." This theory held true in a totally unscientific survey of the Parents staff when they were asked to recall a special childhood moment. There were shoelace-tying successes, spelling-bee wins, an impressive science-fair tornado, and an igloo built in -- of all unlikely places -- Kentucky, but nary a mention of Mom or Dad.

If you want to do something valuable for your children, lean back from them a little. "When a parent is always there watching, a success is never really the child's moment," says Dr. Thompson. "But when you step away and they achieve something, even if it's small, on their own, it's really their experience."

Parenting ruled by fear

Besides the worry of not doing enough to help our kids keep up, there's also plain old fear at the root of our hovering. Kids live in a safer time than ever: Violent crime is at its lowest rate in 40 years, and sexual abuse of children has been decreasing for more than a decade. But in this clickable age where well-meaning friends forward accounts of attempted child abductions, we believe danger is lurking around every corner.

Jennifer Senior, author of the book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, saw the fear phenomenon firsthand in her visits to the suburbs of Houston. "There were parents who won't let their kids play in the front yard. I would point out to them that crime rates were at a record low. And they all acknowledged it was irrational," says Senior. She adds, "But there's something about living in this era of transparency -- where you can plug in your zip code online and suddenly see a grim map of the nearest convicted sex offenders -- that can make our world seem far more dangerous than it is."

We think we're doing the right thing by vigilantly keeping watch over our children at all times. But the loss of unsupervised, self-directed play, what Dr. Thompson calls "the biggest change in American childhood in the last 20 years," poses a more real danger to children. "When we deprive children of independence, they never get the excitement or pride of accomplishment of discovering things all on their own," he notes.

Why Kids Want Happier Parents

Craving calmer parents

A few years ago, a book with a catchy title by a cheerful economist named Bryan Caplan, Ph.D., caught my attention: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think. Even if you're not planning on having another baby, you'll probably relate to Dr. Caplan's argument about what's wrong with parenthood today: We've turned it into a dreary series of chores. Whether we can handle more in our lives (like, say, having another child) involves mental calculations of a lot of "needless parental unhappiness," says Dr. Caplan, who has four kids himself.

Being a parent doesn't have to be this tiring, however, especially when all the time and energy -- not to mention money -- that we're investing in our children make a minimal difference anyway, says Dr. Caplan. "Research shows that a child's upbringing -- how he's raised by his parents -- is much less important than we think," he explains. "We have a huge amount of research on kids who are twins, and it shows that nature really does crush nurture, especially in the long run."

The long-term effect of parenting on children is, in fact, close to zero, according to Dr. Caplan. One of many examples supporting this theory comes from the Minnesota Twin registry, which gave personality tests to more than 1,300 pairs of adult twins raised together. Identical twins (who share all the same genes) were far more similar in happiness than fraternal twins (who share half the same genes). Similar studies on multiples showed genetics was also the best predictor of success, intelligence, and income.

It's an argument that's terrifying (these little people's future really isn't in our control?) but also deliciously liberating. Imagine a world in which you didn't cajole your kid to go to gymnastics. What could a woman do with that time? (Run for Congress? Finish her photo albums?)

What's perhaps most telling: Our kids aren't craving more face time with us. In a nationwide survey of 1,023 kids called Ask the Children, by Ellen Galinsky, president and cofounder of the Families and Work Institute, children's main complaint about their parents wasn't lack of time with them. Says Dr. Caplan: "It was that their parents were often tired and short-tempered." In other words, what kids want are happier parents. And it's hard to be that parent when there's no time left over for yourself.

Letting kids be bored

Of course, even if you step off the hyper-parenting hamster wheel, there's the issue of what you're going to do with your kid. "Organized activities are nice, but kids are in so many these days that they don't know how to entertain themselves. They wait for you to plan the next thing," says Denise Edwards, a mom of two in Westfield, New Jersey. "There are so many kids in our neighborhood, but you never see them outside. Everyone is being run from one activity to the next. When my kids are home, we can't even find anyone for playdates."

It takes courage to accept that everything's going to be just fine if you don't sign your child up for piano, basketball, and Mandarin. "Kids don't have to experience everything before age 8," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. "Leave them something to discover. And hanging around the house is wonderful -- we don't have to protect our children from boredom." Kids will, she promises, figure out something to do.

Making room for mommy

To put things in perspective, it helps to talk to a more relaxed mom, especially one who has kids older than yours. I recently met with my friend Nancy, whose son had just left for college. Over the years and before I had children of my own, I remember her worries about him: his struggle to read, her decision to give him another year of kindergarten, the guilt she sometimes felt as a single working mom with neither money nor time to sign him up for many activities. As a teen, though, he discovered a passion: science. Because they didn't have a garage where he could perform his home experiments, he got a part-time job and rented space. Fast-forward to the present: Nancy's son earned early admission to a small prestigious college. Perhaps the finest measure of her success as a mother, though, was in this gesture from her only child: Before he moved away to school, he surprised his mom with a set of wooden steps that he'd carved so their aging dog could reach her bed at night.

When I asked Nancy what her secret was, she gave a typically pithy response: "Television and neglectful parenting!" I laughed. But I learned something. Sometimes what children need is space to be left alone, to discover what they like and who they are -- and a parent who believes her strong, beautiful, capable kids will get along in this world just fine.

More ways to ease up (a step-by-step plan)

  1. Resist raising the ante. When a friend brags about her child, suppress whatever impulse you may have to chime in about your child. "Just smile and say, 'That's great!' or 'Congratulations!'" says Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore. "Know that you don't have to match or top her statement."
  2. Miss a game without guilt. Dr. Michael Thompson advises those "we go to all the games" parents to try missing one -- on purpose. I find this a tough challenge, but I can heed Dr. Thompson's larger message: If you have to skip a game, do so without apologies and guilt, and rest assured that your child's love will remain intact -- if he even notices you weren't there.
  3. Don't reflexively step in to right a problem. "It's instinctive to want to protect our children from suffering, but dealing with challenges and disappointments can help kids to develop coping abilities," says Dr. Kennedy-Moore. So, offer comfort but don't leap to intervene when your child has a conflict with a friend or doesn't get the part she wanted in the play. Dr. Kennedy-Moore notes: "Kids deserve the opportunity to discover that setbacks are unpleasant but tolerable and often temporary."
  4. Hang around the house. "In our family we barely do any organized activities, unless we feel like doing them," says Dr. Bryan Caplan. Instead, he enjoys being home, playing games with his children, and watching his older two tend to his younger two. As he puts it, "Love flows downhill."

What's Your Parenting Style?
What's Your Parenting Style?

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of PARENTS magazine.

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