Parents want their kids to be happy and successful. But some parents want their children to be more. They become controlling and over-involved, trying to raise perfect kids who will go to perfect schools, become perfect athletes and enjoy perfect careers. But many experts say perfectionist parents create impossible standards, which often lead to frustration for both parents and children.
Pediatrician Judy Goldstein has a thriving practice in Manhattan. Most of her clients are well-educated, affluent and dedicated mothers. But most of them, she says, are over-parenting. "In our environment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, at least, the parent is convinced that their baby is going to grow up to be the next Mozart, or Picasso or Bill Gates."
"Mothers who stay at home with their children very often are professional women who have given up their profession and now try to exert the same power of control over their children that they exerted in their professional life," she explains. "They feel that they are entitled to have the perfect child that will follow every milestone developmentally in the most perfect fashion."
To raise perfect kids, Goldstein says, these parents tend to manage every minute of their baby's life to secure the highest possible outcome.
"There are at least 60 classes for infants in Manhattan alone," she says. "There is an infant massage class. There are numerous music classes. One is called 'The Early Ear.' It sounds so sophisticated but it starts at 4 months. Another one is called 'Musical Kids,' from 4 months and up. They have added an international flavor. Now, how do 4-month babies even distinguish music from different countries?"
Psychologist Jim Taylor agrees. He is a child development expert and author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child.
"The problem is that many parents believe they can accelerate their child's development by doing all these things, whether it's Baby Einstein, music classes, flash cards," he says. "There is absolutely no scientific evidence that you can fast-forward development. This is a multi-billion-dollar industry; all aimed at making sure that your child is incredibly successful when they grow up." Taylor says the industry feeds on parents' fears and anxieties. "The fear that somehow they're going to stunt their children's growth. The anxiety is that if they don't do all these things for their kids when everybody else is, people are going to think they're bad parents."
Those feelings are so powerful, pediatrician Judy Goldstein says, that even though she constantly advises her clients to adopt a more relaxed parenting style, they usually pay more attention to what other parents do.
"It is a level of competition that sort of crosses the gap between the upper, the middle and the lower middle classes," she says. "They may not hear the advice, because they are under so many outside influences. They are subject to the influence of all the other parents who have similar aged children. They are vulnerable because no matter what the pediatrician says, they also listen to 20, 30, 50 parents who are all doing the same thing. Therefore, in an atmosphere of feverish competitiveness, parents feel they are losing if they are not doing what their next door neighbor does."
But this parenting style often creates perfectionist kids, warns psychologist Jim Taylor, not successful ones. "Perfectionist kids never become truly successful because perfectionist kids are not really concerned about success; their dominant goal in life is to avoid failure. These kids get to maybe the top 10% in their class or top 10 in their sport, but they get stuck there, in what I call the safety zone." He points out that in order to succeed at the highest level, you have to take risks. "The problem is that when kids take risks, it increases their chances of failure. So, many kids get stuck in this safety zone, where they are a long way away from failure, so they are still okay. But they're also frustrated because they know they can do better."
Having impossible goals is a heavy load for a child to bear, according to Betsy Hart, author of It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids and What To Do About It. She says parents should appreciate what their kids have accomplished and encourage them to do better. "When we see them as they really are, we're in a much better situation to help them be the people we want them to be," she says. "But we can't get them there if we insist on idealizing them as these perfect little kids just as they are."
Hart says the only way to raise successful kids is to help them develop at their own pace and recognize what's best for them in terms of their success and happiness.