When did parenting become such a competitive sport? You hear about it regularly in the news, where parents verbally (and sometimes physically) assault referees at soccer matches because they don’t like the unfavorable calls against their kids. You see it in our consumer culture, with companies pushing foreign language programs for infants and parents vying for the first spot in line to buy the latest “must-have” toy. You know parents who enroll their kids in so many lessons, camps and tutoring sessions that the poor kids don’t have a free afternoon all week. You might even be competing yourself.
While we all want our kids to be happy and successful, the line often blurs between a nurturing parent and a pushy parent. I’m the first to admit that I’ve crossed the line myself sometimes, wanting my kids to succeed and “be the best they can be.” (Yes, I bought into the Mozart effect and stocked up on a few Baby Einstein CDs.) But for the most part, I’ve learned to back off.
Why? Because I’ve learned that competitive parenting comes at a great cost, with parents micro-managing their kids’ lives, pushing them to excel in everything, rescuing kids from their own mistakes, and planning all their free time for them. The result? Kids learn to look to their parents for all the answers rather than think for themselves. Kids grow frustrated and get easily bored when they’re not entertained 24/7 with a slate of structured activities. Kids feel intense pressure to succeed at school, at home, in sports and on the social scene. Kids struggle to deal with setbacks because parents try to remove all risk and pain from their kids’ lives. Kids don’t develop responsibility because mom and dad are always bailing them out.
Letting go of competitive parenting means taking it down a few notches. Nurture, but not to the nth degree. Guide kids toward making good decisions rather than always deciding for them. Help kids find and enjoy their passion rather than pushing them to excel at it. Allow kids to take risks and make mistakes instead of always rescuing them. And, perhaps most importantly, give kids the time and space to just be kids.
A few weeks ago, I went on a stealth decluttering binge in my son’s room when he spent the day with Grandma. Armed with a big, empty box, I crossed the border into The Land of Mess and excavated every drawer, shelf and crevice, trying to weed out the excess and bring a sense of order to the out-of-control chaos that had become Parker’s room.
Granted, Parker can get pretty creative, often fashioning broken and disparate possessions into a new toy. (Kevin often refers to him as our Little McGyver, the 80s TV character who could escape a North Korean prison with just a toothpick, a piece of string and a little ingenuity.) Creativity aside, Parker simply had too much stuff.
As I wondered how Parker accumulated all these things, I quickly realized that he was only partly to blame. Yes, he’s a packrat, saving everything from armless action figures to old shoelaces to used paper placemats from our favorite Mexican restaurant. But he’s also the passive recipient of hand-me-down clothes, birthday party favors, good-behavior treasure box prizes from school, Christmas gifts, book store splurges, dollar store treats and the ubiquitous Happy Meal toys.
Anyway, hours later, I emerged with a large cache of clothes, toys and books, along with a small wastebasket of throw-aways. With my simplification mission complete, I worried Parker might get mad that I confiscated…um, redirected…his stuff. To my surprise, he thanked me for cleaning his room and told me how good it felt to have it tidy. He didn’t miss one thing! On the contrary, he seemed almost relieved to enter a clutter-free, orderly room that invited him in to play rather than overwhelmed him with too many choices and too much to clean, sort and organize.
Interestingly, Parker’s behavior (which had become quite disrespectful and defiant lately) improved dramatically since The Big Declutter. Was it a coincidence? Did the clutter contribute to the disobedience? I’ve got zero scientific proof to back up the connection between the two, but I can’t ignore the noticeable difference in Parker’s attitude and behavior. I’ve learned not to question how or why – just to be quiet and enjoy the results.
When did life at warp speed become the norm? “Bigger, better, faster, more, NOW!” life seems to scream at me on a daily basis.
I noticed the pressure to hurry creeping into my life even when my kids were toddlers:
“Quick, sign your kids up for preschool before the spots are all filled.”
“Hurry, you’ve got to get the boys in Little League when they’re young or their skills will lag behind the other players by the time they’re eight.”
“What do you mean you haven’t registered your kids for Summer Camp yet? It’s already February!”
It seduces you, this pressure to keep pace with the world, to give kids a jumpstart on the road to success. And, for a while, it sucked us in like a vacuum hose caught on a curtain. We just couldn’t shake loose the activities that, unwittingly, had piled up on our family’s plate. How did we reach this point of too much? More importantly, how did we escape?
Our escape route started with a pause. We temporarily put the brakes on our hectic lifestyle, allowing us time to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t. We noticed that, on our overscheduled days (while fun and productive), we all felt tired and irritable. After talking about which activities we truly valued, we pared down our commitments to a more palatable level, which automatically built in more downtime.
I’m aware that we’re practically counter-culture when we say, “No, thanks” to more “enrichment” opportunities that promise to fast-track our kids to superstardom. Instead, we get to relish all the free time that awaits us…time to dream, relax, create, explore and simply enjoy being together.
For tips and ideas about slowing down the pace of your life, click here.
Lisa A. Beach
SPARK Mom & Founder
Rather than letting summer camps swallow up our kids’ summer, Kevin and I opted to (gasp!) not enroll Trevor or Parker in any camps this summer. We’ve decided to buck the trend of organized summer enrichment opportunities. We’ve discovered something much better – we’re giving our kids the gift of boredom.
As much as I like the availability of all these enrichment opportunities for my kids, I don’t want them bouncing from one activity to another all summer long. Instead, I want them to relish this stretch of unstructured time.
While we will do lots of fun things together as a family and with friends and relatives, I actually like when my kids get bored. Boredom is often the catalyst for inspiration, allowing creativity to flourish. When my kids get bored, I know they’re about to get creative, to explore, to think of a new idea, to play deeply, to reflect, to daydream, to tackle a new project (and, in reality, sometimes tackle each other).
What will happen when I let my kids get bored? Will Trevor create a graphic novel? Will Parker build a fantastic new Lego structure? Will Trevor learn to play a new song on his trumpet? Will Parker master a new defensive tactic for soccer? Will Parker and Trevor do something fun together – perhaps invent a new game or just take a walk around the neighborhood? Maybe, maybe not. But I know for sure that none of this will happen if they’re sitting in summer camp being “enriched.”
While I don’t enjoy hearing the “I’m bored!” chants that sometimes plague a long summer afternoon together, I’ve got two solutions for this one. Option #1: I tell my kids to check our “Boredom Busters” list to jumpstart their creativity. (To download a free copy of the tip sheet, click here.) Option #2: If that doesn’t pique their interest, I ask them what chore they want to do. Funny how they always go back to Option #1.
Here’s to a wonderfully boring summer in your home.
Lisa A. Beach
SPARK Mom & Founder
The latest rage – at least in elementary school circles – is those colorful silicone bracelets in gotta-have-‘em shapes and special effects (glitter! tye-dye! glow-in-the-dark!). Retailers urge kids to collect them all and trade with friends. Advertisers taps into kids’ burning desire to own those special, limited-edition packets, creating a pre-teen frenzy and draining all those piggy banks.
I don’t have anything against the companies that manufacture these bracelets. In fact, Parker owns about a dozen bracelets, using his own allowance money to buy his contrabands from a friend at school. They’re fun, harmless and inexpensive, so what’s my problem?
My problem is the “more, more, more” mentality this creates. (Think Pokemon cards, Webkinz, etc.) If one is fun to own, than six is more fun, and a dozen is even better. And if your mega collection balloons into the hundreds, then you’re King of the 4th Grade! What nine-year-old doesn’t want that title?
Obviously, I don’t always win my kids over with my “less-is-more” philosophy. Although I explained to Parker why I wouldn’t buy him any bracelets (he already has too much stuff, the fad will die out soon, they’ll get sucked up into my vacuum cleaner within a week, etc.), I told him he could use his own money to buy some bracelets. What can I say? He’s nine. He wants to fit in.
It’s hard to overcome this must-have mentality, even for adults. (Yes, I, too, want an iPad. No, I don’t own one…yet.) And I can’t solely fault the manufacturers or the advertisers, although their products and messages stir up the consumer itch in all of us. But ultimately, as parents, we’re usually the ones who buy these trendy products, shelling out a few bucks just to make sure we meet our kids’ need for instant gratification and social acceptance.
As parents, we need to clearly explain our values to our kids. If we constantly complain about the clutter in our house, yet we rush to buy the latest must-have kiddie trends, we’re sending mixed signals. If we’re fighting hard to resist the materialistic pull of “more, more, more,” we can dodge the consumer bullet by not buying into (literally) every latest fad, even at the level of a sub-$3 purchase.
My kids might not be ready to jump on my just-say-no bandwagon yet, but they’re beginning to learn they don’t always “gotta have it.”
Despite my best efforts, I still struggle to slow down the speed of my family’s life. It’s not quite at the “no wake zone,” but it’s (usually) not full-throttle, either.
On one hand, I strongly believe in the value of free time, of not living by a schedule. My favorite days are lazy Sundays, where we’ve got nothing planned and nowhere to go. We might lounge around reading the newspaper, watching football, baking cookies or playing board games.
On the other hand, I want my family to enjoy life’s buffet of activities. Right now, we’re into soccer, Cub Scouts, football, trumpet practice, religious education classes, book club, math club, volunteering, and coaching. We strive for balance, yet we struggle with which activities to say “no” to. Should we give sports a time-out and say good-bye to exercise and teamwork? Should we kick the Cub Scout habit and dismiss all the great values it reinforces? Should we give book club the boot and kiss the benefits of reading for pleasure goodbye? Should we toss the trumpet and downplay the importance of music in our lives? Should we be more selfish with our time and not volunteer at our kids’ schools or coach their sports teams?
The answer lies in setting priorities, doing things in moderation and striking the right balance. We spread out our commitments over the course of the year so we’re participating in enough activities that enrich us while still holding sacred enough free time to keep us sane. We usually limit the boys to one sport at a time. We rarely experience a jam-packed day that keeps us running from one activity to the next. Most days, Trevor and Parker have plenty of free time to ride their bikes, draw, kick a soccer ball or read a book. Most nights, we eat dinner together, followed by a family walk, card game, reading or simply chilling out on the couch together watching TV. We’re relaxed, happy and (usually) enjoying each other’s company without the pressure of a schedule dictating our pace and our moods.
It’s in these consistent, unhurried moments that we strengthen our family bond. How do you fortify your family connection?
Lisa A. Beach
SPARK Mom & Founder
Welcome to my first SPARK Parenting blog, which mirrors my journey towards a saner, intentional approach to parenting. SPARK means the Smart, Purposeful Approach to Raising Kids. It’s all about slowing down, finding balance, simplifying, being mindful, living out your values, focusing on your priorities, creating warm memories and enjoying family life more.
While my blog (and the whole SPARK Parenting website) focuses on intentional parenting, I am a realist. I strive for improvement, not perfection. This blog symbolizes the struggle between my head and my heart. I know what I should be doing, but, damn it, I don’t always live up to my own standards. I try really hard, but, like the commercial says, life comes at you fast. Sometimes I cannot believe some of the things that I say or do. Seriously, how can I write about “parenting with a purpose” when I regularly screw up myself? But then, I realize that is exactly why I can write about it. I’m just like every parent out there. I’m imperfect and so is my family. I understand the daily challenges, and sometimes I rise to the occasion and sometimes I fall flat on my face. But no matter how many times I fall, I get back up, dust my pride off and keep on walking toward my vision of what I want for my family. And that hope for the future makes all the difference.
When I write about my family and our experiences, I’m writing from the trenches. Our success and failures might be splayed out before you like road kill. The emotions will sometimes be raw. The way my husband, Kevin, and I have ineffectively handled a situation will be downright embarrassing. But every time we blunder through another “learning opportunity,” we just get up and try again. And again. And again. And that persistence makes all the difference.
Parenting, I’ve long-ago discovered, is a lifelong learning process. Just when I’ve finally figured out how to take care of my firstborn (Trevor, now 13) and help him thrive, he is now a tantrum-throwing toddler. Just when I’ve mastered potty training and time-outs, he is now a school-age kid. Just when I’ve figured out the homework battles and chore charts, he’s a yearning-for-independence middle schooler. God only knows what’s in store for me at the high school level. And the kicker? Just about everything that worked with our first son doesn’t work with our second son (Parker, now 9), so I’m back on the parenting learning curve again, trying to figure it all out. And that teachable spirit makes all the difference.
I love swapping parenting stories with other moms and dads. It helps to know I’m not alone and not the only one who messes up. It also helps me to put all those daily irritants and missteps in perspective and have a good laugh. For example, a few weeks ago, it wasn’t funny when I sat down with my 9-year-old to watch the Black Eye Peas’ video “I Got a Feeling” (thinking what a great dance song) only to see Fergie dancing half-nude in her thong. Whoops! What was I thinking? Bad Mommy Moment! But now I can laugh about my latest gaffe. And that sense of humor makes all the difference.
I invite you to embrace SPARK Parenting, and I hope that makes all the difference in your family.
Lisa A. Beach
SPARK Mom & Founder