Praise is the New Criticism; How Hyper Parenting is Backfiring

A young college student said this powerful statement, “Praise is the new criticism,” on a CBC special last night on Hyper Parenting. He went on to say that behind every praise is the expectation that the behavior will be repeated. I’ve taught for years that we have to be very careful with praise. This young man bluntly stated the damage that praise can do. The new trend towards helicopter parenting has huge ramifications for the success and happiness of our children.

The young man who said this was in a support group for other students who are suffering from debilitating anxiety. The participants said that their parents’ intense parenting left them feeling incredible, often unbearable pressure to succeed. A counselor said that whereas a decade or two ago students used to come for counseling because of romantic problems, now they are coming in droves to deal with their anxiety and to get relief from the internal pressure that they don’t know how to escape. Anxiety and children of all ages is a majorly growing concern, and helicopter parenting is a major cause.

To read more about this important topic, I recommend you check out Carl Honore’s Under Pressure , and Madeline Levine’s The Price of Privilege. Both authors were featured in this powerful documentary. I’d read both of their books before, and highly recommend both books to any parent who wants to avoid raising kids who suffer from anxiety.

Note: other studies have shown anxiety levels in children nowadays to be at levels previously only seen in wartime. (I believe they are referring to large scale World Wars, or combat zones. I do not mean to downplay the anxiety levels of the many Americans and Canadians whose family members are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan). Clearly it isn’t just our college students who are suffering from anxiety.

A young woman in the group said that her parents raised her to believe that she could do anything. That sounds great, but the message she received was that she should do something amazing . Instead of feeling free to do whatever she wanted, she felt pressure to perform and excel. Her parents micro management of her life meant that she felt she owed them and had to do something amazing, or risk devastating them with disappointment. No surprise that she felt paralyzed and was struggling to cope.

The idea that parents need to look after our own needs is not a new one. However, in this age of hyper parenting, the importance of looking after our own ambitions and having a full and exciting life ourselves, has become crucial for our children’s success. Instead of telling our kids that they can be whatever they want, and hovering over them to try to ensure that everything is perfect in their lives, we need to back off, let them live their lives, and focus more on being whoever we want to be! That is a much more powerful gift for our children than living vicariously through them.

Ironically, we also are depriving our children of the very challenges they need to become resilient. Anne Masten, a professor from The University of Minnesota, is one of the many people who has studied resilience in children. Her work shows that if we successfully protect our children from virtually all adversity, we will raise children who can’t cope.

A woman in her late twenties was a perfect example of this fact. Although she had no problems getting great jobs, she just couldn’t keep them. She’d graduated top of her class and i n five years she had been let go five times. At the time of the show she was couch surfing, having quit a $90,000 a year job recently to start a now-failed business. Her attitude continually got her into conflict, and she felt superior to everyone, including her bosses. If she had experienced more adversity when she was younger, she would have learned better coping skills and been spared the unnecessarily rocky road she is now on.

Another mom featured in the documentary was talking about how lost she and her husband were going to be now that her son was moving away. While I get that it will be a major transition when my first child leaves home in 5 years, I am already planning for the things I will do when the kids aren’t here. I plan to travel and get more deeply involved in hobbies and non-kid related community activities.

Note, I said more involved. I do have pasttimes now that are completely for me, that nurture and sustain me and validate that my interests are important too. Sometimes because these activities take me away for a weekend, the kids have to fend for themselves a bit, which at 10 and 13 isn’t much of a hardship. I’ve even missed the occasional event. I’m devoted to my children, and they know that, and I have a life as well. I want the message my kids receive to be that I take care of my emotional needs, and that they don’t have to be anything or do anything to complete me.

Parenting is an extremely tough job at times. With so many other parents hyper parenting, or helicopter parenting, it can seem like the right thing to do. However, if you think of the anxious students, or the almost unemployable, over-entitled young woman, it is easier to go against the tide. Perhaps soon the pendulum will swing back to saner parenting. Until then, it’s worth taking a step back every once in awhile to examine if you are hyper parenting, and setting you and your child up for heartache later.

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