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Speech to Parents at The Lloyd Harbor School

Parent Fatigue Syndrome:
When Conventional Wisdom Is Not Very Wise

It was my last appointment of the day. I was in session with a young father who had been working hard for months, trying to understand his kids so that he could speak “childrenese” more fluently.

On this particular evening we were engaged in a conversation about the difficulty of being a parent in today’s world. Together, we understood that the way that he had been parented was not only unhelpful but also causing painful conflicts. Chronic dissatisfaction left him depleted and unhappy.

At one point during our session, he leaned back against the couch, sighed deeply and declared, “Do you know what I am suffering from? Parent Fatigue Syndrome.” I realized that he had cleverly found a way to describe what so many of the parents that I work with are experiencing.

I am here today to share with you some of what I have learned about children’s growth and development and how they learn. This knowledge comes from thirty years of working with children, parents, and educators.

My hopes are that you will walk away from this workshop with a better understanding of yourself and your children, and that you will leave here more confident in your ability to explore the information that is available so that you can combat Parent Fatigue Syndrome in your own way.

How did we get here and why has it become so exhausting to raise children?

There is a considerable amount of research that explains how parents need to re-identify with their own parents after having children of their own. We are all hardwired to scan our memories so that we can engage in the tremendous task of being a parent. It is during these times that we usually collide with the conventional wisdom of the past.

Some of the wisdom sounds like this:

Do what I say, not what I do!
Spare the rod, spoil the child!
Children are to be seen and not heard!
Speak only when spoken to!
Only girls do that!
Only boys do that!
Respect your elders!
Wait until your father gets home!

And how about these? They are a bit more sophisticated. I gathered them from a book of quotations.

Tired mothers find that spanking takes less time than reasoning, and penetrates sooner to the seat of the memory.
Who loves well, chastises well.
My mother protects me from the world, my father threatens me with it.

Some of the wisdom passed down to us clearly has no place in our post-modern age. Because we value democracy, our children learn early on that they have privilege and are entitled to the same considerations as adults.

At the same time, children seem to have lost their purpose. During pre-industrial times children may have farmed the land and tended the livestock. At the very least, each of them was required to make a contribution to the survival of the family.

It is probable that none of our children worked the family farm this morning! Life sustaining chores may not have been what occupied their minds as they prepared to meet the day.

In reality, and I quote child-rearing expert Penelope Leach here, “Children in the post industrial west have the longest compulsory childhood that the world has ever seen. With all those years of enforced dependence ahead of them, we have to learn that letting them take their own time over growing up is what is best for them now, and what will best help them to fulfill their own potential when they are grown. It will not be an easy lesson.”

Parents are in conflict. We all have a need to believe that the values of the past were helpful. It might be too painful or scary to believe otherwise. It is this dynamic that sometimes causes us to cling to the conventional wisdom of the past. In other words, not being like one’s parent might confirm our worst fear, which is that we, as children, at times were not treated well.

This constant push and pull can create enormous fatigue. We are trying to move our children successfully into the future without a full enough understanding of their changing needs.

We may have even promised ourselves never to do to our children what our parents did to us. Sometimes we end up hating the very child that causes us to behave just like the parent we vowed never to be. How many of us here today are comfortable with that dilemma?What is a parent to do?

Let us begin to answer this by revisiting that important question: What is the purpose of children, and how do they contribute to today’s family?

Some sociologists over the years have suggested that we have become fascinated with being part of a “leisure class,” and take great pride in having “economic surplus.” While this may describe a better life for all of us, it may also influence how we encourage our children to spend their time. The “longest compulsory childhood” has motivated us to find ways to fill their time productively.

We want them to be smart, capable and successful. We worry that they will not be ready for the “competitive world that awaits.”

As a result, we have created some of our own conventional wisdom. It sounds like this:

Earlier to school, the smarter and more social the child.
Start training early, or they will fall behind.
Deprive the medication, set your child up for failure.

Some early results of this wisdom are in. In 2001, the Dean of Admissions at Harvard commented on how “overscheduled” college students found decisions and spontaneity difficult because of a childhood spent under parental control and that they needed an unusual period of uncertainty in early adulthood to shake off the constraints and to find themselves.

In his book, Generation Rx, Greg Critser sites example after example of young adults whose dependence on drugs to learn felt crippled when faced with the important challenges of college and beyond.

In 2005, long time counselor and director of psychological services at Bennington College reported that while the percentage of students seeking help has not changed, the percentage of medicated students has risen from 5 to 45 percent. She added that they are coming in to the counseling center not to develop skills of self-reflection but rather to procure meds. She worries that the “counseling to medication-only shift will alter the development of young people”. Again, I quote ”Students who request medication for their problems often discount their own ability to modulate the rhythms of their lives. It does not encourage self-reflection or responsible self-regulation. A medication only approach fails to encourage the hallmark of late adolescent development, the dramatic increase in capacity for self-examination and ability to think critically, the development of responsibility for one’s self.”

The Director of Counseling at Middlebury College reported that “the old relationship of mutual communication has transformed into ’what can you give me to feel better and perform?” He further notes the troubling consequences of sharing drugs and believes that students now depend on medication even to perform well at a party.

If this is not enough bad news, we should then consider what the head of Mental Health Services at McGill University has to say about the academic performance of medicated students. While students report that they are better after taking drugs, their behavior proves otherwise. Their grades are not better; they are not sleeping; they are drinking, procrastinating, and not eating well. They soon find out that they have outgrown the biological need for the drug that they may have had a genuine need for as a child.

David Elkind, in his book The Hurried Child, warns us about the dangers of growing up too quickly. His eloquence carefully states that each stage of child development is precious. Do not be seduced by a society that pushes children forward without understanding their essential needs.

It will be difficult, at best, to get our young adults back on track!

What do children really need?

The needs of children are really quite elegant. They are hardwired from birth to use childhood to make sense out of essential experiences. If they had the wherewithal and could tell us, they would say:

I need to be understood. I need for you to know that I am capable of feeling four basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, and fear! I will spend every day searching for experiences that will help me make sense of these emotions. I will need to tolerate and regulate these emotions for the rest of my life. I will also need to understand how these affect states influence the behavior of others. You can help me. Listen to me; let me have all my feelings. Do not run away from conflicts, as they are the stuff of childhood, each and every one an opportunity to make sense out of the world and the people around me.

Please stop trying to get rid of my behavior before you understand it. It is the only way that I can tell you what I am working on. Each time that I hide my feelings, I risk telling you who I really am. I become dependent on you in ways that will surface later on, when it is most important to be myself in the world.

Another important need that I have is to feel curious and safe at the same time. I am always looking for adults that are smart, to teach me things, especially in ways that I can really understand. I do not like to feel stupid when I try to learn things. It doesn’t really help. In fact, it makes me want to run away from learning, school, and all sorts of lessons. My self-concept is built on what I know about myself. What I know about myself is reflected on your face every time you are around me.

My self–esteem is all about how I feel about what I know about myself. You can help me here also. Spend time reflecting back how I seem to feel about the experiences that I am having. If I am calm, I will be able to learn a lot. I can deal with almost anything about this crazy world as long as I have you by my side to make sense of it all.

As I continue to grow, my need to be like others in this world will become very important. I do not want to be a “weirdo”, as that would not make you proud. At first, I will want to be just like you. At times, I will imitate you. Do you want to know a secret? My need to be like my Mommy and Daddy also makes me feel insecure and scared. Will I ever be able to live in a world without you?

I wish that you would stop saying, “OK, I will help you pack your bags” whenever I threaten to run away. Don’t you know that I am trying to declare my autonomy, and that I really have no place to go? Scary!! I just want to know that it is OK to have my own feelings, and that you are not going let me go anywhere. Remember the plight of the Runaway Bunny? Do you remember how many times that I wanted you to read that book to me?

I just want to go to school, make friends, and find others who are just like me! Sometimes, I even need to fight on the bus so that I can prove that I can be myself, different, and the same as others. Phew, what a job it is sometimes!

I wish some wise adult would have the words to describe just how simple it could be:

I need to look up to others to help me understand the complexity of my world and will calm me down when it all becomes overwhelming.

I need others to listen and to help me make sense of my feelings so that I will know who I am. I need time to show off my abilities to others and opportunities to find out what I am good at.

I need to be like others in the world, but also free and secure enough to challenge them. Your response to these challenges will let me know that it is OK for me to make a unique contribution to the world in which I will live.

Knowing who I am is my self-concept. How I feel about who I am is my self-esteem. I am constructed by the experiences I have with all the people in my environment.

We are here today to speak about how reports of violence and danger continue to permeate the news.

The medication of children for learning and behavioral issues has brought parents and educators new challenges. Early competition, in and out of the classroom is spiraling out of control. And Parents and Educators are exhausted.

Let us now start our conversation about what we can do . . .

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