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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,
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
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.
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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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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 . . .