Why Back-to-School Night Made Me Feel Like a Bad Mom

Why aren't my kids playing sports or learning the cello? A case study in Pressured Parents Phenomenon.
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When I left the house for parent-teacher night, I was a good mom. My younger son was doing his homework, and my older son was in his room practicing the opening riff of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on the guitar.

Just ten minutes later, I felt seriously derelict in my parenting duties. Intellectually, I knew this was insane; nothing had changed in the drive to the school. But, oh, dear. Kevin’s mom was out of breath because they had to rush to school from his cello lesson and Ilse’s swim team practice. Heather came in late because her daughter, one of the top Nordic ski racers in the northeast, was at dry-land training. Jason and Brian, on the other hand, were on time--because they stay after school to help with math tutoring and soccer practice. Suddenly, my sons’ after-school activities seemed less impressive.

I felt sick to my stomach. My kids are not big into sports, and only one can play a musical instrument, and that’s only after two false starts on other instruments that I could not convince him to practice. My younger son had spent his afternoon not at dry-land training, but in the backyard, whittling a sorcerer’s staff out of a stick with one of my good kitchen knives. I was proud of him for taking the initiative to clean up the mess of bark and wood shavings on the mud room floor without being asked, but still. Shouldn’t he be out there, playing team sports and learning about chromatic scales and harmony?

A few minutes into my mental and emotional death-spiral, I did a gut check and left the room to refresh my decaf coffee. The minute I hit the clearer hallway air, my mood began to lift, and I was able to pull up on the throttle and even myself out.

What on earth happened to me in there? According to Wendy Grolnick, a psychology professor at Clark University, I experienced "Pressured Parents Phenomenon." Dr. Grolnick researches what factors—such as parent’s attitudes, stress, beliefs and environments—help or hinder parenting abilities. Competitive parenting, according to Grolnick, is contagious, and because I’d walked into that classroom without vaccinating myself against it first I’d been hit hard.

The PPP is a visceral anxiety, triggered when the ever-increasing competition—academic, athletic, social or artistic—that our kids face today switches on our physiological hardwiring. It’s an internal pressure so strong that we can’t rest until we feel our child is safe—has gained admission to that certain magnet school or won a spot in the school orchestra.

This response, the visceral anxiety of my stomachache and need to leave the room, did not arise because I am particularly susceptible to the effects of Pressured Parents Phenomenon. I am a parenting and education writer. I am finishing up a book on the topic of overparenting and the negative effects it has on our children. I am the very last person who should feel symptoms, and yet, there I was, breathing rapidly over my decaf.

These symptoms are a part of our basic biology, according to Grolnick; we are hard-wired for this anxiety response:

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors who carried children on their backs had to protect them from a world full of dangers, such as ravenous lions and monkeys vying for meat. Those who encouraged their children to compete for scarce resources including food and shelter helped their kids survive and reproduce, passing their genes down to succeeding generations. […] We’re the modern recipients, hardwired to want our children to win whatever battles they may face. Whenever our kids meet a competitive danger, our minds and bodies go on high alert. We receive signals of anxiety and alarm, inciting us to push our children forward to compete.

Of course, the “threat,” that my sons may fall behind in their musical or athletic skill,  is far from dire, my body does not know that.

The response I felt in that classroom was similar to the response I felt 14 years ago when a mentally ill man lunged at me on a sidewalk while I was holding my infant son. I saw him coming at me, and the same second I registered the threat, a physiological cascade was set into motion. My adrenal gland started to pump out extra adrenaline amped up with a double shot of cortisol, the blood vessels in my extremities constricted so the blood could be shunted to my heart and brain. A sinking stomach and nausea kicked in because my digestive system had been deemed unnecessary by my primitive lizard brain, shut down by a body preparing to launch into fight or flight.

Sure, my younger son’s lack of musical and athletic prowess is much less of a threat to his well-being than the actual physical threat I’d perceived that day on the street. But my reaction to both threats—cold hands, nausea, light-headedness—was identical. Grolnick explains:

Our schools and other institutions, such as organized sports, are set up as hierarchies with evaluation, social comparison, and “weeding out” as part of routine practice. (Labaree, 1997). Indeed, Labaree (1997) argued that the goals of education have moved from obtaining knowledge that will be useful for children in their futures to obtaining credentials that will give them an edge over the competition.

Humans, as opposed to other species—are high-investment parents. Some species lay eggs and walk away, but not us. We spend an enormous amount of energy raising our children to adulthood, and often beyond, and as I found out at parent-teacher night, much of that energy is toxic.

This biological response to my otherwise lovely and nurturing friends and neighbors took me by surprise, but now that I know it exists, I’m opting in for the vaccine. I suggest you do the same, and to that end, I propose a national vaccination program based on the suggestions of Grolnick and psychotherapist Dee Shepherd-Look.

  1. Identify what you fear. I fear my kid will be a failure because he’s not learning team sports or music theory.
  2. Stop the runaway train of fear. Okay, maybe “failure” is too strong a word.
  3. Turn the mountain into a molehill. My younger son is only in fourth grade, and his big brother did not pick up guitar until he was 13. There’s still hope for him.
  4. Look for the silver lining. My son has an incredible imagination, and has the space and time to play, whittle, and be a child.
  5. Things change over time. He’s nine; he has plenty of time to explore, and learn, and try new things.
  6. Concentrate on long-term goals. In the end, I want my son to be a happy, well-rounded and competent human being, and that does not require dry-land training or a working knowledge of harmonics.

When I got home, my younger son had made and eaten his dinner, cleaned up his mess, and put himself to bed. There were some stray wood shavings on the living room floor, and my paring knife needed a good sharpening, but his de-barked wizard staff was propped up against the couch in all its glory. As I walked in to the kitchen, my older son put down his algebra homework and picked up his guitar, eager to show off his now-perfected Blue Oyster Cult riff. This, right here, will be my vaccine against Pressured Parents Phenomenon. The knowledge that my kids are fine will be the daily dose of reality I knock back with my decaf. 

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Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former English, Latin, and writing teacher. She writes about education and parenting for The New York Times and on her site, Coming of Age in the Middleand is the author of the forthcoming book The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

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