Luthar pointed out that, in trying to exercise such power over the trajectory of their children, these mothers may be setting themselves—and their children—up for failure. “When we rely on the splendor of our accomplishments for a fundamental sense of self-worth,” she said, “a lot of times success is not within our control, and that can lead to profound anxiety.”
I’m personally and professionally interested in how adults affect the habits of children. My daughter, who’s not yet 2, will enter school in a few years, and I already worry about the curse words she can parrot with an endearing toddler’s lisp. I’m also a teacher who has worked with both 5-year-olds and high-schoolers, and so I am often curious about what influences their behavior.
Twelve years ago, I walked into my third day of teaching prekindergarten to see a mom reprimanding a teacher for “incorrectly” refereeing a dispute between children. Both women smiled, but moments after her critic departed, the teacher tidied a box of Legos and confided that she didn’t mind the kids so much as she did the parents. I’d soon meet many: moms who treated their 4-year-olds like victims after they bit classmates, moms who drilled their kids in elementary Spanish each morning and publicly extolled their “gift for language.”
The Big Little Lies alphamom Madeline, among other protagonists, captures this approach to parenting. When Madeline repeatedly nags her older daughter, Abigail, about SAT tutoring, Abigail observes, “It’s like you’re grooming me to get to a place that you couldn’t.” The career-less Madeline lives for her children’s achievements, as well as their need for her. With her “secret project”—selling her virginity online to protest “sex slavery”—Abigail both mocks her privilege and abides by Madeline’s insistence that “a person’s life needs to matter,” advice she’s likely heard for a decade. Insisting that she’s far from “perfect,” Madeline details her own mistakes in front of the daughter who has been taught not to make any.
While most of Big Little Lies happens outside the classroom, the school the show’s kids attend reflects the larger community. The teachers, counselors, and mousy male principal are clearly cowed by the parents—an intimidating collection of venture capitalists, web developers, executives, and assertive housewives.
“It wasn’t me,” says 6-year-old Ziggy in the first episode, when his classmate Amabella blames him for her bruises. His teacher still demands he apologize in public, as much of the cast mumbles concern. “Sweetie, we just need you to say you’re sorry,” Ms. Barnes, the teacher, pleads. Innocent or not, Ziggy needs to appease the crowd.
Instead of conducting a private investigation, the school tries to get ahead of the thunderstorm they anticipate once Amabella’s mom, Renata—a PayPal board member—sees her daughter’s injuries. Ms. Barnes is asking Ziggy to give a performance. That’s what Perry, an adult character, does. He regularly abuses his wife Celeste and, weakened in power after each assault on her, dramatically implores his “Sparkles” for forgiveness. But rote apologies are Band-Aids that temporarily cover festering sores. Kids shouldn’t dole them out without real reflection and meaningful intent.