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What is Under Pressure about?
It’s about how the pressure to give our children the best of everything and make them the best at everything is backfiring on kids, parents and society as a whole. But the book is not all doom and gloom. On the contrary, it maps out how we can start rescuing childhood from the excesses of the early 21st century. Under Pressure has so far been translated into 20 languages. In 2008, it was shortlisted for the biggest literary prize for non-fiction in Canada. In a November 2009 cover story, TIME magazine described Under Pressure as the “gospel of the slow-parenting movement.”
Who is the audience for Under Pressure?
Under Pressure is written for parents, teachers, coaches, doctors, counsellors, anyone who has an interest in kids. Lots of teenagers are reading the book, too, and using it to start a debate in their own families and schools.
What is Slow Parenting and how does it fit in with Under Pressure?
I coined the term Slow Parenting a few years ago.
My first book, In Praise of Slow, examines how the world got stuck in fast-forward and chronicles a global trend towards putting on the brakes. This culture-quake is called the Slow movement
“Slow” in this context does not mean doing everything at a snail’s pace. It means doing everything at the right speed. That implies quality over quantity; real and meaningful human connections; being present and in the moment. The Slow creed can be applied to everything we do: work, sports, medicine, food, sex, design…and, of course, child-rearing.
To me Slow Parenting is about bringing balance into the home. Children need to strive and struggle and stretch themselves but that does not mean childhood should be a race. Slow parents give their children plenty of time and space to explore the world on their own terms. They keep the family schedule under control so that everyone has enough downtime to rest, reflect and just hang out together. They accept that bending over backwards to give children the best of everything may not always be the best policy (because it denies them the much more useful life lesson of how to make the best of what they’ve got.)
Slow parenting means allowing our children to work out who they are rather than what we want them to be. It means letting things happen rather than jumping in and forcing them. It means accepting that the richest kinds of learning and experience often cannot be measured or neatly packaged on a résumé or CV.
Slow parents understand that childrearing should not be a cross between a competitive sport and product-development. It is not a project; it’s a journey. Slow parenting is about giving kids lots of love and attention with no conditions attached.
No, absolutely not. I am a parent myself and I know how hard and confusing it is to raise children today. It is not just kids who are under pressure now; it’s parents too. We feel we have to push, polish and protect our offspring with superhuman zeal – or else we’re somehow falling down on the job. We start from the noble and natural instinct to do the best for our kids but end up going too far. Social and cultural pressure drives a lot of this. My aim in the book is not to blame or demonize parents. It is to make us all feel less guilty and insecure about our children, and to show how parenting less hard can actually help them to thrive even more.
So other forces are at work here beyond just parents?
Definitely. Outside the home, everyone from the state to the advertising industry is trying to bend childhood to fit its own agenda. A task force of British parliamentarians recently warned that too many children dream of growing up to be fairy princesses or football stars. Their solution: career advice for five-year-olds. Consumerism has crept into corners of children’s lives that once seemed untouchable. Even the humble sleepover is now an advertising opportunity, with companies such as Girls Intelligence Agency sponsoring slumber parties where tweens sample new products and fill in questionnaires. McDonald’s workers visit the children’s wards of hospitals to hand out toys and balloons, as well as leaflets promoting their food. Put all this together, and many kids now see an estimated 40,000 ads a year.
It all started at a parent-teacher evening. The feedback on my seven-year-old son was good but the art teacher really hit the sweet spot. He stands out in the class, she gushed. Your son is a gifted young artist. And there it was, that six-letter word that gets the heart of every parent racing. Gifted. That night, I trawled Google, hunting down art courses and tutors to nurture my son’s gift. Visions of raising the next Picasso swam through my mind until the next morning. “Daddy, I don’t want a tutor, I just want to draw, my son announced on the way to school. Why do grown-ups always have to take over everything?” The question stung like a belt on the backside. You know, I thought, he’s right. I am trying to take over. I’m turning into one of those pushy parents you read about in the newspapers. So I started thinking about how easy it is to get carried away as a parent, and to end up hijacking your children’s lives. That showdown with my son was the trigger that set me off on the journey that ended with my writing Under Pressure. As a father I wanted to take some of the heat and anxiety out of my parenting. I wanted to know how far to push, polish, protect and pamper my own children.
I spent nearly two years travelling through Europe, the Americas and Asia to investigate the state of childhood today. I visited schools, nurseries, sports teams, laboratories and toy fairs; I interviewed teachers, coaches, camp councillors, advertisers, police, therapists, doctors and every kind of child development expert; I sifted through the latest scientific research. I also spoke to hundreds of parents and children. Everywhere I went, I was struck by how much people everywhere are yearning to find a new approach to child-rearing that gives children the time and space to be children.
What makes Under Pressure relevant today?
Childhood is always evolving and it has always been defined by adults. But we seem to have reached a point now where childhood is being warped more than ever before by adult fantasies and fears, anxieties and agendas. Every aspect of childhood – education, safety, discipline, sports, play, etc – is now set up to suit grown-ups rather than children. We are living in a culture that tells us that childhood is too precious to be left to chlidren and children are too precious to be left alone.
How widespread is this micromanaging approach to children?
It is global. Some nations call it hyper-parenting. Others refer to “helicopter parents” who always hover overhead. Canadians joke about “snow-plow parents” who clear a perfect path through life for their kids. In Japan, “education mothers” devote every moment of their time to steering their kids through the country’s schooling system. Even in Scandinavia, where everyone is supposed to be gloriously relaxed, they talk of “curling parenting”: picture mum and dad frantically sweeping the ice in front of their child.
Not all childhoods are created equal. You don’t find many children being hyper-parented in the refugee camps of Sudan or the shantytowns of Latin America. Even in the developed world, millions of youngsters, especially in poorer families, are more likely to suffer from underparenting than overparenting. Let’s be honest: most helicopter-parents hail from the middle class. But that does not mean this cultural shift only affects the well-to-do. When it comes to social change, the middle classes usually set the tone. And already hyper-parenting is eroding social solidarity because the more obsessed people become with their own children, the less interested they become in the welfare of other people’s.
How did we reach this point?
We got here because a number of trends have converged at the same time to produce a cultural perfect storm. The rise of globalization has brought more competition and uncertainty to the workplace – which makes us more anxious about equipping our kids for adult life. The consumer culture has reached a kind of apotheosis in recent years and the net effect is to create a culture of soaring expectations: we now want perfect teeth, perfect hair, a perfect body, perfect vacations, a perfect home – and perfect children to round off the portrait. As parents we feel immense pressure to give our children the best of everything and make them the best at everything – to give them a “perfect” childhood.
Demographics have also changed in ways never seen before in history. Smaller families mean we have more time and money to lavish on each child. Parents are more anxious because small families give them less experience of parenting and put their genetic eggs in fewer baskets. Women are having babies much older than ever before, and that can add another layer of worry. If your first pregnancy comes at 38 or 39, then you may well have spent long years fretting over and planning for the child. And if something goes wrong you may not be able to have another one to make up for it. So there is a built-in anxiety from the start.
Parents of both genders are having kids older, or after many years in the workplace. As a result, we end up importing the office ethos into the home. We think, “Well, how can we parent better? Why don’t we do what we do at work when we want to improve our performance: bring in the experts, spend lots of money and put in long hard hours – we will professionalize parenting.”
The bottom line is that parents in this generation have lost their confidence. That makes us easy prey for companies hawking unnecessary tools for childrearing (helmets to protect toddlers from head injuries, anyone?). And very vulnerable to pressure from other parents (“What, you mean your two-year-old doesn’t have a tutor?!?”).
If you look at the time, money and energy that we’re putting into our children, we should be witnessing the emergence of the happiest, healthiest, most able generation of kids the world has ever seen. But that’s not what’s happening.
Let’s start with health. Cooped up indoors and ferried everywhere in the backseat of a car, kids are growing fatter than ever before. Athletic kids suffer as well. Too much training too young is wearing them out. Injuries like anterior cruciate ligament tears, formerly only seen in college and professional athletes, are now rife in secondary school and increasingly common among nine- and ten-year-olds.
And where the body goes, the mind follows. Child depression and anxiety—and the substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide that often go with it—are now most common not in urban ghettos but in the smart downtown apartments and leafy suburbs where the go-getting middle classes are piling pressure on their children.
Micromanaged kids can end up struggling to stand on their own two feet. University counseling services report that students are going to pieces in record numbers. And professors tell of 19-year-olds handing over the mobile phone in the middle of interviews with the words: “Why don’t you sort this out with my mum?”
The umbilical cord even remains intact after graduation. To recruit college graduates, blue-chip companies such as Merrill Lynch have started sending out “parent packs” or holding open-house days when Mum and Dad can vet their offices. Parents are even turning up at job interviews to help negotiate salary and vacation packages.
Along the way something precious and hard to measure is also being lost here. William Blake, the English poet, famously summed up the magic and wonder of childhood thus:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wildflower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
Today, many children are too busy racing to violin practice or math tutoring to hold infinity in the palm of their hand. And that wildflower sounds a little scary—what if it has thorns, or the pollen triggers an allergic reaction?
It’s not always easy because the line between engaged parenting and hyper-parenting can be a fine one, yet there are some telltale warning signs. You may be going too far if you do your children’s homework; shout yourself hoarse at their sporting events; spy on their MySpace pages; let them take fewer risks than you did at the same age; find them falling asleep en route to their next extracurricular activity; quote verbatim from parenting manuals; regularly eat meals in the car on the way to activities; have no conversation beyond what your children are up to; never spend time alone with your partner.
When it comes to raising children, are we getting everything wrong?
No, definitely not. There are many advantages to growing up in the developed world in the early twenty-first century: You are less likely to suffer malnutrition, neglect, violence, or death than at any time in history. You are surrounded by material comforts that were unthinkable even a generation ago. Legions of academics, politicians, and companies are striving to find new ways to nurture, feed, clothe, school, and entertain you. Your rights are enshrined in international law. The Internet is a hugely exciting new frontier for learning and playing; fathers are much closer emotionally to their kids than ever before. It’s not all bad news for kids.
So do you see signs of change in the right direction?
Yes, very much so. Around the world, schools are curbing the obsession with exams and trimming the academic workload – and finding that when pupils have more time to relax, reflect and take charge of their own learning, they learn better. Not long ago, Cargilfield, a private school in Scotland, banned homework for pupils aged three to thirteen. Within a year, exam marks in math and the sciences rose nearly 20 percent.
To give youth sports back to the young, leagues are clamping down on parents howling abuse from the sidelines and shifting the emphasis away from winning at all costs to learning and enjoying the game.
To give over-scheduled children a breather, towns across the world now hold special days when all homework and extracurricular activities are cancelled. Many families are so relieved to go just one evening without dashing off to karate or lacrosse that they prune their planners during the rest of the year. Elite universities are sending a similar message. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently revamped its application form to put less emphasis on the number of extracurricular activities a candidate signs up for and more on what really fires his passion. Even the mighty Harvard urges incoming freshmen to check their over-scheduling ways at the door. Posted on the university Web site, an open letter by Harry Lewis, a former dean of the undergraduate school, warns students that they will get more out of college, and indeed life, if they do less and concentrate on the things that really fire their passion: “[You] are more likely to sustain the intense effort needed to accomplish first-rate work in one area if you allow yourself some leisure time, some recreation, some time for solitude, rather than packing your schedule with so many activities that you have no time to think about why you are doing what you are doing.” Lewis also takes aim at the notion that everything young people do must have a measurable payoff or contribute toward crafting the perfect CV. “You may balance your life better if you participate in some activities purely for fun, rather than to achieve a leadership role that you hope might be a distinctive credential for postgraduate employment. The human relationships you form in unstructured time with your roommates and friends may have a h3er influence on your later life than the content of some of the courses you are taking.” The title of the letter sounds like a direct challenge to the culture of hyper-scheduling. It is called: Slow Down: Getting More Out of Harvard by Doing Less.
Our penchant for bubble-wrapping children to keep them safe from even the tiniest risk is also coming under review. At a new pre-school in Scotland, three-year-olds spend the day in a forest negotiating harsh weather, open camp-fires and poisonous fungi. Sure, they suffer the odd scratch or burn, but they arrive at kindergarten happier, more confident and less prone to illness and allergies than do their indoor peers. Or look at the global success of The Dangerous Book for Boys, a manual stuffed with tips on how to enjoy all kinds of high-risk pastimes, from racing go-carts to making slingshots and catapults.
It could play out in two ways.
On one hand, it could cause parents to push their children even harder in the belief that the world has become still more competitive and if they fail to conquer Mandarin by their fourth birthday they can forget about going to college.
But I think there are signs that for many parents it is having the opposite effect. This recession will force us all to rethink every aspect of our society – from the way we run the financial system to the way we consume to way we raise our children. When there is less money around, then signing up for every single extracurricular activity suddenly seems like a less attractive option. In these belt-tightening times, and after a period of wild and reckless spending, maybe people will start to rediscover the simple pleasures in life. For families, that means spending time together that does not revolve around buying stuff, following a schedule or building the perfect resume.
This transition will be hard because we are all so marinated in the idea that we have to turning parenting into a high-stakes race. That we have to strain every sinew in our bodies, and stretch every dollar we earn to breaking point, to give them the best of everything and make them the best at everything. But with time I think many parents will feel relieved that they have been liberated from the tyranny of supplying the perfect childhood.
Here in London where I live one father I know lost his job in banking. The result was his two highly-scheduled children got yanked from most of their extracurricular activities. For several weeks he felt like a failure but last Sunday he woke up and realized that the family had a completely free day stretching out before them (instead of the usual manic dash to take the kids to multiple activities) – and he actually felt good about it. “I exhaled and it was like I was letting out a breath that I’d been holding for years,” he told me.
They need time and space to explore the world on their own terms: that is how they learn to think, invent and socialize; to take pleasure from things; to work out who they are, rather than what we want them to be. They need lots of love and attention with no conditions attached.
We’ve done it for poultry and cattle – now it’s time to do the same for the young. It’s time to usher in the age of the free-range child.
Are you suggesting that we should give children total freedom?
No, definitely not. A lighter touch is not always the best policy. When it comes to shielding our children from consumerism, we need to wield a heavier hand. That is why parents around the world are campaigning to stop companies from advertising in schools. There is also a backlash against the trend for ever more lavish birthday parties. Many parents are now fixing spending limits on gifts and party bags, or eliminating them altogether. Others are agreeing on guest quotas. In other words, parents are relearning the lost art of saying No.
Many children today actually need to hear the N-word more often. Even as we pour time, money and energy into helping our kids build a killer CV, we tend to go a bit wobbly on the discipline front. It just seems easier to say Yes to another hour on the Nintendo or to an untidy bedroom. But children need discipline and a firm hand sometimes. Boundaries make them feel safe and equip them for life in a world built on rules and compromise. Children need us to say No sometimes.
What do you hope Under Pressure will achieve?
I hope that readers will come to the end of the book and breathe a huge sigh of relief. Especially parents. I want to inspire readers to ease off and find the natural balance between doing too much and too little for children.
Exactly. This generation of parents has lost its confidence. I wrote Under Pressure to regain my own confidence and help others do the same. Confident parents are able to resist the scare-mongering and the peer pressure in order to find their own way to raise their children.
There is no magic formula for raising kids. Every child is unique and every family is unique. The secret is to find the formula, the style of parenting, that works best for you and your children – and not to feel like you have to follow exactly what everyone else is doing.
What advice would you give to parents?
Ignore the panic and peer pressure – your child will be fine. Trust your instincts. Find your own way to parent. Listen to and observe your child. A child is not a project or a product or a trophy or a piece of clay you can mould into a work of art. A child is a person who will thrive if allowed to be the protagonist of his own life.