Rocking the Cradle of Class

A sluggish traffic light at a Brooklyn street corner brought together three acquaintances who had plenty of time to catch up with each other. "My daughter is still in the public school system," said one woman (this is, after all, New York, and one can't take such things for granted, even in the outer boroughs). "My son is too, and it's going really well," said the one dad. And after an expectant pause, "We go to [insert name of highly selective, outrageously expensive private school here]," announced the other mother.

How's that again? This wasn't the plural we; the woman had arrived solo. Nor was it the royal we; no footmen were in sight. No, Ladies and Gents, say hello to the fused-identity we, in which fully grown adults openly appropriate the accomplishments of their wee ones, flash them like an Olympic medal for parenting and take much of their own measure from them.

Of course, parents have always been proud of their children's accomplishments, perhaps none more so than immigrant parents eager to see their kids thriving in their new land. But now children's achievements have become a marker of how their mothers and fathers are doing in the increasingly prominent job of parenting -- and by extension how the whole family is doing. In a novel twist on the age-old status dynamic, parents now rely on their offspring's competitive performance in athletics and, especially, academics for their own inner sense of security and social approval.

As the engines of status shift into reverse -- with kids fuel-injecting parental egos with every A they get -- adults are creating a new kind of child labor that may be at least as unhealthy and onerous as the old. Kids no longer have to till fields from dawn to dusk or toil in sooty factories, but more and more they are handed the burden of power-lifting their parents' sense of self.

Consider that prospective parents no longer just buy a stroller or other basic baby gear. They invest emotionally in it. A spokesperson for a baby-products manufacturers association explained why some people buy and dispose of dozens of different strollers before settling on a wardrobe of, say, three models. "A stroller is part of the parents' image and a reflection of themselves -- personal style, parenting style, their lifestyle."

In the same way, the schools that parents send their kids to have come to symbolize much more than education. "College entrance has become your final exam as a parent," says child psychologist David Anderegg of Lenox, Massachusetts.

No one knows this better than students at an ultra-selective Ivy League university, admission to which is sometimes considered prima facie evidence of successful child-raising. They call it "the H-bomb effect:" Dropping the bomb that one's kid goes to Harvard can deaden conversation among hypercompetitive parents. Anderegg sees proof of the accessorization of children in the way decals of prestigious colleges are placed on car windows -- even before the kids go off to school. "It's a competitive display, and it's not about the kids. It's about the parents."

Childhood is being radically transformed right before our very eyes, contends Steven Mintz, professor of history at the University of Houston and author of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. As he sees it, children are now extensions of their parents' sense of self in a way that is new and unprecedented. "More than in the past, children are viewed as a project by perfectionist parents. Today's parents are imposing on their kids a violence of raised expectations. They are using their children for their own needs. We've decreased the threat of physical violence but increased the psychological violence."

THE '70S SHIFT

It all started in the 1970s, when postwar optimism came to a crashing halt against stagflation and the oil crisis. The American economy shifted dramatically. "Parents translated that into a fear of not passing on their class status to their kids," says Mintz. Their solution: Give the kids whatever advantages possible and introduce into childhood the alien idea of specialization. "Nervousness about globalization made parents so concerned about competitiveness that they began believing they had to do everything in their power to not let their kids lose."

The economy of the 1970s also attuned people to social class -- a radical shift from the '60s. "Even the food that people consumed became class-connected," says Mintz. "The type of lettuce you ate said something about your social status." Increasingly, class concerns devolved on the kids, and suddenly "the nice suburban school just wasn't good enough any more." Today 13 percent of white children attend private schools. Many more live in exclusive suburbs where public schools function like private ones.

Kids are driving the status engines for families to such an extent that just having them is becoming a status symbol, the human equivalent of a limited edition Hermes satchel. In a consumer culture where raising a child is a very costly enterprise, kids are the ultimate acquisition. One new mini-trend identifies the wealthy (with incomes of about $250,000) as having more children (2.3) than the middle class (1.8) -- slightly more, even, than lower-class families. And the very wealthiest have the most children by far, averaging 2.9 kids.

Rapid technological change has also done its share to elevate the status of children. Technology has turned expertise upside down, so kids serve as the household gurus on new gadgetry. They're born into it, don't have to unlearn anything and are unafraid to explore technology. This shift alone accords children cachet in a technologically advanced culture.

A growing intensity of family life virtually forces adults to take more of their meaning from their home and their children. Everyone knows that both mothers and fathers are working more hours and feeling very stressed (and loaded with guilt, too). While parents seldom have free time to play -- they go to the movies less, for example -- or to socialize with other adults, the job of meeting their emotional needs has fallen on their kids. Take the case of children's summer camps and programs, which once served the important function of defusing family pressures on kids. For decades, well-off parents have sent adolescents abroad for a month or two of study, exploration and some independence. But responding to adults' requests to get in on the fun, some teen tours now allow the parents to join their offspring for part of the trip.

WHAT ARE KIDS FOR?

In agricultural societies, there is an overt economic relationship between parents and children, and it's based on reciprocity. Parents provide food and shelter; kids contribute labor and the promise of care in old age. But in modern societies, kids seldom take on the burden of caring for elderly parents, so there's no economic payoff. Parents shell out lots of money for education, iPods and other gear. What do the children do in return? Why even have them?

Because, increasingly, what they supply are psychological rewards. "More and more, parents have come to be identified with their kids," reports sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom. She and Boston College colleagues David A. Karp and Paul S. Gray have conducted an in-depth study of the college application process among upper-middle-class families. One of the questions they've pondered is why parents pay for college. After all, it's extremely expensive and money deployed on their children can't be spent on themselves or socked away for fast-approaching retirement. But, the researchers found, financial open handedness makes perfect sense -- if the kids are perceived as pure extensions of the parents. To a surprising degree, the researchers discovered, the parents' "identities and aspirations are wrapped up in the achievements of their children."

Further, paying for college is the way the class system replicates itself. "It's clear to upper-middle-class parents that education is the way for kids to maintain their social status. The parents are increasingly aware of the competition; there is the perception that the stakes are high. It's not necessarily this way throughout the class structure. For other classes, college is the ticket to upward mobility."

RESUMES ON TWO LEGS

"We treat children as projects, as things to be helped and shaped and pushed and prodded," says Mintz. "It's the sense that I am going to create a resume on two legs." Parents have always dreamed of perfection, but it used to be a very surface thing -- posture, strict feeding schedules. Now, he says, perfection is defined so exclusively in terms of achievement that no other path to adulthood is acceptable. As he laments in Huck's Raft, there's no room for "odysseys of self-discovery outside the goal-driven, overstructured realities of contemporary childhood."

The pursuit of perfection in kids stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the task of parenting, Anderegg charges. "Parenting is not an engineering task, it's an endurance task. It requires a high tolerance for boredom. Engineering is based on the idea that if you do something right the first time, you don't have to do it again."

Efficiency, however, is inimical to child-rearing. "Parenting is a problem to be solved daily. It's a repetitive, quotidian task," says Anderegg. That's what maximizes parent-child interaction and persuades kids they are loved. "Seeing kids as well-designed products is a disease of really smart people," he notes. "They feel they have to make child-rearing a task worthy of their time."

It may be that people insert professional values in parenting because they are so well rewarded for them at work. Indeed, mothers are more highly educated than ever, and because they are waiting longer to have their babies, many are well-entrenched in careers. It's understandable that they would want to bring home what they know -- setting long-range goals, keeping complex schedules, managing divisions and running things efficiently. Anderegg cites a mom who, clipboard in hand, stood at the door of the kindergarten as her child entered. She was taking notes, she said, because she wanted her child to get into an Ivy League school and she needed to make suggestions to the teachers on how to improve her child's education.

Ironically, the incredible shrinking family almost demands the encroachment of professional values on parenting. Today, about one in five children under the age of 18 is an only child, and "the fewer kids you have, the more precious they become and the more risk-averse you get," explains Anderegg, who chronicles the rise of parental anxiety in Worried All the Time. The more kids you have, the more you understand that each has his own temperament -- and that your contribution is not the only thing influencing developmental outcomes.

It's bad enough that there are now many for whom parenting has become a profession. But for some it has become a religion. "It's the only source of transcendent meaning in their lives," observes Anderegg. "That fuels hysteria, encouraging parents to exaggerate the dangers facing kids and competition for resources."

MASKING THE SECRET OF SUCCESS

But pushing for perfection seriously clashes with children's developmental needs. "There's a difference between excellence and perfection," points out Miriam Adderholdt, instructor in psychology at Davidson Community College in Lexington, North Carolina, and author of Perfectionism: What's So Bad About Being Too Good?

The trouble is, perfectionism is transmitted from parents to kids. "A child makes four As and one B," says Adderholdt. "All it takes is the raising of an eyebrow for her to get the message." Then it seeps into her psyche and creates a pervasive personality style. It lowers her ability to take risks and reduces creativity and innovation -- exactly what's not adaptive in the global marketplace. It keeps kids from engaging in challenging experiences and testing their own limits; they don't get to discover what they truly like. Further, perfectionism reduces playfulness and the assimilation of knowledge. It destroys self-esteem. And just when the world requires flexibility and comfort with ambiguity, perfectionism creates rigidity. Perhaps worse: The emphasis on achievement makes parental love feel too conditional.

In short, the push for perfection undermines the identity capital of kids. But the biggest problem with it may be that it masks the real secret of success in life. Any innovator will tell you that success hinges less on getting everything right than on how you handle getting things wrong. In real life, you can't call the teacher and demand that a C be changed to an A. This is where creativity, passion and perseverance come into play. The ultimate irony is, in a flat world you don't make kids competitive by pushing them to be perfect but by allowing them to become passionate about something that compels their interest.

Psychology Today

September/October 2005