Aspirational Parenting: How Best Intentions Harm Our Children

aspirational parenting

Image by Thais Morais via Unsplash

All of us parents want our children to be prepared for the future. But new research tells us that certain choices around how we ready our children for success are having the opposite result.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “aspirational parenting.” I just came across it a few weeks ago when another mom used it in passing. The term refers to economically advantaged parents who make parenting choices geared toward preparing their children for future success. You could alternatively use the phrase “competitive parenting,” or, as economists Garey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call it, “the rug rat race.”

Playdate Coaching and Facebook Posting

One extreme manifestation of this dynamic is the playdate coach. For a whopping $450/hour in New York City, these people prepare four-year-olds for private school by coaching appropriate social skills, in particular trying to make sure the children don’t exhibit any signs of being on the spectrum, which can have an adverse impact on admission.

On The Big Story Podcast, parent and writer Sarah Boesveld said that social media helps fuel this phemonenon. Parents post on Facebook about their children’s milestones and achievements as well as what parents are doing to propel them forward, like baby sign language, swimming instruction, and crawling class.

At first glance, you might ask yourself, “So what’s wrong with that? Everyone wants their kids to be successful adults.” But the problem is that these aspirations are leading parents to make parenting choices that work against their children’s health and well-being.

How It Hurts the Kids

For children to be healthy, to regulate their emotions successfully, to be confident, to empathize with others, and to set the stage for positive and loving relationships in the future, it is critical that they experience a loving and supportive bond with their primary caregivers. The kind of pressure that goes with aspirational parenting, in spite of our good intentions, fuels a different result. Although we feel love, we instead send the message that our children have to perform, which creates pressure.

Kids under pressure frequently experience symptoms like anxiety, withdrawl from friends and interests, headaches, eating disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and nightmares/problems sleeping. In an affluent school district in Palo Alto, the suicide rate for middle and high school kids is four to five times the national average. In Britain, studies showed a 50% increase in mental health beds for British kids between 1999 and 2014 and the number of hospital admissions for self-harm rose by 68% in 10 years.

Researcher Suniya Luthar worked with Connecticut schools while studying teenage misbehavior. She found that children from affluent families whose parents’ values were achievement-oriented tended to have more problems. She also learned that these same children felt lonely and distant from their parents. In those homes, parents spent far fewer hours with their children than middle and working class parents, often not eating dinner with their children. The time they did spend was often tied to pushing and coaching on achievement-related tasks, like homework or sports practices.

Another researcher whose work appeared in The Journal of Child and Family Studies found that “Over-managing their kids’ lives at school resulted in the kids having higher levels of depression, decreased satisfaction with life, and lower levels of autonomy and competence. The researchers concluded that though the parents in the study believed they were being supportive, ultimately this extremely involved parenting style undermined their children’s developing sense of self and confidence.”

It Hurts Us Parents Too

Finally, this intense focus on our children’s success isn’t good for us parents either. We need to focus on ourselves and give them what they need to be separate individuals. Joyce Catlett, co-author of Compassionate Child Rearing, explains that “One of the best things you can do for your child is to do something for yourself; pursue your own life, and give them the space to pursue theirs.” Making sure we’re taking care of ourselves rather than competing with other parents boosts our happiness and lowers our children’s stress level.

Even something simple like reading those Facebook posts can make us anxious. Says Sarah Boesfeld, “It’s about me not measuring up. I see people all around me doing more (than I am). I must be failing my child.”

What’s at the bottom of this trend? The lack of understanding about what children need to be happy is one. But the phenomenon reflects a larger problematic context: the values of the modern world, in particular the west, which promote cutthroat competition at all cost for a kind of economic success that research has shown doesn’t bring happiness even when it is achieved. One has only to look at the climate crisis to see where unbridled competition and consumerism lead.

But we don’t have to beat back climate change to do better for our kids right now. Fortunately there are steps we can take to back off and bring more joy, health, and security into our children’s lives.

Steps Toward Healthy Parenting

The most important thing in parenting is our connection with our children. What they need to grow and develop is parents who understand of their needs and responses that are appropriate and kind. If you’re not sure how to gauge their needs, do a bit of research. Dr. William Sears is a great resource as is Dr. John Gottman. Organizations like Let Grow offer alternative paradigms that allow children the space and freedom to develop a healthy sense of confidence and nourishing relationships. Books like Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz and The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine explore aspirational parenting and its alternatives in greater detail. Ask your friends for resources. Ask your local librarian.

We can also enjoy kids and take time at each age and stage to build and grow our relationship with them. Get to know who they are. When they’re struggling, try emotion coaching. Mirror back their interests by creating opportunities to share, like a special mom and son evening at the theater, or a trip to a place they’ve always wanted to go. Try to appreciate all that your children bring into the world that’s separate from achievement. Notice things they do that touch you and let them know you appreciate them.

Launch and be consistent with family rituals, like a gratitude moment before supper, reading before bedtime, backwards day, making and sending valentines in February, or volunteering at a soup kitchen on Christmas.

Keep an eye out for signs that your kids might be stressed. Don’t hesitate to involve your pediatrician or even find a child psychologist if you’re not able to help your child. Set realistic expectations and encourage your children to follow their interests. Make sure they have plenty of down time and unstructured time, and encourage them to play outdoors.

We can also take better care of ourselves as parents by redefining our relationship to competitive parenting. Sarah Boesveld suggests having in-person conversations with other parents. Use a conversation starter, like “I’m feeling like I’m not doing enough for my kids. Do you ever feel that way?” Try to relate authentically and compassionately instead of joining the competition. Building community redefines the relationships between us parents, which trickles down to relationships with our children.

And reducing stress is a big step forward on the path toward a healthier future and a healthier present.

By Gail Marlene Schwartz

Gail Marlene Schwartz is a mother, a runner, and a writer. As Content Curator for JogAlong Stroller, she writes blog articles, video scripts, and ad copy.