Behind every high-achieving kid is a super-involved parent

There’s an article in the New York Times about the relentlessness of modern parenting. Americans love hearing about how hard parenting is because we all know it’s over the top. This article had some good statistics, though. For example, mothers today who work outside the home spend as much time parenting as stay-at-home mothers in the 1950s did. 

What strikes me about the article, though, is that we all believe parenting should not be so exhausting. Yet we constantly celebrate the fruits of relentless parenting. Americans love reading about super-successful kids. But behind each of those kids is a relentless parent, doing way more than a typical parent could do to clear a path for success:

Science contest winners who all have parents who are scientists doing the experiments right alongside the their kid.

The 13-year-old op-ed writer who had her mom’s organization to help her craft the message and write to proper format for the New York Times.

The 9-year old basketball star whose dad not only coached her but spent years convincing boys-only basketball clinics to let his daughter sign up.

The 8-year-old nonprofit founder who had parents who could not only do all the paperwork but also provide the seed funding.

This is the relentless parenting that we would like to wave a wand to make disappear. But it’s also the relentless parents we celebrate. Each of these kids’ profiles is sort of a Cinderella story for the new millennium: the parent is the fairy god mother making sure that the young, nondescript child turns out to be something really special.

And I think the real relentlessness is the worry, the personal conflict parents feel over how much is enough parenting and how we will judge ourselves when the kids are all grown up.

My own parenting has been a mix of being very hands off at the beginning, and increasingly helicopter-y as the kids got older. My boys are teens now, and the pictures I most love looking at are the ones where the boys are in their own world, doing whatever they please. And I think I should probably cherish that unstructured downtime more now, instead of worrying I’m not doing more to help my kids do more.




9 replies
  1. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Don’t forget the parents who do their kids’ homework. It’s an increasingly popular thing. The logical extension is for parents to get kids into the hardest possible schools, on the basis of the essays they wrote, and then do all the homework for them.

    I like the term “relentless parenting.” I have a friend who got his kid into a famous English boarding school based in part on a public relations campaign (he’s a PR professional) involving websites, newspapers, interviews, and what he called a “legend” about the kid’s unusual abilities (which he confided to me in secret the kid didn’t really have). Job done!

    I think the Times article has it right about economic anxiety. “social scientists say the relentlessness of modern-day parenting has a powerful motivation: economic anxiety. For the first time, it’s as likely as not that American children will be less prosperous than their parents. For parents, giving children the best start in life has come to mean doing everything they can to ensure that their children can climb to a higher class, or at least not fall out of the one they were born into.”

    I don’t recall this kind of anxiety when I was coming up in the 70s. Even though most families had mothers available then, they mostly ignored the kids, who ran around the neighborhoods in packs. It seemed everybody once had a sense of optimism about the future – our parents did better than theirs had, and we kids would continue the trend. That future has been foreclosed upon, and now the knives are out.

    Every once in a while I wonder if my philosophy is maladapted. I don’t believe that my children are blank slates for me and their schools to write on. I believe education is something they do for themselves, and my job is mostly to help provide them with the resources and encouragement to do that. Help when asked, remind when requested, etc. Will my kids fall behind – are they already falling behind – those children who are relentlessly parented? Perhaps I am insufficient as a parent, and my relatively laissez-faire philosophy is mostly a justification for my own laziness.

    I bought my son a microphone for Xmas. He promptly disappeared and came back two days later with several multi-track songs he’d recorded on GarageBand a cappella, with bass, drums, melody, and harmony. I was only involved in retrospect. I thought this was wonderful, but perhaps I should have been pushing him through something more prestigious over the break.

    My daughter made presents for everybody. She put a little cup of mardi gras beads in my stocking, with a label that said “Do You Remember?” I do. It was a fabulous day, and a lovely gesture. I’d rather she spend her time creating things at her inspiration than practice reading school books.

    I’ll never get her into a famous boarding school that way.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      After reading this post all I could think is the correlation between generational parenting differences must be economically motivated. Most opportunity for children is limited by how much the parent can provide for them physically and financially.

      I’ve met several Uber drivers this week from well-to-do neighbourhoods whom have explained their 20-something children still live at home and they are too family poor nowadays to change everyone’s circumstances.

      The job landscape is different and what parents can provide their older kids with what once were secure corporate multi year jobs have vanished. Wages are stagnant and the Middle class dividing.

      I think it’s important for parents to recognise that for their children to succeed in the coming years and be able to compete they have no choice but to ‘think differently’. If relentless parenting/providing/championing is the answer to overcoming the current challenges for a large swath of the population then perhaps that is the new status quo.

      It makes me think it’s more about accepting things are different and moving forward than searching for an easier or simpler path.

      Of course this can become political in nature regarding education and opportunity, but I think it’s smart for parents nowadays to be aware of the climate and approach with optimistic caution.

  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I wonder about these things. How far do you push? How much do you do for the kid? Having parents that completely ignored me, I found myself parentfied and did it all myself: S.A.T, collage prep, shopping for myself, food, homework, teacher conflict.

    I viewed parenting as doing that. Being hands off. But then my kids didn’t step up, so I became intensely hands on. Then I noticed they had no self trust that they were competent, and started self doubting a simple conversation. Now I’m trying to figure out how to believe in them, help them, and show that I think they can do it.

    Maybe the people who push their kids do so because they don’t know how to parent. Or maybe they know how to balance pushing and believing. What I do know is, it is very hard to parent when you didn’t have any to begin with.

  3. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    In the cello world are the relentless parents producing music albums of their kids’ music?

    Personally, I think it’s a little foolish for people to think that children are drivers for anything. I don’t instinctively buy something or watch something because of the kids involved, it’s usually because of the adults involved that make me decide to watch a performance, read a book, or listen to music.

    I think the boarding schools or whatever enterprise that buys this is extremely gullible and therefore in my mind has terrible instincts.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    You wrote a whole post based on observations and perspectives that you didn’t have when the picture was taken. Ten years from now you can look at this picture and the ones you take today and you’ll have more insights … and doubts. That’s life. It also happens to be one of my favorite Frank Sinatra songs.

  5. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    Someone I know said “my children are my magnum opus.”

    And I paused.

    For a long time.

    It’s been months since that comment.
    And I still don’t know what to think or say.

    Children grow.
    And leave.
    And they have their own lives to live.
    What if they don’t live up to masterpiece.
    What do you do after your magnum opus wants to be anything but your idea of master piece?

    I ride such a fine line.
    Anything I do for my kids is over above and beyond what I received as a child. Even basic emotional intelligence is far more than what I received on the regular.

    But I also want to leave it open ended enough for them to make it their own.

    And yet….
    I’ve seen them.
    When I invite them to try something new.
    They discover and sometimes they follow the rabbit hole. Sometimes they don’t.
    But their eyes!
    When they find out about this new thing.

    I want to show them new things often.
    But I am so tired.

  6. Terese Hilliard
    Terese Hilliard says:

    My granddaughter is the YOUNGEST in her 3rd grade class and behind in reading and math. I am sure that she is perfoming to her developmental level; it’s not that she is not smart, just learning at her own pace. Her imagination works overtime and she sings, creates, and explores everything! She has a D in math and reading but an A in Science, PE, and Social Studies. She learns what she needs to grow.

    She single handedly explained to the how the election process works to her classmates.

    I spend an hour daily helping her catch up on math on the school district website. The curriculum does a poor job of explaining the the information and is very dry. We talk about what the real lesson is behind the rote work.

    When I spoke to the teaching team I shared that we encourage her tremendous artistic skills and allow her lots of outdoor time. They said, “that might be a good idea, it might work.” Ya think?

    She won’t be a straight A kid -she will be a kid who understands herself and enjoys life instead of stressing over pleasing teachers.

    Every kid in our family has given their teachers nightmares. Yet they all have good jobs, own homes, enjoy life, and are passionate about life. We are good with that.

  7. Simone
    Simone says:

    ““This trend is especially strong in countries where economic inequality has grown the most, and in general that’s where we see more of what’s become known as “helicopter parenting. Why is this so? Well, parents want their children to do well in life, to be successful. And in a society that is very unequal—where there are lots of opportunities if one does well and very negative outcomes if one is less successful—parents will be more worried that their children won’t become high achievers in school. But if you go to a country where there is less inequality, parents may be less worried about that, not because they care less about their children, but because the negative outcomes aren’t as bad. “

    So what do you think is the right call? Is helicopter parenting the new normal? Will the working world evolve as a result of this generation of kids? If so what would that look like? If not then it would seem employers would start to discount the value of a degree from a prestigious institution.

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