If you're a Hudson Valley parent with a child involved in extracurricular activities, you've no doubt encountered the Overanxious Mom, the Shouting Soccer Dad, the Overscheduler, the Sideline Screamer, or some variant thereof. Rather than "being there for the kids," these folks often seem ego driven, unconcerned with their child's needs, intent mostly on creating the next Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Macaulay Culkin, or Yo-Yo Ma (all celebrities with controversial "stage parents"). The drama is often worrisome, especially when aspects of overbearingness emerge in one's own parenting style. Yet, part of the parenting job is to spur, encourage, even occasionally goad, so how can moms and dads avoid crossing the line from helpful enthusiasm to unrealistic, potentially damaging inflexibility?
Kingston-based child psychologist Dennis McCarthy, author of A Manual of Dynamic Play Therapy: Helping Things Fall Apart, the Paradox of Play, says, "It would be ideal if we only pushed our children to do things based on a profound understanding of who they are, and what their needs are, uncolored by our own needs. But that's not an easy place to get to." McCarthy has worked with kids for 40 years, and in the last decade he's seen a marked increase in children stressed out by parental expectations. He says this corresponds to an increase in parents' stress levels. "Parents are working more," he says, "spending more time in front of a screen. There isn't a lot of time to consider what's best, what's going on; you're trying to catch a glimpse of what your child might need while you're in the midst of a text, or a Facebook check. There isn't a lot of 'hanging out with,' which I think allows for a sense of what the kid might need."
New Paltz's Joanne Secky, mother of two naturally athletic sons, admits the environment in youth sports can get toxic. "I see moms' identities totally associated with their sons'," she says, "and overanxious dads with agendas, living vicariously." When the intensity adversely affected her gifted baseball player son Jaxson, she allowed him to switch to basketball, a choice for which she received harsh judgment from other parents. "They said, 'You can't let a 10-year-old make this decision.' But I don't feel my 10-year-old should be concerned with making parents or coaches happy. He needs to make himself happy. One upset coach said, 'But he could be a Yankee!' I said, 'I don't want a Yankee, I want a happy child.' I tell my sons, 'Sports is something you do, not who you are.'"
McCarthy advises a "middle way," and suggests trying different activities, stressing that every situation, each parent-child relationship, is distinctive. "It gets tricky," he says. "The challenge is figuring out what your motives are and what your kid needs."
Shandaken's Marcey Brownstein, mother of six-year-old Elias, approaches the "How much activity?" question with memories of her experiences as the daughter of a passive mom. "My mom exposed me to violin, tap, ballet, gymnastics, and tennis," she says. "I rebelled against it all. And she let me bowl right over her. She didn't force me to stick with anything, and I never acquired a skill. Elias is obstinate just like I was, but my own experience says it's not always good to let a kid give up. He plays soccer, takes swimming lessons, and goes to pottery classes." As a former New Yorker, though, she notes that when it comes to packing kids' schedules with activities, she and her husband are lightweights. "We know Manhattan parents who've put their kindergarteners on the Harvard track," Brownstein says.
McCarthy thinks obsessing over college too early is ill advised. "It's a mistake to worry too much about college résumés and jobs when kids are twelve or younger," he says. "The world is changing so fast, it's hard to project what's going to be right for a kid 20 years from now. Are they connecting to people? Are they expressing themselves? Those are the important things. If you're going to push a kid to do something, the motivating factor should be them feeling better about themselves, as opposed to them looking more polished for something down the road."
Overeager parents aren't always the problem, according to McCarthy. As often as not, he encourages parents to get their kids involved in activities. "This seems to be a generation of kids who are not very good at initiating things," he says. "It sometimes behooves parents to suggest something. It's easy to blame everything on kids growing up more passive and screen based, but those are components. Children play outside 85 percent less than they did 25 years ago. I have a sandbox in my office, and many times it's the only time a kid has played like that in their life. Outside, kids have to initiate what to do, and find out what they want, who they are, whereas with video games you don't have to initiate as much, and you don't get that kind of feedback. So this is a generation who sometimes needs parents to push them a little bit. You might want to grapple with them and push them in the direction of doing an activity for a month or so. That's okay. But if you have to grapple every time, it isn't okay. It is a fine line. You have to ask yourself, 'Is this working? What am I doing this for?'"
Brownstein, a Broadway fan and admitted "theatrical person," recently took Elias to see "Annie" and "Newsies," both of which she and her son loved (and her husband did not care for). While they aren't actively planning on getting Elias involved in acting classes, she says they listen to the cast albums every day, and they sing along, loudly.
For Secky, switching her son from baseball to basketball worked wonders. "I got the smile back," she says. "The double dimples. And Jaxson tells me he doesn't have any aspirations to be a professional athlete. He says, 'Mom, I want to be a doctor.'"