Last week, MSNBC’s “The Cycle” interviewed Dr. Madeline Levine, psychologist and author of Teach Your Children Well, whose best-selling text calls into question the dominant ideologies of today’s parenting ideals. Levine remarks “What’s overparenting? It’s doing what your kid can already do and can technically do” and confusing the parents’ needs with the children’s. The challenge with letting children exercise their abilities and near-abilities is essentially one of parental peer pressure.
My 3-year-old, for instance, can put on her own shoes. She so consistently puts each shoe on the wrong foot that I think she prefers them that way; it’s not unsafe and it doesn’t seem to bother her in the slightest, but strangers often comment on it, and their underlying (and sometimes not so subtle) message is that I should have fixed it. In the world of competitive parenting, her shoes reflect on me and my mothering. Yet correcting my daughter every time she puts on her shoes seems to me like a waste of both our time and an indication that I don’t trust her ability to do something she’s both capable and proud to do herself.
Levine might say that in not reacting to the parental pressure to make my child look “perfect” (so that I can win a “best mommy way to put those shoes on” trophy), I am building my daughter’s confidence and her resilience — two traits she will need in abundance to navigate life’s many pitfalls. Levine might also broach the topic of “authentic success,” one of her hallmark phrases that says we humans can tell the difference between looking successful (both shoes on the right feet) and actually feeling that success within ourselves (mastering self-dress). The former relies on external validation and support to feel worthwhile, while the latter is a confidence that comes from actual competence.
I think Levine is right to note the difference, and it’s something I see beyond my daughters to my college classrooms as well. There are students who are creative, resourceful, interesting, engaged, and invested in their educations, and there are students who seem to be solely going through the motions, looking for a formula to get the best possible grade, feeling no sense of accomplishment at achieving good grades and looking for someone to blame if they earn “bad” ones. The difference has little to do with GPAs and much to do with character.
In this interview, Levine urges parents to take action, to muster the courage to defy the social and educational systems that prioritize easily quantifiable achievements over health, character, and relationships. The bottom line, Levine argues, is that children within this quantifiable framework are suffering emotionally, psychologically, physically, intellectually, and, I would add, spiritually, because their lives are reduced to a series of numbers and they engage in constant competition. Parents can step back, and instead of contributing to the ceaseless competition and worrying about how our children’s so-called achievements reflect on us, consider what values we might be reflecting for them.
When my daughter is not practicing with her shoes, I’ve been spending time memorizing Galatians 5:22-23 with her — the fruits of the Spirit. She keeps asking me about the “no law” part at the end, because the way I pronounce it sounds to her like “la.” “But baby sister says ‘la’ and sometimes we call her ‘lala,’ so there is some ‘la’,” she insists. Right, I explain, but it means there’s never anything wrong with being loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, self-controlled, or gentle. Those are always good and fruitful things, and I know as a parent, that’s far better for me to reflect on than an IQ test, SAT score, or GPA.