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Fighting the Transformation From Mellow Summer Mom to School-Year Shrew, With Help From Madeline Levine

09/12/2012 02:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2012

School began again for my three teenagers last week and already dread interrupts my enjoyment of the long, quiet days. Don't get me wrong: I can bear parting with them each morning. What haunts me is the certainty that another school year will bring out the anxious suburban mother in me who feels compelled to play the family scold. Better start your college essay. Have you emailed your counselor about recommendations? Your grades count this semester, so study like you mean it. It's time to get serious!

Like the werewolf who senses his impending transformation, I am fighting to keep that awful nagging wench from devouring mellow summer Mom. Fortunately for me, child psychologist and author Madeline Levine, who wrote The Price of Privilege, recently came out with a worthy sequel. In Teach Your Children Well, Levine takes aim at the ugly werewolf skulking within. She argues that parents in well-off communities around the country behave like the boards of public companies, sacrificing our children's long-term health for more gratifying short-term performance. Obsessing over grades, extracurricular achievements, standardized test scores and admission to elite colleges, trembling parents disregard their kids' emotional and intellectual health in pursuit of externalized success. Levine's experience as a clinical psychologist in affluent Marin County, California, has provided her intimate access to the special suffering of these privileged but damaged kids.

Though the themes she explores are familiar--Levine is part of a growing chorus of experts who sing the same refrain--she states her case with such clarity and authority that guilty parents will find it hard to hide. What especially sets this book apart is Levine's unflinching condemnation of the parenting excesses she sees, even while convincing us that she understands our good intentions. In one typically blunt passage, Levine writes that parents' relentless fixation on achievement in their children has corrupted their basic obligation to their kids : "Our most important job--to provide a calm, secure, and loving haven for our children as they go about the challenging business of growing up--has been utterly compromised."

She claims that "authentic success" is measured in terms of well-being, that amorphous sense of being content with who you are and what you do, which is wholly unrelated to grades, the reputation of the college or university you or your children attend, or your bank account. Well-being is more likely to occur when a child's sense of self is allowed to develop in the right environment: in a home that nurtures while providing boundaries and opportunities to fail, and a culture that allows for imperfection. Well-being isn't happiness, which is fleeting, or self-esteem, the misguided pursuit of which has built a generation of narcissists. For Levine, well-being comes from the competencies one develops over a lifetime--like resourcefulness, enthusiasm, creativity, work ethic, and self-control--all qualities that can be cultivated, and which contribute to authentic success and earned self-esteem.

This all makes perfect sense, and it's easy to imagine Levine's readers nodding their heads in violent agreement, even in a community like mine where the pursuit of grades/college/money is at its most fevered. If we know this is true, why then, do so many of us needle and nag our kids to step it up?

Levine argues that emotional baggage from our own childhoods often taints how we, the parents, interpret what our children do. We react to the uncomfortable feelings our kids trigger by erecting elaborate psychological defenses that block our ability to see what's right in front of us. We protect ourselves by denying problems that are hiding in plain sight, and blaming or projecting our frustrations onto others, because confronting reality can be too painful.

All the while, we adopt the norms of our peer groups, which in many upper-middle class communities translates, in short, to more is better: more tutoring, more A.P.s, more travel teams, more community service, more achievements. After awhile, all the excess gets normalized, so that when your kid spends the summer braiding lanyards at Y camp or lifeguarding at the town pool, you, the parent, have some splainin' to do. What did little Johnny do this summer? becomes a loaded question.

Another motivating force behind much of the extreme parenting Levine observes is the class anxiety that drives it. Americans don't like to talk about class. We tell ourselves that class divisions are by-gone relics of our European roots, a false and snotty way of ordering people that makes no sense in our democratic society. But humans can't help classifying themselves, no matter the political system they inhabit. The late historian and cultural critic Paul Fussell, author of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, put it this way: "Despite our public embrace of political and judicial equality, in individual perception and understanding--much of which we refrain from publicizing--we arrange things vertically and insist on crucial differences in value."

For many of us, this determination to attain status requires slogging up a steep hill that's full of tests and challenges. On this journey, the weak are winnowed out, so that those who arrive at the top appear most deserving of their high perch. However, there will be no resting on laurels: high status is never static, and if it can be earned, it can be lost, and so must be regularly attained. "Nowhere do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation," Tocqueville wrote. Here in America, we forever strive to distinguish ourselves from our inferiors.

Status anxiety goes a long way toward explaining the hysteria Levine explores surrounding admission to elite colleges, and to parents' over-investment in their children's athletic prowess, another peculiarly American phenomenon. Both achievements have the advantage of being visible, which make them more likely to be recognized by others, while also allowing parents to shine in the reflected glory of their kids' efforts. In my town, every other Volvo and Audi at Shop-Rite is festooned with decals from Georgetown, Wake Forest, or Duke--elite colleges being the ultimate brand--and more often than not a bumper sticker advertising a club lacrosse or swimming team hovers nearby.

Worry about social standing explains why parents will secretly empty their pockets for individual coaches who can elevate their own child's game, but will scream bloody murder if extra league, tournament, or coaching costs are levied on whole teams. If everyone's special, no one is special--so pay someone to differentiate your own kid, whether it's a retired pro-basketball player who can model for Tyler how to make lefty lay-ups, or a local physics professor who will steer Caitlin into the Honors class ahead of her peers. Of course we want our children to grow up with a sense of well-being, honest status-seeking parents will confess. But would it be so awful if they also had a degree from Cornell and a job at McKinsey? Alas, stellar credentials may equate with success, but they don't deliver well-being.

Levine's antidote to the psychological traps we fall into is to look inward. "If there's a heartbeat to this book," she tells us in the powerful last section, "it's about the value of self-reflection." By examining our own childhoods, we'll better understand our unique areas of vulnerability, which will help us see our children for who they are--not mini-me's, proxies, or opportunities for do-overs, but individuals with their own temperaments, interests, and strengths. A little self-reflection might also help us tame the status seeker within, or at least recognize when that longing for top-dog standing corrupts our ability to best care for our children, especially those not born in Lake Wobegon, where all the kids are above average.

Understanding ourselves better might also help us listen to our kids. If we did, we might insist they take a season off soccer when their hamstring won't heal, or demand that they drop a level in math if nightly homework means two hours of hair pulling and tears. We might encourage our kids to explore their own interests, rather than impose them from above, even if they prefer Legos to lacrosse. And we might allow them to stumble every now and then, and even fall. If we do that, our children just might be equipped when life gets actually hard--not pretend hard, like getting cut from Varsity or wait-listed at Penn--so when Mommy and Daddy aren't there to rescue them, they'll find their way up again.