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This article by David McDonough was prepared for the February 7,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Taking Back Your Kids

Good parents today simply cannot do enough for their

children. For kids not long out of diapers there is soccer on


traveling soccer on Sundays, basketball on Mondays, T-ball on


science clubs, drama enrichment programs, and chess (but not


Good parents don’t let their kids settle for a cake and ice cream

at home birthday. Instead it’s a professional magician, or a


wagon at a western theme party, or a zoologist making a presentation

at the State Museum.

"Today bragging rights is not how big your house is, or how much

your car is worth, it’s how busy your family is," says William

J. Doherty, author of "Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting

in Turbulent Times." "We have parenting as product


and parenting as a competitive sport. Just as you want to promote

your career, you want to promote your child, and make him a success.

Doherty, a marriage and family therapist for over 20 years, is a


and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the


of Minnesota. On Thursday, February 8, he speaks at Chapin School

on "Taking Back Our Kids From Today’s Hyperactive Consumerist

Lifestyle" as part of the Common Ground program of the Parent

Association of Princeton Area Independent Schools.

Just where does Doherty believe all this anxiety stems from?


he says, "It’s pretty widespread. We’ve learned a lot in the last

30 years about children’s needs and children’s development. Our


has become more competitive and parenting has now become caught up

in that."

Doherty, the son of a breadman and a housewife, grew up in

Philadelphia with two brothers and two sisters. "Parents of my

parents’ generation had lower expectations," he says. During the

summer and on weekends, his time was completely unstructured. After

school, he and his siblings got home from school at 4 p.m. and played

around the house.

It isn’t that parents didn’t overspend on their children

when he was growing up. Conspicuous consumption goes back to the

1960s, or even the ’50s. But, Doherty argues, it’s consumption of

available time and activities, not objects, that overwhelms us now.

"The word is out that it’s bad to buy your kids everything, and

spoil them," says Doherty. "Now the emphasis has shifted to

providing them with opportunities — more than one activity, more

than one sport. A mother said to me recently, explaining why her child

was in several sports and taking more than one musical instrument, `It

might be that he’s really good at something. Suppose he’s gifted in

some field and I’ve said no?’"

Just who is putting on the pressure — kids asking to do more,

or parents pushing — is up for speculation. "I think it’s

both," says Doherty, "it depends on the family. Kids want

to fit in, do what their peers do. In the case of very young children,

parents sign them up. Your four-year-old is not begging to take

gymnastics. And some parents don’t know how to say No, even though

they might

be saying to themselves, `This is getting to be too much.’ But they

can’t bring themselves to say no to a good opportunity for their


If the kid came home and said, `Can I have money for drugs?’ of


they’d say no. But traveling soccer, moving up in Scouts, these are

good things. And parents don’t know that they can say no."

If this sounds like indifferent parenting, Doherty cautions, don’t

be too quick to point the finger. "I try to avoid blaming


he says. "I think it’s a cultural thing. Each generation tries

to do its best according to an existing cultural norm."

"We operate by perception," says Doherty. "Our perception

is that our neighborhoods are dangerous and kids need activities with

adult supervision. And there is reality to that, although parents

feel that way in communities where there hasn’t been a violent crime

in decades. They see it on television and think it’s the case. Another

part of it is that in the last 10 or 15 years, child development

experts have been talking about the value of involvement in


activities. And there is good evidence for that. But that advice never

came with the caution: know when to stop."

"Many parents feel like something is seriously out of whack, but

nobody has named it," he says. "Kids are aware, perhaps not

consciously, but subconsciously, that something’s out of whack. They

feel like they’re exhausted, and nobody’s getting them off the


One teacher I know, with 30 years experience in education, refers

to this as an abused generation. We give them too much homework and

pile too many activities on top of it."

Doherty is also pleased at the level of response shown by coaches

and other directors of outside activities. "Professionals and

coaches have been doing some soul searching," he says. "We’ve

established a group, the Family Life First organization. We just gave

our first seal of approval to a youth football program in Wayzata,

Minnesota. They looked at their program and their family needs and

made a voluntary decision to cut their practice time in half. Now

we have other community programs coming to us and saying they’d like

to get the family seal of approval."

Ultimately, Doherty emphasizes, it’s up to each family and community

to decide what’s best. "In some communities where there has been

widespread discussion of this issue, some basketball leagues have

set four or five levels of intensity. Instead of how skilled you are,

it’s how involved you want to be. Parents are no longer whispering

when they decide not to have their kid on the traveling team. Now

they’re saying it out loud."

— David McDonough

William J. Doherty, Common Ground, Dittmar


Chapin School, 609-924-2449. Common Ground is a program of the Parent

Association of Princeton Area Independent Schools. Free. Thursday,

February 8, 7:30 p.m.

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