I recently had lunch with a friend who expressed concern that her elementary school-aged child needed to "get back on track" to apply to an Ivy League university. She was afraid that her kid wasn’t signed up for the right sport, playing enough musical instruments, participating in enough volunteer activities or enriched in the most optimal activities.
I wanted to ask, “Really? Is your child expecting a Harvard acceptance for their middle school years?” But I decided against such snark. My friend had her own reasons for caring about her young child’s future college plans. But I also wondered if this friend had been influenced by the messages of the modern day best-kid-ever parenting advice.
I wondered if she was afraid that failing to raise the happiest, most successful, most confident child ever would mean she failed as a parent.
Too often, parenting advice frames child-rearing as some sort of race to perfection. Authors make sweeping claims about the cultures (first the French, then the Danish, and now the Dutch) that produce the happiest children. Media stories recount, with a sense of breathless discovery, the “keys” to raising the healthiest children, the most successful students, the best prepared college applicants. We are urged to do all that we can to ensure our children are maximized in every way.
It’s as if our job as parents is to produce tiny superlative superhumans.
But there's a difference between wanting the best for our children, and wanting them to be the best.
We need to stop thinking about our parenting in terms of achievement.
Our lives might become a lot less stressful—and, dare I say, a lot more meaningful—if we and the parenting advice-givers of the world acknowledged that the former does not require the latter. Expecting this kind of existence from ourselves and for our children is a fool’s errand. The only likely result, it seems, is disappointment.
This best-kid-ever mentality places unreasonable expectations on parents and children alike. It asks parents to arrange their lives around their children. Sometimes it assumes that parents will view their children as extensions of themselves where a child’s achievements become representative of their parents’ success. Moreover, this mentality asks children to exist in a constant state of performance and evaluation. The things they should do for enjoyment become the things that require private tutors, special coaches, intense training.
So what should we do instead?
We need to stop thinking about our parenting in terms of achievement. We need to shift our focus away from what sort of pregnancy we achieve, what type of birth we achieve and whether we find “success” with breastfeeding, sleep training, teaching early letter recognition and so on, and instead focus on what's truly meaningful to us and our families. We need to make decision that reflect our real values.
Most importantly, we need to dig deep and answer the question: What is a good life? Is it something we achieve through maximization and optimization? Does it require us to be the best, the smartest, the happiest, and so on? Probably not.
I hope my friend’s kid gets into an Ivy League school some day. But more than that, I hope that their kid has a good life—one filled with beauty, joy and meaning.
And you definitely don't need to be the best kid ever to achieve that.