Oct 15, 2014

    Parents, fret less and sleep more

    I RECENTLY spent the afternoon with some Norwegians who are making a documentary about French child-rearing. Why would people in one of the world's most successful countries care how anyone else raises kids?

    In Norway, "we have brats, child kings, and many of us suffer from hyper-parenting. We're spoiling them", explained the producer, a father of three.

    I used to think that only Americans and Brits did helicopter parenting. In fact, it's now a global trend. Middle-class Brazilians, Chileans, Germans, Poles, Israelis, Russians and others have adopted versions of it too.

    The guilt-ridden, sacrificial mother - fretting that she's overdoing it, or not doing enough - has become a global icon.

    In Parenting With Style, a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti said intensive parenting springs from rising inequality, because parents know there's a bigger payoff for people with lots of education and skills.

    Hyper-parenting is also driven by science. People around the world are breeding later in life, when they're richer and more grateful, so the whole parenting experience becomes hallowed.

    Twenty-first century parenting isn't entirely illogical. Rather than trying to eradicate it, I suggest a strategy of containment: Rein in its excesses and keep it from getting worse.

    Based on my own research, here are some key things modern parents should know - Toddlers understand language long before they can talk. This means you can teach them not to pummel you with carrots at dinnertime, making your life calmer.

    Seize windows of freedom joyfully, without guilt. Remember that the problem with hyper-parenting isn't that it's bad for children; it's that it's bad for parents.

    The greatest insight to emerge from France since "I think, therefore I am" is that children's birthday parties should be drop-offs. The other parents get three hours to go off and play.

    Don't just parent for the future, parent for this evening. Your child probably won't get into the Ivy League or win a sports scholarship. At age 24, he might be back in his childhood bedroom, in debt, after a mediocre college career. Raise him so that, if that happens, it will still have been worth it.

    Try the sleeping cure. Most parenting crises are caused by exhaustion. Force yourself to observe the same night-time rituals as your toddler: Bath, book, bed.

    Have less stuff. Messiness compounds the chaos of family life.

    Don't worry about overscheduling your child. Kids who do extracurricular activities have higher grades and self-esteem than those who don't, said a 2006 overview in the Society for Research in Child Development's Social Policy Report.

    Don't beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfect work-life balance.

    Teach your kids emotional intelligence. Explain that, for instance, not everyone will like them.

    Transmit the Nelson Mandela rule: You can get what you want by showing people ordinary respect. When Mr Mandela heard that an Afrikaner general was arming rebels to prevent multiracial elections, he invited the general over for tea. Journalist John Carlin writes that Constand Viljoen "was dumbstruck by Mandela's big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail" and by his sensitivity to the fears of white South Africans. The general abandoned violence. Remind your kids that this technique also works on parents.

    Don't bother obsessing about what you think you're doing wrong. You won't screw up your kids in the ways you expect; you'll do it in ways you hadn't even considered. No amount of hyper-parenting can change that.