Whether they’re thinking about school violence or getting a child into the right college, American moms and dads are a pretty worried crowd. But is all that worrying really necessary? Dr. David Anderegg clarifies the facts and fantasies about kids’ lives today and the key issues that preoccupy parents. In the process, he offers a comforting and useful message: Parents are suffering needlessly — and there are things they can do to take the edge off and focus on what their children really need. Here's an excerpt of “Worried All the Time”:
INTRODUCTION: WHOSE ZEITGEIST IS IT, ANYWAY?
AS A THERAPIST, my job is to ask questions. It is what I do all day long. My patients, both children and adults, sometimes have surprising answers for my questions, but there is one that no one has been able to answer to my satisfaction. The question is: why are contemporary American parents so worried about their children?
The way I ask this question usually goes something like this: “Your children are smart, healthy, and cute; your family is fairly well-off; there are no huge storm clouds on this horizon...so, what are you so worried about?” The more general form of the question, however, is: why, even in times of relative peace and relative plenty, do American parents worry so much about their kids?
One simple answer to this question is: Parents have always worried about their kids. That’s what parents do. It is in the nature of parents of every species to protect and foster their young, and since that’s their job, that’s the thing they worry about the most. There is a reason why a protective mother used to be called a mother hen: hens do the same thing, protecting and worrying about their chicks.
But hens have a pretty hard life, compared with most of us. Keeping their chicks fed and protected requires, of hens, enormous amounts of energy. My question is why, since keeping children alive, fed, and protected from danger seems to be a lot easier for us than for most other animals and certainly a lot easier for us than for most parents in all of human history, do parents now worry so much? Why does it feel so hard?
Here we come to the first big bump in this long and bumpy road: the history question. Is it true that we worry more than others have worried, or that we worry too much? The answer to that question depends upon how one reads the zeitgeist. I believe we do worry more than parents used to worry, and we worry more than we need to. Of course, I am a person to whom people bring their worries. If I were a rock star or a field botanist I might not have this point of view, but parents’ worries are what I encounter daily, and the experience I bring to this project is twenty years’ worth of parents’ questions.
One could argue, then, that as a child therapist, my view of the zeitgeist is necessarily skewed. Since I consult all day long with people who are by definition patients, my view of normal family life must be distorted. However, as a psychologist who consults to an elementary school and a psychologist who regularly lectures about normal development to groups of parents of supposedly normal kids, I also come into contact with large numbers of parents whose children are not in treatment and do not need to be in treatment. And these parents are just as worried as the parents of my child patients.
Where else do I get my data about the zeitgeist? I belong to the great American club of parent commiserators. As a father of two children who are now young adults, I have spent years with my siblings and friends sitting around the dinner table or the supermarket aisle talking about topic A: our worries about our own children. My siblings and friends know I am a child therapist, so here, too, I probably get more than my share of uncensored worries, and more than my share of appeals for free advice. But my reading of my peers is that we’re a pretty worried group. From my days as a parent in a parent-cooperative day care center (when the worries were about vaccinations and ear infections and, most of all, toilet training) to my days sitting in the applying-to-college meetings at my children’s high school (when the worries were about aiming too high or landing too low), I have seen a lot of people obsessing about precisely how to do the best for their children.
A simple example: I am frequently asked if I believe that it is good parenting to allow children to play with toy guns. As a consultant to schools, I am exposed to many environments where toy guns are not allowed. I have met many families, in clinical settings and in casual contexts, who do not allow children to play with toy guns. I am well aware of the arguments on both sides: I do not believe that there is anything wrong with fantasy aggression, but I am certainly aware that a realistic-looking toy gun in the wrong setting can get a person killed by someone who feels threatened by what is thought to be a real gun. The banning, or not, of toy guns raises the following questions, all of which I have been asked to consider in the last two decades:
Are toy guns ever okay? Are nonrealistic guns, like ray guns, better than toy guns that look like real guns? What about squirt guns? If toy guns are not okay, what should I do when my child holds up his thumb and index finger and says, “Bang-bang”? Where did he get that idea, anyway? What about bows and arrows? Are they okay? My son’s friend has a BB gun — should I allow him to go over there? Is target shooting okay? What about paintball — is paintball okay? My son was raised to believe that guns are not okay. He was asked to go to a party where people will be playing paintball. What should I do? My son wants to be a cowboy on Halloween, and he says cowboys carry pistols. Now what? He went to a six-year-old’s birthday party, and they watched a violent movie. Should I allow him to go back there? Can I ask his best friend’s parents to put away the toy guns when my son is coming over? Will they think he is an oddball and ostracize him? Or should I just keep him home?
This is the phenomenon I call overparenting. These decisions all seem critical, but there are so many of them to make that it is easy for parents to feel overwhelmed. The choices have a tendency to multiply into an infinitude of decisions that seem like they might determine the course of our children’s lives. The “over” part of overparenting is just this: overthinking, overworrying, and eventually, overacting on the decisions arrived at in a worried state. Overparenting is trying to make perfect decisions every single time, in a world that is much more indeterminate and forgiving than most parents believe.
The people who have asked me these questions about toy guns are all trying to be the best parents they can be. But I also know that this level of complex worrying was simply not pres-ent when I was a kid. No child I grew up with had to deal with these issues, and no parent I knew then ever bothered with these questions. Whether this means they didn’t worry enough or that we worry too much is an open question, but the direction seems clear: contemporary parents worry a lot more than parents in the relatively recent past.
My other major source of data about the temper of the times is my consumption of a large quantity of the stuff dished up by the contemporary media culture. It is clear that many parents, certainly the ones I know, are voracious media consumers, and for one simple reason: they are always trying to figure out what problems everyone else is having, and what to do about them. The insularity of the nuclear family — the fact that we no longer live in extended communities where everyone knows firsthand what is going on in everyone else’s family — makes parents desperate to find out the answers to their own urgent question: is my child normal? Since we do not live in longhouses, and therefore have no direct experience of other people’s families, we need to read magazines or newspapers to tell us what other people’s children are doing. It is one of the few ways of finding out whether what theirs are doing is as alarming as what our own are doing.
But there is a problem with using the media culture as a source of normative data: it is pretty clear that in a competitive media culture, a certain amount of exaggeration is necessary to get a busy reader’s attention. As I sometimes say to parents, I wish I had a dollar for every time I have read, in the last ten years, the words “children” and “crisis” in the same sentence. I’d be set for life. The formula for the typical child-in-crisis article is to collect some scary anecdotes about what some kids are up to, and to overplay the data as if to suggest that this behavior is, somehow, the new norm. A good example is an article with the lurid title “The Sex Lives of Your Children,” by Lucinda Franks, which appeared in the February 2000 issue of Talk magazine. Although most research data, even the data quoted by Franks herself in the body of her article, controverted her claim that “they’re all doing this now,” the tone of the article makes the claim that outrageous sexual behavior is now the norm. Or how about the article by Ron Powers featured on the cover of the March 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, the one that tells the story of two teenaged murderers in Vermont but that is called “The Apocalypse of Adolescence”? This trend is consistent with the tabloidization of news in general: every petty crime is now a scandal and every thunderstorm a disaster, so it should not be surprising that news about children has gone the same way. Just as research has demonstrated over many years that big consumers of television news are likely to make errors in predicting the likelihood of violence affecting their lives, so we might expect that media consumers fed on a diet of children-in-crisis stories will overestimate the degree of crisis our children are facing; we would certainly expect such people to be more worried about raising their children than their parents were.
I sometimes enrage parents by describing myself as a “crisis agnostic.” I do not believe that American children are in crisis, with one important exception: for the 17 percent of American children who live in families with annual incomes below the poverty line, life is a constant crisis. Malnutrition, lack of access to health care, disorganized or chaotic living arrangements, substandard housing: all these things constitute a genuine crisis for children who live in poverty. If our society wants to do something about that crisis, I’m all for it. But if we use the language of crisis every time we describe all children, we debase language and we increase everyone’s mistrust of behavioral science by claiming that there is a crisis that does not exist. The issue is the difference between what we want for our children and what they need...and there is a difference.
For example, we were recently engaged in a national frenzy about bullying and teasing. People magazine trumpeted on its cover a story entitled “Bullies: The Disturbing Epidemic Behind School Violence.” Well, if it’s an epidemic, we’d better do something about it right away, because it will just...spread, as epidemics tend to do. But is bullying a crisis? Is it even a new development? Skeptics — and there are many in this discussion — point out that bullying and teasing are old news: we have always tolerated a certain amount of unfairness, or the strong taking from the weak, among our children. If we now wish to change this, if we now wish to stop tolerating this kind of unfairness, we may choose to do so because our values are changing, and that may be a very good thing. But we do not need to invent a crisis or insist that our policies must change because of the latest epidemic. If we wish to change our approach to children, we can do so without manufacturing an emergency. But the headline SOME NOW WISH TO STOP PHYSICAL INTIMIDATION, A CENTURIES-OLD PRACTICE AMONG CHILDREN makes for far less dramatic reading.
My goal is to accomplish a reasonable level of concern without adding to the tabloidization of children. So, while I know that parental worrying is widespread, I make no claims that parental worrying is a crisis for children. I think our children will survive having a bunch of worrywarts for parents. I do have some intuitions from clinical work about how all this worrying will affect our children, but the effects of parental worrying on our children are far from clear (I return to this topic in Chapter 9). My point is that, if parents are suffering needlessly, this in itself is a problem that we can try to alleviate. If this book helps parents sleep better at night, I will have achieved my goal; and if our children thrive as a result of their parents’ getting a good night’s sleep, so much the better.
THE WORRIED PARENT: WHAT ARE THE FACTS?
Are parents more worried today than they used to be? The nonprofit public information organization Public Agenda conducted a national telephone poll in December 1998 that asked the following question: “Do you think it’s much harder or much easier for parents to do their jobs these days, or do you think that it’s about the same?” Of the randomly selected respondents, 78 percent said that it is much harder for parents to do their jobs, compared with 4 percent who said it is much easier. This feeling rings true with reports I hear from parents I meet every day, but we don’t really know for sure: it might be the case that parents have always felt that raising kids at this time is harder than it used to be. Public Agenda has noted that data demonstrating historical trends is almost impossible to find, because no one seems to have been gathering data on this question until the last few years. There has not been a sense, until recently, that parental worrying is outside the range of normal; while there have always been individuals who have been worriers, described in the old days as overprotective mothers, the sense that the norms have changed is very recent. In my clinical work, I know the norms have changed: questions from parents that used to be unusual are now routine.
Social policies designed to protect children seem to have had no effect on helping parents feel less worried. Children are now affected by volumes of safety regulations that were absent even in very recent years. I am old enough to remember when cars did not have seat belts, and even when they were present, their use was not required when many of us were children. Bicycle helmets are now becoming standard, as well as helmets when kids are skiing. Childproof medicine bottles are not all that old, historically; flameproof pajamas and safety labels on toys also are now taken for granted, but are relatively recent. While these safety practices really do save lives, they don’t put us at ease; in fact, they may have the opposite effect. One might argue that the invention of childproof medicine bottles and kid-size bicycle helmets should decrease parental worrying and make contemporary parents feel calmer than parents in previous generations, but this does not appear to be the case.
MAKING WORRYING GO AWAY
The treatment of worrying is relatively complicated, but there is one point upon which most reasonable people might agree: it never helps a worrier to tell them, “Stop worrying!” or, “What’re you getting so worked up for?” or, “Lighten up!” Saying things like this might make the speaker feel better, but the admonition itself has absolutely no effect. If the worrier could stop that easily, he or she would have stopped long ago; most worriers say to themselves, several thousand times per day, Stop worrying so much! Chastising worriers as a form of treatment is not really treatment at all. It is just thinly disguised aggression. What this admonition does is shame the sufferer into silence. Today’s worried parent has received this kind of response from the culture at large: parents who are worried, and therefore “overinvolved” with their children, are ridiculed, which does not help them feel less worried or overprotective, but may make them shut up.
The lighter side of this form of shaming is contemporary humor, and humor about worried parents can be funny, especially if you’re not a parent. Jon Katz, in his Suburban Detective novels, offers up this type of social commentary in his invented New Jersey suburb of Rochambeau, a world where children get nicknames (behind their backs) like Rachel Isn’t Ready, as in “Rachel isn’t ready for overnights/PG-13 movies/cable/9 p.m. bedtimes/books that aren’t about cats or Native American myths.” Here’s Katz on the subject of Camp Night at the local elementary school:
Around me, the questions swirled: “Are the boys allowed in the girls’ camp? In the cabins? Is the exercise too strenuous? Are bedtimes enforced? Are kids allowed to bring pets/candy/Gameboys/Walkmen? How many visiting days? Are there any wild animals? Have there ever been any wild animals? Have wild animals ever bitten any of the campers?”
At the darker end of the spectrum are the vitriolic attacks upon contemporary parents that appear regularly in print media. Consider, for example, a review of new parenting magazines written by David Kamp in the June 2000 issue of GQ magazine. In a three-page outpouring of spleen, Kamp attacks contemporary parents for being concerned about parenting.
This “Oh, my God, we’re parents!” self-consciousness seems to be the way of the parenting world today, trickling down into the attitudes of post-boomer moms and dads. In his keynote address in the premiere issue of Offspring, Steven Swartz...argues that being a parent is harder now than it used to be. By the time his toddler son is 4 or 5, Swartz argues, “my wife and I will need to be experts on the new school choices — charter, magnet, at-home...And, like many parents, we do have a computer in the home, but we’re not exactly sure what we or James should be doing with it.” Well, boo-f*cking-hoo! Sure, the social context is different and the new technology has scary implications, but can it really be harder for parents now than it was when the nation wasn’t so amazingly prosperous, when there were both hot and cold wars on, when diapers weren’t disposable, when there wasn’t Sesame Street and The Lion King and Nickelodeon to turn to whenever respite was needed?
If the purpose of this article was to help parents be less anxious, my guess is it failed. People who are anxious are never helped by being ridiculed. If the purpose of this article is not to help people change their behavior, I suppose it is meant to entertain in the way that Mencken used to entertain: by inviting the reader to join the writer in feeling superior to the fool who was the butt of the joke. As a big fan of Mencken, I can get with this program, but it is not to be mistaken for a worry remedy: ridicule does nothing for the worried parent except make him or her feel angry...and more isolated.
It needs to be said at the outset that this is not what this book is about. Making fun of people who worry too much yields little in terms of understanding the worrying, and yields even less as a form of therapy. Understanding excessive worrying requires that we set aside the moralistic tone usually reserved for such discussions; it doesn’t help a worrier to be reflective when he or she is attacked for being spoiled, foolish, or self-indulgent. And it requires a little bit of effort to keep in mind that excessive worrying is something that causes suffering in parents: suffering that is both unnecessary and also very real. It may be that thinking about the big picture — the world outside the immediate family — is a necessary moral action and an effective treatment for worrying. But the question I want to address is, why is that so hard to do now?
THE WORLD AFTER SEPTEMBER 11
For Americans, the events of September 11, 2001, were a watershed in our history. The tragedies of that day changed the way Americans experienced their own worries, and their worries about their children, at least for a while. In my discussion of the events of September 11, I distinguish between people directly affected by the terrorist attacks, those who lost loved ones (including the children who lost parents), and those who were traumatized by witnessing terrible events. Certainly one could make a case for a massive case of post-traumatic stress disorder, in the sense that many of us watched the events unfolding in real time via national news media. But for those who were present at the scene and witnessed firsthand things that many of us did not, the trauma was, and will always be, of an intensity that the rest of us can experience only in nightmares.
As a child therapist living and working three hours from New York City, I was called on that day and in the days that followed to process, with my patients, those tragic events. Most people I worked with had not lost a loved one or witnessed the calamities directly. For us, at a little remove from the action, the question on everyone’s mind was how to explain this to our children. I was asked, like thousands of other child experts, to advise parents on how to speak to their children about the unspeakable, and my advice was much the same as other child experts’: let them know adults will do everything they can to protect them, help them feel safe as best you can, and limit exposure to traumatic visual images. As a child expert who participates in what is sometimes a Tower of Babel of competing or conflicting advice, I was cheered to see the virtual unanimity in what we, as a community of child experts, were advising. The children in my community had their questions answered, and settled down to some sense of normalcy pretty quickly. The parents I know were much more worried than usual, but, of course, worried about different things.
The changes in the atmosphere were profound, but also transient. And the changes in the atmosphere taught extra-ordinary things about our lives as parents, especially about our experience of control. The initial terrorist attacks were, after all, attacks on adults, and adults and children were momentarily joined in concern about their mutual safety. In my own practice, children’s concerns about parents’ safety in the days following the attacks were at least as common as parents’ concerns about children’s safety. The usual asymmetry of these concerns — that is, we, the parents, have all the power and make all the important decisions, and they, the children, benefit or suffer from our actions — was temporarily suspended. We were all, for a time, children: helpless and powerless in the face of forces way beyond our control or understanding.
I observed, in the parents I know, a curious sense of relief from worry, side by side with the profound worries about everyone’s safety. The life-or-death quality of many issues that confronted people in those weeks made all the previous worries seem less important, but the lack of personal control over events also made for a change in the kind of worrying we were all doing. As we now know, in the weeks immediately after September 11, many adults spent a little more time living in the present: wine collectors started consuming their wine collections; people started smoking again; people stopped working so hard on the future and started spending a little more time enjoying the present. There was even a baby boomlet nine months later, although we do not know if that was due to people getting going on their deferred goal of parenting or simply taking a little extra time to enjoy the present moment. Parents, too, took a little mental vacation: many parents I knew stopped worrying about homework or television, and enjoyed a short respite from limit setting and decision making.
These changes proved to be short-lived. But the changes demonstrated the immense effect that personal control has over our own sense of well-being. When the power and control was largely held by others (in this case, terrorists or the U.S. government), parents I knew were very anxious about their children’s safety. But there was a less-advertised shift toward relief from worry: since real survival was at stake for many people, all of a sudden SAT scores and navel rings, and what to do about them, became much less important. And as the sense of threat to personal survival receded, all these parenting decisions, and the worry that accompanies them, came charging back.
Excerpted from “Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It” by David Anderegg. Copyright © 2003 by David Anderegg. Published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.