Monday, 10 August 2015

The dangers of Bonsai parenting (2015 Term 3 Week 5)

It is not difficult to make parents feel guilty; a friend once likened it to shooting fish in a barrel! The guilt trips can come from any number of sources. Previous generations of parents run commentary, our peers may communicate judgment and our children can cut us deeply in their words and actions. In addition, there is never a shortage of research, experts and articles in the popular media or online that point out the issues that we parents need to consider. I came across another one on the weekend!

Being conscious of the dangers of bombarding you with parenting advice, I cast my mind back over the topics that I have covered in this blog this year; I fear I may have contributed to the barrage of parenting advice that overwhelms us. I have written on the need for more sleep, the perils of listening to music while studying, raising children with good body-image, the perils of social media, the need to cultivate resilience in children, and wise parenting with reference to alcohol. I do apologise if this input has weighed you down; it was certainly not the intention! What I hope to achieve is to reflect on issues to do with our children that manifest themselves in the context of the school community.

The article that caught my attention was titled Bonsai parenting: Why so many children end up in therapy; it was prompted by the publication of a new book by Judith Locke. The book is the popular version of her doctoral work, based on research with school counsellors, psychologists, parents and children. Although I have not yet read the book, a number of elements in the article resonated.

According to the article, Locke observes that parents have a legitimate and well-founded desire for their children to be happy. However, this translates to them 'over-parenting' by being too involved in their children's lives, constantly trying to solve their problems and harbouring unrealistic expectations of their potential.

There are subtleties in this issue that need to be considered. As a society we have made great progress in our understanding of, and sensitivity to, mental health issues amongst children and adolescents. It is certainly a good thing that there are specialists who are able to provide support to those who need it and early intervention is helpful in many contexts. 

Quoting from the article, Locke's focus appears to be more directed towards those children who are reared in extremely controlled environments and assiduously cultivated by their parents. There is an over-emphasis on the child's happiness, and an expectation they will excel at life, which can breed anxiety and perfectionism in the child. Locke says a bonsai upbringing stunts children's development, as they never learn how to adapt to different or difficult circumstances. They grow up anxious, overly dependent on others, lack resilience, have poor life skills and can behave badly. "A child who has been given the perfect childhood can't cope with the less than perfect realities of adult life," Locke says. (Emphasis mine).

In my role I see this sort of over-parenting from time to time. One key one is the readiness and vehemence with which some parents can contact the school to advocate for their child, whether it be regarding a mark/grade received, a detention issued, a playground dispute or a sporting or creative arts selection. 

I do not believe that there is never a place for parents to intervene on behalf of their child, but I fear that we get involved too quickly. Our children need to experience disappointment, frustration and difficulty in the small-scale world of childhood, so that they develop the capacity to cope with adult challenges. They need to fight their own battles and climb their own mountains. Parental support is often best expressed through coaching and support, rather than through direct management and intervention.

This article has not been written because of any single incident or issue and it is certainly not intended to heap guilt onto the burdened shoulders of any parent. Rather, it is offered as a stimulus for consideration as we continue to work together to shape young people who will have the capabilities for resilience and resourcefulness that will enable them to thrive in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.


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