How To Avoid Being "That" Parent
Why we need to ease up on our kids — and how to do it.
This is the free edition of Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist, professional speaker and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
First, a quick reminder that I’m running a 30% off sale through January for paid subscriptions for the first year! Don’t miss out on this opportunity to get more great content and support. In this week’s subscriber-only thread, we’ve been sharing our favorite comfort food recipes. I can’t wait to cook some of them this weekend.
Over the holidays, I read a book I’ve had on to-read list for months: The Parent Compass, written by college admissions expert Cynthia Muchnick and educational consultant Jenn Curtis. It’s a wonderful book that dissects the ways in which modern parents are often overbearing — pressuring kids to get good grades, rescuing them from challenges, hiring too many tutors — and explains why these well-meaning approaches are actually counterproductive. But the best part is that the book also provides a clear roadmap for parents on how to ease up on domineering instincts so that our kids can find their voices and flourish.
Cindy, Jenn and I met over Zoom last week and had a fascinating conversation about some of the key insights from their book. The below Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What inspired The Parent Compass? What made you say, “We need to write this book”?
Jenn: Cindy and I have been colleagues for many years — close to 15 now. In March of 2019, when the college admissions scandal was pasted all over the news, we called each other in horror. We started to talk about what we were seeing in our community and in our own practices — which was parenting behavior that had gotten out of control. We weren't seeing anything that was really amounting to fraud or bribery, but we were seeing parents that were overstepping, over-managing, over-tutoring. We were seeing a lot of really burned out kids, and we weren't seeing these important skills that we really wanted to see in kids, which were self-advocacy skills and grit and resilience, and an embrace of failure and a zest for exploration. Those things were sort of going by the wayside, along with kids’ motivation. So we were piecing together these parenting patterns that we were seeing — the parenting patterns that were impacting these kids’ wellbeing in a negative way, and the parenting patterns that were really impacting kids in a positive way. We started to discover that we had a message to get out there. We felt strongly about helping parents to parent better, particularly as it relates to our ever increasing hyper-competitive academic environment. And that's really where The Parent Compass was born.
How do you know if you’re one of those overbearing parents? I imagine most parents think “no, that’s not me.”
Cindy: The way I would put it now is: You just don't want to be “that” parent. The one you’ve seen on the sidelines, at sports or at back-to-school nights. And if you are exhibiting some of this behavior, you need to know why you need to pull back — because it's having a direct impact on your kids’ mental health, on their ability to speak for themselves, on their ability to make their own choices.
Jenn: I think what it really what it boils down to, if I could use one word, is “control.” We hold those reins so tightly. We don't want to relinquish control. But in doing so, we're communicating to our kids that we're not really willing to see them for who they are. And that we're not letting them be their own little people.
Cindy: Control, yes, and the other one would be “trust.” At some point, you have to trust that kids can make their own decisions. And that even if they fail, you're going to be right there — what's the harm? Failure is good. It's healthy to have those feelings of failure, of missing the mark, and to learn those coping skills of how to pick yourself up and brush yourself off, that you're going to be okay.
Why is it so hard for us to relinquish control? What is driving us to be so domineering?
Cindy: I think a big part of what's driving it is parental pride that your kid is a reflection and extension of you, that their mistakes must be your mistakes. And that this world that we're living in is this hyper-competitive world. All of this comes from a place of love. We love our kids, and we want to provide for them. But that love is manifesting itself in ways that are really unhealthy for our kids.
Jenn: Another place I think it comes from is misinformation. I will see parents who come in, and if their kids do not have perfect extracurricular activities and straight A's, they have heard misinformation that their kid is not going to go to college. And that if they don't go to college, then they're not going to have a good job. And our message in The Parent Compass is that what parents are doing, by having so much control and micromanaging, is counterproductive to the end goal. Because then their kids cannot function in the real world.
Cindy: The other big buzzword that's going around is “perfectionism.” Kids feel there's this formula and this expectation, and this requirement, and this very heavy weight on their shoulders that their parents are expecting perfection. We have to somehow dial this back. With these kids in competitive environments, the suicide rates are higher, depression rates are higher — it's pretty scary.
One detail of your book that I found really surprising is that tutoring is not always helpful. Why is that?
Cindy: This is such a hot button issue right now. Parents feel like hiring a tutor will give kids this extra edge or this extra support. But once kids have the tutor, they rely on them to get them through homework and schoolwork. My kids can tell which kids have tutors, because they get all their homework done, and they get it done relatively quickly — but then they don't do well on the test because the tutor is not there to take the test with them.
I think anything that's done in moderation seems fine. It's this excess, where you have a tutor for multiple subjects — to have all these adults helping to manage the kids’ life just gets completely away from what our goal is here, which is to have self-sufficient, self-advocating kids who can speak for themselves.
So how can parents shift from being overbearing to more relaxed and supportive? What are some tangible actions we can take?
Jenn: My two biggest hints would be around self-advocacy and listening skills. Often, if a kid comes to a parent with a problem, or a complaint, the parent will jump right in and try to fix it. But instead, I think we can be teaching our kids that we trust them to problem-solve, and that we hear them for what they're telling us, but that we don't have an agenda. There's a whole section in The Parent Compass that talks about zipping your lips — we found a quote recently that points out that “listen” and “silent” have the exact same letters in them, just in a different order. So that is something for parents to keep in mind — we can be quieter more often than we think we can. We can trust our kids to solve problems for themselves.
Also, I think we can start early on with teaching self-advocacy skills. I’ve seen kids come into my office, and their parents will just talk for them and talk over them all the time, and the kids have no voices and no opinions. I started with my kids at a really early age with two things in particular: One was, when we go to a restaurant, my kids know that I am not going to ask for a coloring page for them. If they want to color, they can ask for their coloring page. And when the server comes to the table to take their order, they know that they need to look the server in the eye and order for themselves. Also, my kids know that when we go to the doctor, they get a first pass at telling the doctor why we're there — what hurts or what's wrong. Sure, I'm probably going to need to jump in and fill in a few blanks when they're done. But they get to say it first. The more you can teach them that they have a voice and that that voice is valued, the more they're going to start to internalize that and use their voice.
On Tuesday I had a fantastic time chatting with the Parents League of New York about my book. The event had over 100 remote attendees! Keep in mind that you can hire me to talk to your organization — whether it’s a school, parents’ group, community organization or non-profit. Reach out to me even if you’re not sure what you’re looking for! I’d be happy to brainstorm with you.