My Boy’s Gonna Play in the Big Leagues

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The way children are raised in a given society, and at a specific time, can give large clues about the values of that society. A study has been released that reveals much about the way children and teens are raised today, in comparison to 40 years ago. Since 1972, parents in North America have increased the amount of money they spend on their children significantly, and especially on those in their pre-teen years and those over 18. Why the increase? Likely, a large part of the reason is the prevalence and popularity of private schools, private music and art lessons, and a plethora of other activities that today’s parents can see as worthwhile and even necessary.

At the upper middle class income levels however, a disturbing trend is also emerging at the same time. The levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide are much higher at this class level than with young people from working class families. At first glance, this trend does not appear to make much sense. Shouldn’t families having more resources to register their children for private schools, lessons, and buying them whatever material goods they may need or want create healthier children? Clearly something must be occurring that goes beyond the equation of money = health and happiness.

So if you are prepared to humour me for a moment, let me speculate on one reason why these vastly different anxiety levels might be in existence. First, parents at times can be so concerned with giving their children the best possible advantages as they grow up that the child or teen’s own wishes and aspirations can become lost. Put another way, a child or teen can perceive that their own desire to be a really great auto mechanic someday (and that can be as noble a goal as any, by the way) is not regarded as important or worthy by one of their most influential support team members, the parents. It may not have been the father’s intention to ever discourage such an ambition, but it was much more important to him and his wife that his son get into a very traditional, results-based institution, and at great financial cost.

Most parents I have met (including my own), if they were prepared to spend thousands of dollars on enrolling their child in a certain school, would not accept anything less than above average marks in his/her classes. If that child puts forth what is seen as a marginal or similarly below-potential effort, a clear message about the unacceptability of a lacking effort is likely to be sent. The result? With teens especially, a feeling of being nagged or hassled is likely part of the response, along with a frustration that “my dad (or mom) runs my life”, without feeling there is an opportunity to explore, succeed, fail, and grow from the experiences.

Soon after, the degree and quality of connection between children and parents can be negatively affected, as parents can easily start to feel that they are not being given a fair return on their “investment”. As resentment builds between both parties, formerly healthy relationships can start to be defined by confrontation, arguing, and even feelings of mistrust and betrayal. This scenario is not limited simply to school either, and similar storylines can emerge from a requirement to take many different kinds of lessons simultaneously, being required to get a job while holding down straight A’s at school, or from giving teens gifts of cars, expensive bikes, or other material goods with an unspoken expectation that they will get high marks at school, for example.

Kids and teens need room to try, succeed, fail, learn how much responsibility they can handle, and find their own senses of independence as part of growing up. Parents play a large and important role in helping to introduce different privileges and activities to a child’s life, and an equally important role in providing loving accountability in learning how to handle responsibilities in a healthy way, and taking nothing for granted in life, especially that which can be bought with money. Did you know famous rock artist Rod Stewart has a son playing junior hockey in the WHL? Not only does he play hockey, but this son (Liam) insists on living with a host family, loading the equipment onto the bus like any other teammate, and earning his spot in the lineup on a nightly basis.

Asked whether he would prefer Liam have a few more perks in his life, or even take up a career less onerous than junior hockey, Rod is clear that sending more money or buying him a house or car would be counterproductive. But perhaps more importantly, it is not what Liam wants. He simply wishes to freely continue his journey by playing hockey, and on his own terms, with nothing but love and support from those most important to him.

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