My cousin’s daughter Hania started primary school this year. In bundle with schooling experience came an enormous offer of additional classes. Considering Hania’s interests, time to dispose and financial situation her parents choose three after school activities. One day, when picking up Hania from school, Ewa was stopped by another mother and asked whether Hania is going to also attend robotics. When Ewa said no, explaining that Hania was spending too much time at school, the woman gave her a look of disapproval and said that there is no harm for a child to have a day filled with valuable activities.
All parents face such questions from school, alongside many other forms of social pressure.
One fear is that our child will feel excluded from the successful group of children, who are doing great in such and such subject. Another fear is we don’t want our children to miss out or become outsiders.
As parents we are also aware that our children speak for ourselves – if they don’t attend the classes, it raises questions among other parents and teachers: is it because they can’t afford it? is it because of neglect and ignorance? don’t they care about their child’s development? don’t they want to be part of our elite group?
These might be common experiences about the way other parents perceive our choices, especially in the era of parenting becoming the competitive and anxiety provoking venture. Our culture plays on parental insecurities instead of supporting confident and independent choices.
As Frank Furedi points out in his book Paranoid Parenting: ‘You can’t do too much for your kids’ – this sentence became an unquestionable rule, standing behind the pressure which parents put on themselves and each other. (This of course is a middle and upper class phenomena, which drives a huge gap between parents and schools from lower social class areas who for complex reasons don’t engage in this social pressure.)
But just because something becomes a social norm, doesn’t mean it’s true or more accurate than our own different judgement. The sad fact though still remains: far too often the social wins, even over reasonable arguments.
Social research on conformity
One of the most famous and well documented psychological experiments shows the power of conforming to the norm. In short, Solomon Ash (experiment first conducted in 1950′) was asking participants to complete a very simple ‘perceptive task’ – that is – they needed to asses the length of three stripes B, C, D and point the one which has the same length as stripe A. One stripe was obviously of the same length and the other two clearly differed. Apparently, in the presence of the group of people who were pointing at the wrong answer, most of participants answered against common sense, against what they saw and what they initially thought was right, conforming to the voice of majority.
This experiment gives us a clue about the nature of conformity to the social norm, but also reveals that social knowledge is not always about what’s true, valuable, really good, realistic, etc. and it ignores diversity; some children will thrive in competitive and busy cultures, others will not.
The other clue which adds emotional dimension to this cognitive distortion which happens between people is a term used by Frank Furedi to describe the social phenomenon standing behind extra classes, and other issues involving contemporary parenting. It’s hyper-parenting –
the conglomerate of anxiety, competitiveness and a desire to be a good parent, with our own needs to make a statement about ourselves through parenting role. This is a powerful emotional trigger to join the queue to gymnastic classes, to drag our children to extra maths and violin and spending money which we don’t have on activities which supposed to proof how good we are.
The obvious part which can be lost in all this madness is children’s well being. Is it really that good for them to have all the time occupied and no space for unsupervised play? It’s not only the voice of common sense but also of the specialists in childhood development: the best way to develop creativity and to learn social skills is play among peers and time free of any tasks – time which give children chance to feel bored and discover how to then manage it through imagination and creativity, to make some fun in an empty space.
There is more important source of making decisions about our children, than social pressure and this is a good faith and a sincerely asked question: what is the best for my child?
In the experiment with stripes, there was a small percentage of people who resisted social pressure. They were very confident people. It might be easy to figure out but in the parenting matter this is the key to the problem: trusting yourself and being confident in your judgement is the only way to resist and to reshape hyper-parenting culture into the direction which is good both for parents and children’s wellbeing.