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Phyllis Gordon

Jan Brady has been a poster child for the “middle child” stereotype since the “Brady Bunch” became ingrained in the American culture in the early 1970s. You might recall that Jan sometimes felt overlooked as she struggled to find her own niche and identity – caught between her ever-popular older sister, Marcia, and her younger sister, Cindy.

And while middle children are unfairly stereotyped as going through life with an insatiable craving for attention because of a perceived lack of it growing up, no birth order has been as stigmatized and maligned as much as “only children.”

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The “lonely onlies” may not have a symbolic character to perpetuate their own stereotype – that of spoiled children who become self-centered adults — but one clearly isn’t needed. Say that someone is an only child and many people will instantly associate them with those undesirable traits, even if they don’t say it. And intuitively, it doesn’t sound unreasonable. If you’ve never had to share your toys or clothes, compete for parental attention or negotiate with siblings, it doesn’t sound like such a huge leap.

But Phyllis Gordon, director of Southern’s Family Therapy Clinic, says that an overwhelming amount of research on only children does not support the stereotype. She says the stigma originates from G. Stanley Hall, an American researcher and pioneer of child psychology. After collecting data from various sources in a way that has little resemblance to today’s scientific research methods, Hall actually went so far as to say just before the turn of the 20th century that “being an only child is a disease in itself.”

Whoa! Maybe that kind of comment could fly in the late 1800s, when large families were the norm and only children were rather uncommon. But can you imagine the fallout today if a researcher were to make that “analogy” about only children, or anyone’s children?

Just in the last 50 years, the percentage of kids under the age of 18 who fall into the category of being an only child has doubled – from 10 percent to 20 percent. So, in a typical classroom of 25 students, 5 of those students are only children, on average. Yet, the popular notion continues that they tend to be spoiled.

“Virtually all subsequent research on onlies has debunked the anecdotal and meaningless findings of Mr. Hall,” Gordon says. “But many parents continue to fear that being an only child will mean a lifetime of being unhappy, selfish, spoiled, lonely and maladjusted.”

Nevertheless, Gordon says there are some distinctive characteristics among only children of which parents should be aware. After all, birth order does play a role in the development of a child’s personality. Therefore, she offers a few suggestions to parents about raising only children, keeping in mind these are based on generalities and that each child is unique.

First, don’t worry! An only child is not from another planet. And studies have shown that only children tend to feel more confident in school; score better in achievement, motivation and personal adjustment; and complete an addition year of education, on average, than their peers. And despite not having to grow up scrapping with siblings – and perhaps because of that — they tend to be more calm and patient with others. They learned early in life that their turn will come because it generally did in their more orderly childhoods.

Be extra careful about pressuring them to succeed. Only children (and first borns) tend to be self-driven and conscientious. They often apply plenty of self-imposed pressure. When they do, outside pressure can be like pouring gasoline on a fire! It could create psychological and emotional problems. Again, each child is unique and some do need a nudge, or several nudges. But be aware of this tendency among only (and first-born) children.

While only children are quite capable of making friends, it is important to give them those opportunities. Children learn some of their social skills from their siblings. So, it’s probably even more important for onlies to have opportunities to interact with other kids, whether they are play dates, after school activities or youth clubs and sports.

And just in case you needed any more assurance, just look at some of the many famous only children. They include:

• Franklin Delano Roosevelt
• Joe Montana
• Elvis Presley
• Nancy Reagan
• Ted Koppel
• Walter Cronkite
• Kareem Abdul-Jabaar
• Sammy Davis Jr.
• Laura Bush
• Maria Sharapova

The list goes on and on.

It is an unspoken right – and even social expectation — among those who have reached a certain age to express concern about the younger generations. You know the comments:

  • “Kids today just don’t have any respect for authority.”
  • “What’s going to happen when these kids start running the country? We are going to be in serious trouble.”
  • And a host of remarks that begin with something like…“When we were growing up, we didn’t have…”

But today, perhaps more than at any other time since the height of the Baby Boom Generation, parenting styles also have taken the spotlight. We hear much of what happens if you raise your children without structure and rules, and what happens if you have too much structure and too many rules. We hear about raising your kids with too much self-esteem and not enough self-esteem. And you might remember all the media attention paid to the “Tiger Mom” and how it prompted a national discussion about parenting.

Nevertheless, it is the phenomenon of Helicopter Parents that is the most discussed and analyzed by professional psychologists, family therapy experts, parents and educators. The consensus is that this type of parenting, while often well-intended, tends to do more harm than good.

bloghelicopterparentsgraphicFor those who may not have heard of the term, it refers to parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives and who tend to “micromanage” their kids’ day. In many instances, this “hyper-involvement” continues into the college years and sometimes even beyond. The consequences of this type of parenting style can include hindering kids’ ability to gain a proper amount of age-appropriate independence and to solve their own problems.

Suzanne Carroll, professor of marriage and family therapy at Southern, and Phyllis Gordon, manager of the university’s Family Therapy Clinic, are quite familiar with this trend. Both say that many people might not even be aware that they have fallen into the Helicopter Parents category. They offer four examples of how you know you are probably a Helicopter Parent:

  • You are doing homework assignments for your child or are frequently checking to make sure they’ve done them.
  • You are the one managing their responsibilities, such as doing their homework, waking up on time and attending athletic team practices.
  • You refer to your child’s team, club or organization as “we.” For example, saying that “we have a game today.”
  • You and your child are communicating too frequently, such as with multiple texts and/or phone calls each day.

Carroll and Gordon are not in any way suggesting that parents should be oblivious to their children’s lives. On the contrary, they underscore the importance of showing concern for their children’s well-being. But being overly involved in their lives can create long-term problems. Here are some suggestions that Carroll and Gordon offer to strike that balance of being a responsible mom or dad without being a Helicopter Parent:

  • Set REALISTIC goals and expectations with your child, based on their age and abilities.
  • Work with your child to make a plan (if needed), on how to meet those goals/expectations.
  • Step back. Have your child take responsibility for meeting those goals/expectations.
  • Be prepared to renegotiate.
  • Let your child accept the natural consequences of their efforts.

Carroll and Gordon recognize that resisting the inclination of parents to “fix” their children’s every problem or task can be difficult – especially at first. After all, it is perfectly natural for parents not to want to see their children struggle. And, of course, there are times when swift parental intervention is necessary. But a consistent pattern of micromanaging can have significant consequences as a child gets older and enters the world of adulthood.

“Remember, parenting is the illusion of control,” Carroll says.

For additional reading about the phenomenon of Helicopter Parents, check out a recent column written by Anne Michaud, interactive editor at Newsday.