Parents, take a deep breath

In Bel-Air one bright and cold morning, a full crowd of moms, wearing sumptuous knee-high boots and beautiful sweaters, gathers in a church to hear Ashley Merryman, coauthor of the child development book "NurtureShock." After one mother asks about letting her son wait to start soccer, another wonders whether the late-starter might be too far behind to be competitive. At age 7.

Across town at USC, it doesn't take long for the small talk to turn to college among a small group of parents waiting on a Saturday for an advanced high school art class to let out. As one mother tells of her daughter's interviews with Princeton and Brown and her expectation not only of acceptance but also of financial aid, anxiety ripples almost visibly.

And every morning, children up to eighth grade walk to a mid-city Catholic school, their hands free. Nearby, their parents lug the lunchboxes, backpacks and class projects.

The hovering, worrying, competing and fear that inhabit many parents from the birth of their children well into college are alive and kicking. Didn't parents get the message? Expert after expert has advised them to calm down, back off a little, allow children to gaze at the stars rather than sign them up for a summer astronomy course. Plenty of outrage greeted "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," author Amy Chua's my-way-or-the-highway style, but the desire for children to have the best lives possible is still translating to heavily involved parents full of anxiety.

The battalions of mothers — and they're mostly mothers — managing their children's lives these days are talking about their anxiety. They see the frighteningly stressed children in "Race to Nowhere," a film in which teen after teen talks about how his or her life is all college prep and no play. They test their homes for hazards such as radon, and they provide lists of foods children may not have during playdates.

"There seems to be a conversation going on. It's kind of coming to a head," Merryman said. But no one knows yet how — or if — parents will change their behavior.

"I don't see the pendulum moving that much. There's still a lot of anxiety," said Joanna Port, the executive director of a new organization called the Parents Education League of Los Angeles http://www.parentseducationleague.org which means to help parents through one of their most anxiety-producing decisions: choosing schools.

"Most of my parents are just scared," said Sonya Gohill, a pediatrician in Brentwood. "Scared they're going to do the wrong thing, not do enough, they're going to miss the boat. It's like they're in competition from the minute their kids are born. Whose kid is crawling first, and why does my kid just sit here in my lap?"

Parents hire doulas, night nurses, nannies, camp consultants, batting coaches, SAT tutors. They try to be deeply attuned to every pimple in their child's life path and scurry to remove it. They fret they've destroyed their 4-year-old's future if she doesn't gain acceptance to the Center for Early Education in West Hollywood.

They fear predators, or that kids are having oral sex at bar mitzvah parties, or that only 10 colleges in the country are worth going to, said Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" and "The Blessing of a B Minus," at a recent talk to parents at the private Westside Neighborhood School. She knows of a school where the washcloths were red so that children who got cut were protected from the sight of blood.

College officials are calling students "teacups" and "crispies" — the former so overprotected they're fragile, the latter pushed so hard they're burned out, said Mogel, a clinical psychologist.

Unable to let go

"If there was one piece of advice I could give, it would be to relax a little," said Susan Engel, the mother of three grown sons and a developmental psychologist at Williams College in Massachusetts. She wrote the new book "Red Flags or Red Herrings" to offer insight into the research about what parents can change and what they cannot.

Her first sentence reads: "You cannot dictate who your children will become."

It's a "dangerous myth, especially among middle-class parents," Engel told a group of mothers, that if you just parent well enough, make all the right decisions about schools, discipline, activities, friendships, "that you can fix your child, that you can tailor a child. But you can't."

So why are so many parents unable or unwilling to banish their anxiety?

"I think most parents really want to do the right thing," said Leslie King, a licensed clinical social worker and counselor at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. "But when they hear all the opportunities other parents may be giving their children, their own hearts get lost, even parents who have that feeling that enough is enough."

To some extent, the irrational nature of anxiety is to blame, said David Anderegg, a psychologist and author of the book "Worried All the Time."

"Anxiety thrives on superstition. If you worry about something happening, and it doesn't happen, there's a part of our irrational mind that feels it didn't happen because we worried about it," he said. "So worrying is very, very hard to give up in any domain."

And some anxiety has a purpose.

"If you think about what makes parents anxious, there's sort of a biological propensity for parents to be worried about and protect their children. That makes sense evolutionarily," said Wendy Grolnick, a professor at Clark University in Massachusetts who has studied families. "Parents who didn't [worry] had kids who died and got eaten by the lions."

The lions of the 21st century are just as voracious, if figurative. Add an uncertain economy, world instability and fears for the environment and the fact that only a tiny percentage of children will ever go to an Ivy League school, and it's no wonder there's so much apprehension.

"Right now the level of competition that's in our environment is just unprecedented," Grolnick said. "You now have to compete in community service, to help people! My kids are applying to help someone and worrying about if they will get in."

Survival of the fittest

In some circles, talking about that competitive feeling — perhaps insomnia over whether your child will make the travel soccer team — is more taboo than talking about sex, Grolnick said.

"For my patients, I have a lot of moms who are extremely well-educated, who were practicing lawyers or have their MBAs," said Gohill, the Brentwood pediatrician. "And they've retired to be stay-at-home moms. They're rechanneling their energy. Their kids are their project. The outcome is so important because they've put so much time and effort into it."

And with just one or two kids, how dare they fail?

It's not that a child-centered society is new. In this country, after World War I, the idea of motherhood as a vocation took hold, Ann Hulbert writes in her history of child-rearing, "Raising America." She also notes that the term "smother love" was invented early in the last century. Of course, the suggestion to relax alsohas been made before, coming perhaps most famously from Dr. Spock, who in 1946 reassured parents, "You know more than you think you do."

But for many parents, their sense of doing it right is so fragile that every new theory offers an opportunity to second-guess the last one they latched onto. Chua faced vitriol for her "Tiger Mom" approach, but at the same time, parents wondered along with her whether they should have let their kid quit the piano.

The achievement race is the domino theory of parenting, Merryman said. Baby boom parents worry that their "boomlets" will face a scarcity of spots in good high schools and colleges, so they have to make their kids more appealing from an early age.

The children of the 1960s filled out their own college applications, maybe two or three of them. Today, children as young as 14 (ninth grade) are touring colleges and practicing SATs; parents provide more and more "unique" experiences, hoping that organic farming in the inner city might make an appealing college essay to at least one of the 10 or more schools where their children apply.

Hollywood, Engel said, contributes to parents' anxiety.

Today's models of motherhood have morphed from the lovingly lackadaisical, overworked mom in the sitcom "Roseanne" to devoted star mothers — Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow, for example — who appear to keep their figures and their tempers while they act in films and raise gorgeously clad youngsters.

Parents Education League's Port has four elementary school children, too many to allow for helicopter parenting, she said with a laugh. They walk to their public school, and the older ones get to choose one activity. Her daughter had to pick between musical theater and Girl Scouts.

But even Port looks ahead to college with anxiety.

"You have to be a superstar. You can't just get straight A's," she said. "So it feeds down."

Barbara Osborn, director of strategic communications at Liberty Hill, a social justice-oriented foundation and mother of a 7-year-old girl, said parents have good reason to be "incredibly anxious" about schools.

She also notes how hard it is to be a working parent. "I see how humorless parents are. We drop off our kids and the parents look so grim. It's the working mother thing. I do think it's unbelievably difficult."

Experts say anxiety is not limited to families who can afford lessons and vacations and tutors. Rather than worry about a private school, parents with few financial resources may worry about lingering on waiting lists for popular magnet or charter schools, as the recent film "Waiting for 'Superman' " dramatized. The sort of anxiety felt on the Westside may seem a luxury to families who cannot afford decent childcare or who fear neighborhood crime.

Anderegg suggested that parents look at actual probabilities. Is it more likely that your child will be snatched off the sidewalk or sustain serious injury playing soccer?

Holding on to your values and keeping what's most important in mind are difficult.

"When you talk to parents, one on one, the issues are simpler than all this," King, the Crossroads counselor, said. "They want their children to be happy, that they feel good about themselves, that they know themselves, that they're safe, that they find a job in this world and support a family."

And parents might find another way to spend their time, Engel said.

"If you're spending more than an hour a day thinking about your kid when they're not there, find something else to do," Engel said. Try working, she said — for pay or not — to make schools better for all children.

This article is the first in a new series on the modern parent-child relationship. Comments: mary.macvean@latimes.com

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