The Overscheduled Child – Seeing Our Kids for Who They Really Are


In their chapter, Custom Kids, Rosenfeld and Wise explore how we strive to make our children into who we want them to be or think they should be rather than trying to get to know who they really are. As a result, instead of becoming well-rounded and self-confident individuals, according to The Overscheduled Child, “they end up insecure, feeling inept and devoid of real value.”

The authors argue childhood is no longer “preparation for adulthood but a performance in its right.” What has this happened? “The purpose of our children has become to make us proud and happy.” As parents, we no longer “need” them to help out on our land or in our house. Dual-income and affluent families can hire others to do whatever they don’t enjoy doing themselves. Therefore, Rosenfeld and Wise claim, when “we work so hard for them we want concrete evidence it is worth the effort.”

“Intellectually, we may understand that perfection is not possible, but when it comes to helping our children, we are not all that sure we see the harm in trying to get as close as we humanly can.” As a result, we feel we must fix every deficiency. But The Overscheduled Child argues while we see ourselves as simply trying to do what is best for them, from their angle, they feel criticized all the time, as if nothing they do is good enough. “This emphasis on perfection and perpetual motion is destroying family life.”

According to Rosenfeld and Wise, “Our intensity tells them that everything they do matters, really counts for something. With the lessons we sign them up for, the leagues they play on, the competitions they enter, the attention we pay to every aspect of their performance in life – academic, athletic, social, physical – we are always and eternally telling them that they can, and should, do better.” Ultimately, our behavior demonstrates that “what is important is how you look and perform, not who you are.”

While my eight year old is a voracious reader, her spelling has a lot of room for improvement because she favors speed over correctness. I suspect family and friends, upon receiving thank you notes for example, find her inventive spelling of often commonly spelled words baffling, especially when you consider I’m an English teacher. But eighteen years in education has taught me that confidence and initiative, two things my daughter has a lot of when it comes to writing, are more important qualities to nurture than perfection so I avoid correcting her mistakes whenever possible. This is an easy decision for me because I’ve seen the positive impact this approach has in my classrooms. The hard part about parenting is that we’re not experts in all aspects of it, which is why, as Rosenfeld and Wise point out, we’re often in a “rat race for what might happen a decade or two from now.”

The Overscheduled Child reasons we need to stop “turning ourselves inside out to get for our kids the things they want, or that we want for them, (as) we are actually damaging their inner sense of security and well-being and giving them access to exactly the sort of tools we don’t want them using as they go on to build their own lives.” So what do Rosenfeld and Wise suggest we do to avoid customizing our kids? We can start by learning the wisdom of 12-step groups: “God grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

The Overscheduled Child – Whose Life Is It Anyway?


After making the decision to cut back on afterschool activities, I decided to continue down this precarious path and try something else that had escaped me as of late –asking my eight year old what she wanted to do, as opposed to signing her up for things I thought would benefit her most in the future.  I set up a process of elimination that worked similar to how the contestants on her favorite television show, America’s Got Talent, got sent home.  Gymnastics or Spanish?  Art or piano?  Book club or choir?  As she’d whittled the list down to Girl Scouts and dance, the hyper-parent in me kept trying to prod her in a different direction, but my suggestions fell on deaf years.  She knew what she wanted, and after six months of nagging her to practice the piano, I gave up the fight.

“What really should be beginning to happen as children get older is that they start to take over more responsibility for their own lives, and their parents start to let go,” argue Rosenfeld and Wise.  “If the goal is for children to develop the skills they need to be independent and self-sufficient they need practice.”  In other words, they need to answer the following for themselves:  When should I start my homework?  What should I do when I’m done?  Who do I want to spend my time with?

The Overscheduled Child essentially argues that every single thing doesn’t matter; every minute of every day isn’t crucial to your child’s future success.  Parents don’t need to act as stage managers “responsible for all production details: casting, costumes, scenery, music, script changes, and making sure no one ever misses a cue or flubs a line.”  What parents need to do, instead, is give their children room to breathe, to learn, to grow.  Otherwise, “we deprive them of the sense that they are the authors of their own lives.”

While parents should do their best to provide a good life for their children, it’s counterproductive to personally edit every aspect of their lives to make them letter-perfect.  “Our children’s lives will certainly be richer and more meaningful if we let them – gradually and appropriately – begin to take responsibility for themselves.  And that includes, sometimes, letting them be flawed like the rest of us, to make mistakes, and to learn from them.”  According to Rosenfeld and Wise, “Putting so much emphasis on success by, let’s say, insisting on great grades (even if it means we must intervene to keep them high) makes it unlikely our children will learn about actions and their consequences.”

When my oldest daughter was little, I used to save all of her cutest outfits for special occasions and then be disappointed when she’d grown out of them by then.  I vowed that if I had another daughter she’d wear them whenever she wanted, and she has, often taking my laissez-fare attitude to the extreme.  I mean, why wait for Halloween when you can wear your tiara to preschool as a headband? Earlier this week, my four-year-old wanted to wear her Fancy Nancy poodle dress, complete with necklaces and a crown, to the Food Lion.  My first instinct was to say “no” but then I remembered the part of The Overscheduled Child where the authors wrote, “They need to wear Halloween costumes more than once a year.  They require the freedom to try on plenty of roles on their own, with no obligation to take them seriously.”

I know they are right still it’s hard to not worry about what others will think of your parenting choices.  Our culture worships the appearance of spontaneity (windblown hair and laughter), but “beneath the surface, the books and shows say that the best way to get there, to that place where life looks fabulous and fun-filled as a Coca-Cola commercial, is by planning as carefully as possible along the way.  We are told we can control it all – and we definitely want to do so, particularly when we feel so out of control by the demands of two, three, or four children!”

Rosenfeld and Wise realize “giving up on hyper-parenting seems like a bold and ill-advised step in the wrong direction.  We are utterly and completely convinced that good parents are fiercely attentive to every single detail of their children’s lives.  Anything less seems like negligence in the face of life’s greatest challenge.”   But I don’t want my good intentions to undermine my child’s sense of joy and discovery so off I went for groceries with my bejeweled daughter, trying hard not to think about the ways I may have stunted my oldest for never affording her the same opportunity.

The Over-Scheduled Child – Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap


Even though I’d sworn it’d never happen, it had.  By this past spring, my oldest daughter was enrolled in seven extracurricular activities: Girls Scouts, gymnastics, Spanish, art, piano, choir, and book club.  Ridiculous, I know.  Her participation had occurred innocently enough, as half of them required only a monthly or bi-monthly commitment.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t until all activities ceased this summer that I realized I had a problem.  Like so many Americans, I was guilty of overscheduling my child.

Therefore, this month, I’m reading The Over-Scheduled Child:  How to Avoid the Hyper-Parenting Trap by Alvin Rosenfeld and Nicole Wise, in an effort to affirm my decision to drop all but two activities from her list of commitments.  As Rosenfeld and Wise point out, “Hyper-parenting is born out of the best intentions.”  In my case, while my child’s school has a wonderful, small-town camaraderie, the teacher in me felt compelled to compensate for its less than stellar curriculum.  Of course, I know The Over-Scheduled Child is correct when it argues that “parenting should not take all our time, money and energy,” but I did it anyway.  While I know it’s not an excuse, it’s hard to not worry your kid will be missing out if you say no.

According to The Over-Scheduled Child, “When it comes to making life good for our children, we are not quite sure where reason ends and ridiculous begins…Virtually all of us in the American middle class and above are already providing our children with an enriched environment.  Compared to us, most of the world’s children live in abject poverty.  Relatively speaking, our lives are charmed.  Yet rather than feeling grateful, many of us feel anxious, precarious, and vulnerable.”

What do we do as a result? As Rosenfeld and Wise explain, “Many parents are acting as though life can be planned and children programmed, the ultimate goal being admission to a prestigious college and the supposed success that invariably follows.  But let’s not forget that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a Harvard grad.”  Therefore, I think it’s fair of Rosenfeld and Wise to ask, “Should our goal be preparing our kids to get into the college of their choice or to live the life of their choice?”

“To succeed in life, does every child really need the level of intense involvement that has come to characterize family life in America today?  Does unquestioning acceptance of this fast-track lifestyle indicate a bankruptcy of common sense?  Are all American families so far gone in this madness that, in our blindness, we simply see no alternative?  Or is there, perhaps, a better, easier, more balanced and rewarding way for families to live?”

Like Bria Simpson’s book, The Balanced Mom, which I blogged about back in May, The Over-Scheduled Child, wants parents to consider the following: What do I really believe in?  What do I really want from this life?  While my daughter’s afterschool schedule in second grade didn’t reflect it, I do believe that less is more.  In the midst of the chaos, I’d justify her involvement to my husband by saying that she only went to gymnastics one hour a week whereas other girls her age went for three hours a night.  Granted, my track might not have been as fast as others still it was frantic enough to affect our quality of life.

The way I figure there are worse things than having the best of intentions but, as I’m finding, you can’t take your schedule back until you admit you have a problem.  So if there’s anyone else out there who’d like to come clean, feel free.  You’re in good company.


Born to Buy – Decommercializing Childhood


Schor makes no doubt about it – “constructing a less commercial childhood experience will not be easy.” Ads have infiltrated everything. Scholastic book order forms, “once a cheap and convenient way of getting books,” are now loaded with media and toys. “Beginning in 1995, the Girls Scouts began offering the ‘Fashion Adventure’ experience with the Limited Too.” And Schor points out even the children’s hospital at UCLA was renamed after Mattel. Places of worship are the only safe spots, at least for now.

“The strong presumption against active consumer policy remains. Parents know best. If they don’t like what’s on offer, they can turn off the TV, just say no, or ban the offending T-shirt, lyrics, Web site, or caffeinated sodas. Consumer culture is not an imperative, it’s a choice.” While this is certainly true to some extent, Schor does an excellent job of presenting the flaw in this argument. “In truth, consumption is a thoroughly social activity, and what one person buys, wears, drives, or eats affects the desires and behaviors of those around them.” This is especially when you consider how ads have also infiltrated schools.

Schor argues, “Advertising in schools violates a fundamental principle of consumer sovereignty: the ability to escape ads and marketing. Schooling is compulsory, unlike Internet surfing or patronizing fast food restaurant…Furthermore, the growth of corporate-sponsored curricular materials threatens fundamental principles of objectively and knowledge in the classroom.” Basically, Born to Buy maintains while schools might make money from Box Tops or McDonald’s McTeacher Night, ultimately, we’re all paying a price.

Personally, I think Schor devotes too much of the conclusion of her book to Congressional legislation and not enough time on concrete practices parents can adopt immediately. While in an ideal world, everyone would read her book and follow it up with a letter to their Representative, that’s not going to happen. And let’s be realistic. Even if it did, it’d be years before changes actually took place. I need solutions now. Schor briefly offers her own experiences as a guide for setting limits with television, but she never addresses all of the other questions that arise over the course of a consumer’s day. Unfortunately, other than an offer to “join the movement to oppose a corporate-constructed childhood,” Schor suggests little else.

It has been my experience that it’s really a matter of where you are going to draw your line in the sand. I do worry that prohibiting television and all that goes with it will backfire as soon as I relinquish control and I don’t want to cause my child to be socially excluded. While Schor writes that her research fails to prove either of those things likely, I still struggle with whether my child needs a basic cultural literacy to function successfully in our society. Therefore, the line in the sand at my house is constantly being moved based on my comfort level.

My oldest daughter loves to horde American Girl catalogues. I had always allowed her this indulgence, as we don’t have cable TV so her exposure to advertisements is extremely limited. But this summer, I found that she had begun to spend more time making lists of what she wanted as opposed to actually playing with her doll. When she won a Littlest Pet Shop through the summer reading program and lingered longer over the brochure for additional products than she did the toy, I knew something had to change. I gave her an expiratio n date and told her that everything would be recycled by the week’s end. Immediately, she began updating her list.

But as they say down south, my daughter comes by it honestly. I recently picked up an old issue of In Style Magazine at the library for 25 cents and dog –eared it in about a half-dozen places. The chances of me buying the $95 black camisole at Bloomindales featured on page 268 are virtually nonexistent and yet I noted it nonetheless. What I’ve realized is that by constantly questioning my consumer longings I’m actually doing my girls a favor. The reality is, as with drugs, alcohol, and sex, the temptation to consume in excess is out there. While they might be “born to buy,” with a little bit of honesty on my part, at the very least they’ll learn striking a balance between needs and wants is likely to take a lifetime.

Born to Buy – The Virus Unleashed


Long before The Truman Show came to the movies in 1998, ads were slowly infiltrating our everyday lives. Whether it was a corporation sponsoring a coliseum or Carrie, of Sex and the City, typing on her Mac, Schor argues the virus had been unleashed. Continuing to captivate me, Born to Buy tackles how an advertiser’s need to create a buzz is transforming friendships.

Apparently, there is a company called Girls Intelligence Agency, which capitalizes on the growing business of peer-to-peer marketing. “Girls as young as six are recruited to become GIA agents, and once they’re accepted, they become part of an active online network.” According to Schor, in 2002, at the company’s start, 40,000 girls, aged eight to eighteen, were ready to “swing into action on the drop of a dime to create buzz for whatever product the company sends their way.”

Here’s how it works. GIA’s trademark product is the Slumber Party in a Box, which “takes places in what the company calls the ‘inner sanctum’ or the ‘guarded fortress,’ that is, girls’ bedrooms.” Schor explains “parties have featured toys, film, television shows, health and beauty aids, and other products. The host girl (a GIA agent) invites up to eleven of her friends to the party. Their first instruction is to put on pajamas and ‘eat too much junk food.’ Then partygoers are given a product sample that they use during the evening.” Girls are encouraged to be “slick” and “find out some sly scoop on your friends.” When it’s over, after receiving only the product as payment, the host is required to provide feedback. As Schor points out, the party essentially becomes a natural, intimate focus group or sales session.

I felt violated just reading about it. While Schor explains that this trend will eventually make word-of-mouth feedback corrupt, I worry more about an even more serious consequence she highlights, the corruption of friendship itself. “Marketers are teaching kids to view their friends as a lucrative resource they can exploit to gain products or money.” It’s just not right. Still, with the company estimating it reaches 20 million girls nationwide, it’s a trend that’s likely to continue.

My preoccupation with this fact prevented me from reading more. All I could think about was how sleepovers would never be the same again. Before the worst thing that could happen was a bra in the freezer or maybe a hand in cold water. (I was always the girl who fell asleep first so I’m familiar with all the “fun.”) Now I’ve got to worry about my children being manipulated by someone who has taken a Kim Possible fascination too far.

Feeling like I’d received a wake-up call with no way to turn off the alarm, I decided to temporarily put down Born to Buy in lieu of a book my friend lent me. Amish Peace by Suzanne Woods Fisher claims to offer simple wisdom for a complicated world. When I came across the following Amish proverb – “You can’t keep trouble from coming, but you needn’t give it a chair to sit in” – I knew I’d found my answer. Just because the average American is addicted to excess doesn’t mean I have to be. Easier said than done, I know. So, I’m hoping in Schor’s final chapter, Decommercializing Childhood, she’ll recommend some practical advice.

Born to Buy – The Explosion of Youth Spending


I recently purchased closet organizers in an attempt to address the stuffed animal issues in my daughters’ rooms. We gathered all the creatures we could find and piled on the floor. At which point, my oldest exclaimed, “We don’t need any more stuffed animals. That’s for sure.” While I was pleased Annabelle agreed with me, I figure the excess must have gotten pretty bad for a seven-year-old to acknowledge it.

“A recent poll by the Center for a New American Dream reveals that children are well aware, and even critical, of (advertisers) efforts,” reports Schor. “Among those aged nine to fourteen, 63 percent expressed concern that there is too much advertising that tries to get kids to buy things, 74 percent say ‘it’s too bad you have to buy certain things to be cool,’ and 81 percent believe that ‘lots of kids place way too much important on buying things.’” Still, as Born to Buy points out, “Companies are advertising because kids are buying. Every half-second, somewhere in the world another Barbie is sold.” Frightening, I know.

As I read this, I found myself asking, ‘How can this be?’ According to Schor, a big factor is parental time pressure; something like longer working hours has really driven this trend. “Guilt money,” as they call it, is one of the factors that accounts for the rise in children’s purchasing power. “Children aged four to twelve made $6.1 billion in purchases in 1989…and $30.0 billion in 2002, an increase of 400 percent.” Schor explains, the way time pressure operates parents have less time to cajole kids to eat products they don’t like or to return rejected purchases to stores. “This is part of why 89 percent of parents of tweens report that they ask their children’s opinions about products they are about to buy for them.”

While Born to Buy does an excellent job of explaining how kids are playing less and shopping more, a lot of Schor’s information was a review for me, as it was very similar to what Richard Louv shared in his book, Last Child in the Woods, which I blogged about in April, as well as the research I used on age compression for my RFM article on Kids and Media Culture, which you can read in December’s issue, now available online. Still, the chapter From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live made some disturbing points about the content of commercial messages.

Everyone knows cool is associated with being older but Schor enlightens parents as to how marketers and advertisers take common desire and play into it, putting a few older kids in ads that are targeted to younger kids. The fact that cool is also associated with an anti-adult sensibility – “kids with attitude, outwitting their teachers and tricking their parents” – is what gets so many of our youngsters into trouble. Donna Sabino, director for research and development at Nickelodeon’s Magazine Group, explained the thinking to Schor: “It’s hard to be a kid in an adult world. The adult world doesn’t respect kids. Everywhere else adults rule; at Nick kids rule.” While this us-versus-them mentality helps sales, it hinders relationships.

According to Schor, another strategy for reaching kids is trans-toying, turning an everyday item, like a toothbrush, into a toy. All you need to do is walk down the aisles of your grocery store to see the ingenious ways companies are transforming almost every product into a toy. It’d be one thing if the kids understood what was going on. While neither the government nor private foundations have been funding much research in this area, Schor has presented limited studies, as recent as 1992, which show only 32 percent of four to six year olds know that the purpose of an ad is to sell a product. While by the age of eight, kids can recognize that ads don’t always tell the truth, this knowledge doesn’t interfere with its persuasive powers.

“Nancy Shalek, president of the Shalek Agency, displayed a disarming level of candor when she argued that ‘advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them that they’ll be a dork if they don’t, you’ve got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable.”

Here’s the thing. I know I’m not a perfect parent. There are countless moments when I don’t realize I’m being hypocritical or closed-minded or insensitive. Even with all the parenting books I read, my daughters will undoubtedly end up having plenty of injustices to share. So I can’t help but feel like to consciously compound my child’s insecurities by buying into this consumer culture that preys on their emotional vulnerabilities is wrong. As American Marketers have proven time and time again, money has power, but reading Born to Buy confirms that I’d like my daughters to learn that choosing not to spend money can send the most powerful message of all.


Born to Buy – The Commercialization of Childhood


While walking down the grocery aisle last week, my four-year-old shouted, “Mom! Wait! I want princess soup.” I explained to my ever-fancy child that it wasn’t actually princess soup; it was just chicken noodle soup with a picture of the Disney Princesses on the label. “So?” she persisted. I reminded her that we don’t eat chicken since we’re vegetarian. And in typical Lily fashion, she replied, “Well, if that’s what I’ve got to do…” I left the store, minus the soup, worrying about my daughter’s moral fiber and knowing my nightmare was a marketer’s dream.

“The United States is the most consumer-oriented society in the world,” writes Juliet B. Schor, author of Born to Buy. “People work longer hours than in any other industrialized country. Savings rates are lower. Consumer credit has exploded, and roughly a million and a half households declare bankruptcy every year.” Why? One of the reasons, according to Schor, is that “kids and teens are now the epicenter of American consumer culture.”

Up until the mid-1970s, the Federal Government had a history of protecting our children. Then, despite the 1978 Federal Trade Commission finding that children do not have the cognitive ability to evaluate advertising, Congress began passing legislation that allowed children to become their own marketing group. As a result, advertisers no longer have to convince parents to buy a product. Schor explains, “Today, marketers create direct connections to kids, in isolation from parents and at times against them. The new norm is that kids and marketers join forces to convince adults to spend money.”

It doesn’t take a genius to see that this new approach is “working.” According to Schor, American children view an estimated 40,000 commercials annually, make an estimated 3,000 requests for products and services each year, and accumulate an average of seventy new toys in one year. The problem is Schor’s research also shows that “those who are more involved in consumer culture fare far worse in psychological and social terms.” Her research actually disputes conventional wisdom – dysfunctional kids are drawn to consumer culture – and argues “involvement in consumer culture causes dysfunction in forms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and psychosomatic complaints.” When people hear I boycott Barbie and shun Hannah Montana, they usually ask me if I’m worried about my kids fitting in; Schor’s research actually suggests, it’s me who should be asking them that question.

Originally, I selected Born to Buy for August because I thought it’d be appropriate given the Back-to-School buying craze that’s usually underway this time of year, but now I see this phenomenon extends way beyond what even a TV-and-advertising-wary parent like me thought. “We have become a nation that places a lower priority on teaching its children how to thrive socially, intellectually, even spiritually, than it does on training them to consume.” And unfortunately, I believe Schor to be correct, “The long-term consequences of this development are ominous.”


Unbeknownst to me, my husband, who is not a vegetarian, asked Lily if she wanted him to buy some princess soup; he was more than happy to eat the contents so she could have the can. Much to my relief, my daughter redeemed herself and declined his offer. Still, I worry that my girls will sell their souls for something else that shimmers so I’m going to dive into this debate and see for myself whether they are being empowered or seduced. What do you think? Are we teaching kids they are what they own?

To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First – Looking for the Problem in Yourself First


Psychologist Carl Jung said, “If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” More often than not, our children’s behavior is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is why we worry so much about it in the first place. To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First argues, “We can spot our own faults more easily in others than in ourselves. What irritates us most about others is often a fault we actually possess in our own character.”

Code explains that parents need to stop overreacting or denying the problem’s existence; rather acknowledge and define its consequences. Start by tracing it back to its roots in your family history. Code provides this fabulous anecdote of martyrdom, which helps readers understand how we not only share our ancestors physical characteristics but also their knee-jerk reactions as well. “In essence, you’re retrenching the neuronal pathways that were carved into your brain as a child by your family’s imprinting process.” By noticing a pattern, researching its origin as many generations back as possible, and getting clear on how you play a role in your family, you will get a “chance to fix the cause of your life’s drama, rather than just flailing at the symptoms.”

The next step is to view your child’s problem as a sign of anxiety in you or your marriage. “Have you ever come home tense from work and snapped at your kid?” Code maintains that’s an obvious example of the phenomenon he’s describing. “There are a thousand subtle ways that we unknowingly spray our stress and anxiety onto our spouse and children.” In other words, it’s the reason why your kids have a crisis as soon as you get on the phone. Code claims, “The problems show up because it is the worst possible moment.” Until we take responsibility for our own drama, problems will persist.

Code believes the solution lies in the answers to the following questions: Who inspires us in life? Is it the people who were dealt a great hand and played it well? Or is it the people who were dealt a worse hand than you, and played their hands like a champ? “A poker player will tell you that any hand’s a winner and any hand’s a loser; it’s all about what you do with what you’ve got.”

The reality is that we all have excellent “reasons” why our life may not have turned out exactly as planned. But, as Code reminds us, wasting time and energy blaming others, recalling obstacles, and dwelling on unlucky breaks prevents us from making progress. Whether you want your kid to be more assertive, more social, or more focused, then Code argues you need to take Carl Jung’s words to heart. “Children are educated by what the grown-up is and not by his talk.”

To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First – Anxiety is Contagious


Even though we live 60 percent longer than we did only a hundred years ago, Code argues that we overreact to everything: “from road rage and helicopter parenting to insomnia, depression, and excessive medication. Therefore, it should be no surprise that we’re overreacting to our spouses more and getting divorced at an alarming rate.” How do we break this vicious cycle? To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First says we need to recognize that “when we’re anxious, we may see things exactly backward. Our anxiety causes us to have “issues,” rather than our issues causing us to have anxiety.”

While Eclipse, the most recent movie in the Twilight saga, has popularized the phrase imprinting, Code writes that it’s actually just a “fancy word for how families “train” their offspring to behave through relationships.” And it is not as simple as passing one role down from generation to another. It’s more like a “monkey see, monkey feel” situation, with our kids picking up on all our anxiety. Although this instinct kept us safe during life in the wild, the contagious anxiety isn’t conducive for modern living.

“In life, our family has dealt us the hand we are playing. Some cards are aces, and some are just deuces. The problem is that we sometimes beat ourselves up or blame others if our hand is crummy. In fact, most of your hand was dealt before you were old enough to have any say in the matter. Your family has its habitual ways of acting, reacting, and overreacting, and your family members began to subtly, unconsciously imprint the family’s behavior on you from the day you were born.”

Still, Code maintains it’s not too late to take charge. “Many people tend to see their relationships and conflicts as random and accidental, almost as if “fate” acted on them. In fact, many aspects of conflict in our relationships are predictable, repetitive, and within our control.” Therefore, Code doesn’t suggest going in search of greener pastures; rather To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First makes the case that “chemistry” ensures that we are attracted to someone that “has the same level of anxiety as us. So opposites may well attract, at least in terms of outward personality traits, but the level of inner anxiety is the same in both spouses.” According to Code, Mother Nature has already scoped out the perfect mate for you.

The key to stopping a good marriage from going bad is “to learn how anxiety controls so much of our behavi or. The reason your partner isn’t already perfect may be more about your perceptions rather than his or her actual flaws. Once you learn how to control and reduce your anxiety, you will increasingly accept what used to bug you about your partner (and about yourself).”

Face it. Whether your Team Edward or Team Jacob, deep down you know that these beautiful movie stars are just people, equally as capable of “protecting” you from the truth or becoming jealous of another. Sooner or later, even a vampire shows signs of being human. So why not rise above the ugly behaviors of your instincts, as Code suggests, and train yourself to recognize when anxiety is causing you to attack or avoid your parents, spouse, and children. The happily-ever-after you create just may be your own.

To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First – Hurting Those We Love the Most


Maybe, it’s because I’ve always been crazy for monkeys and I traveled to the Ecuadorian rainforest just to catch a glimpse of them in the wild, but I just love that Code avoids the same, tired anecdotes of families in crisis to make his point. These past few months, I’ve read enough hypothetical scenarios to last me a lifetime so when Code focused on our connection to the animal world and supported his claims by sharing examples from Jane Goodall’s revealing research on chimpanzees, I was hooked.

The first part of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First addresses how we hurt our kids without realizing it: we project our anxiety onto our kids, we kill our kids with kindness, and we hurt those we love the most. While we are doing none of these things intentionally, the behaviors, nonetheless, are detrimental to our children’s well-being. Code makes an extremely convincing case as to why so many kids today are suffering from emotional and health problems. Their parents.

“Projection onto Our Children is an unconscious defense mechanism, triggered by a well-intentioned but primitive part of the human brain. Our brain is trying to save us from pain by diverting our attention from our unpleasant anxiety (regarding our distant relationship) to a more pleasant and reassuring image (e.g., becoming best friends with our children or putting them first in our lives).” In other words, while blowing our child’s small problem out of proportion saves us from dealing with our pain, Code argues, it does so at the expense of our children’s well-being.

This is not entirely our fault. Since so many of us parent in isolation, far from family both literally and figuratively thanks to demanding careers, Code explains “we lack the reassuring wisdom and mentoring of the older generations. Instead, we face the disparate, demanding voices of experts who communicate via schools and the media.” Many parents feel like they are “doing it wrong” and will over-parent to compensate. “Giving our kids more attention may make us feel like good parents in the short term, but our gift of attention is tainted by neediness.”

Essentially, we need to take a lesson from the eagle, which pushes its child from a cliff-top nest to teach it how to fly for “weaning is a much more important transition than we realize. In fact, our emotional weaning as children affects our future personalities, our attitudes, and the way we interact in relationships.” Code argues that we need to stop worrying about minimizing our children’s emotional scars and teach them how to weather a storm instead because when we rescue our children from everything, including boredom, we set them up for failure as an adult.

Essentially, Code reminds us of what we already know – there has to be a balance between tending our marriages and nurturing our children. Then, why is it so hard to do? Because as child psychologist Madeline Levine observes, “When a marriage is cold, a child’s bed is warm.” Until our marriages meet our intimacy needs, Code argues, we will continue to marry our children; thereby preventing them from building their own identity, learning self-reliance, and becoming happy, independent adults.

Personally, I think To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First captivates me because it doesn’t follow the typical step-by-step approach of so many of these parenting books. It’s more about a state of mind. My girls know I’m a sucker for books so they often plead for just one more at bedtime. When I told them the other night that I wasn’t going to read any more because I wanted to go downstairs and spend some time with Daddy, they looked shocked. Usually, I tell them I have chores to do or work to finish and, since I suppose they can sense that I’d rather be there with them, they continue begging. But this time, there was silence. At least until my youngest started crying, “But I want to stay up and play with Daddy, too.” Thanks to a little nudge from Code, I insisted, “Tonight, Daddy is all mine.”