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Dr. Elaine Heffner: Make-believe parenting

Dr. Elaine Heffner More Content Now
Posted: Feb. 19, 2019 9:09 am

A nurse in a maternity hospital once told me that the way to have three good kids is to have six and throw the first three away. It is unlikely that any parent would like to follow that advice - although the feeling of wanting to might come over many parents at some point. Now a new computer game in China, Chinese Parents, enables you to start over with a new digital child if things haven’t worked out as planned.

The mission of the game is to raise a son or daughter from cradle to college. The goal is to get a digital child into a top college, a lucrative career and a compatible mate. While initially a digital son was the only option, newer versions include daughters. However, the game includes reminders that girls don’t need to do as well as boy in school, and that the ultimate goal of hard work is to marry a good man.

The Chinese “tiger mother” parenting style was under considerable discussion in this country some years ago and can be found in this game. Yet players can choose between pushing their digital children to achieve conventional success or allowing them a degree of childhood freedom. Apparently, Chinese parents today are more likely to wonder whether unhealthy amounts of stress are turning their children into automatons.

Amy Chua, the “tiger mother” author, compared Chinese and Western parents, writing that Western parents are extremely anxious about their children’s self-esteem and worry too much about how their children will feel if they fail at something. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe their children can get them - and if they don’t, it’s because they didn’t work hard enough. Also, Chinese parents believe they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children’s own desires and preferences.

The parenting game seems to embody some of the conflicts Chinese parents today are experiencing. Economic growth has created more opportunity for advancement but has also raised expectations for career success. As the life of the digital child progresses, parents arrange courses and activities such as piano lessons, swim classes and coding. Yet the game reflects how much psychological pressure the child is feeling and the digital child may crack with too much homework.

The developer of this game hopes to produce an English version and it will be interesting to see if the choices offered American parents reflect the goals and conflicts of the Chinese. One similarity seems to be the idea that a multitude of extra-curricular activities and opportunities are essential for advancement and ultimate success. In China everything leads up to the highly competitive college entrance exam that decides the fortune of many young people.

American parents are also concerned about their children’s educational achievement and potential for admission to highly ranked schools. This would appear to be less a matter of increased economic opportunity than decreased educational opportunity. The cost of higher education and the poor quality of much public education has led to competition for admission to a limited number of schools.

Schools and teachers have also been under pressure to achieve goals that have changed through various attempts at improving outcomes. The result has been increased pressure on students from both teachers and parents. The conflict between the pressure for success and the wish for a more traditional childhood is one of concern to many parents and observers.

The fact is that the goals and choices of real - as well as make believe - parents are shaped by the larger society in which they raise their children.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.

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