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Parents urged to nudge -- not push -- children toward success

By Pauline M. Millard

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- If anything needs to be done at his son's elementary school, Michael Sands is the first in line to volunteer. He arranged a visit by fighter pilots on Career Day, he has brought in snacks for the kids -- and teachers' favorite coffees.

"If I get the wish list today, it's done in an hour," he says.

Sands works hard at keeping everyone happy at son Nicholas' school in Los Angeles because he feels that if the teachers and the students are happy, then they will teach and learn more effectively. He admits that he is a pushy parent but he only does it for the good of everyone else.

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With competitiveness in schools becoming more fierce, many parents are finding themselves encouraging their children to succeed with far more fervor than their parents did. Although many parents may think that their enthusiasm for the children's success is helpful, experts warn that it should be monitored.

Dr. Elisabeth Guthrie is the mother of three children and the co-author of "The Trouble With Perfect," a book aimed at helping parents deal with the ways they push their kids in unhealthy ways.

Guthrie works as the clinical director of the Learning Diagnostic Center at Blythedale Children's Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y. She first noticed that parents of disabled children didn't push the kids in the same ways that parents of other children did. Interestingly, she found that the disabled children often accomplished things that their parents never expected, all without prodding.

Guthrie says that the most pervasive idea in pushy parenting is the "everyone-else-is-doing-it" mindset. When parents see other children meeting with special college application counselors and coaches, they feel their kids need to do it, too, she explains.

She also notes the recent flush economy and the sheer number of working parents -- who are often unavailable after school -- has led to the shelling out of big bucks for homework help.

"Parents need to realize how much they are being marketed to," she says. "There is a huge industry for learning aids and tutors that parents easily buy into. Just because someone has the money for these things doesn't mean that parents should feel obligated to get them."

On the playing field

Just as often as parents push their child into "a dream college" -- whether it's the parents' dream or the child's is up for debate -- parents also push their kids on the playing field.

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Dan Bylsma is the assistant captain and plays forward for the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks. He has co-written with his father "So Your Son Wants to Play in the NHL" and "So You Want to Play in the NHL" and he runs a hockey training camp for kids. In the off-season, Bylsma lives in his home state of Michigan with his wife and son.

His advice to parents who want their child to succeed in sports: lighten up.

Bylsma says hockey was a big part of his childhood, but it was not the epicenter. "Hockey was seen as a privilege, something that we got to do once our homework was done and our chores finished," he says.

He advises parents to carefully examine how their children's sports schedule is affecting other aspects of family life. "Working hard is a good thing. But if you're missing Thanksgiving with your family to go to a tournament, you're showing your kid what's more important," Bylsma says.

Reining in the urge

Introspection is an important part of the parenting process and may be key to controlling the urge to try to mold kids into perfect human beings, according to Laura Gauld, the director of the Hyde School in Bath, Maine.

The Hyde School, founded 35 years ago, offers alternative educational opportunities to students who don't thrive in the public school system. The school's focus is on character education and involving the whole family in the learning process.

Gauld says that many parents get caught up in a fantasy vision of what they think a family should be like based on what they see on television and other media.

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"Parents need to accept that fact that excellence is not the same as perfection," she says. "But for some reason the two seem to get connected. Perfection is a state of mind."

In her book "The Biggest Job We'll Ever Have," she and her husband Malcolm suggest that parents "get real" with their kids. She suggests that parents share their struggles with their children and not be afraid of being wrong or taking risks.

"The goal is to have a relationship with your children," she says. "You want to raise them into decent human beings. But bailing them out or micromanaging their lives isn't the way to do that."

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