I blame, or bless, my mother for passing on this particular trait: Like her, I'm impatient with Mother's Day—with the commercialized hype and the saccharine pomp about a role that for the rest of the year gets either taken for granted or treated as a deeply anxiety-inducing grind. So, I give my kids a silly little token of my gratitude, since without them, I wouldn't belong to the constituency being honored today. And then, as an imminent empty nester, I try to think sagely about the limits of parental power to shape children and the unpredictability of the future that awaits them—and also about how much harder other mothers and kids have it. It's my one-day bid to buck our hyper-parenting culture.
Actually, our hyper-parenting culture these days is itself full of books telling us to chill out, ease up, back off. Warnings about the dangers of parental pushiness are the current vogue, and the trick is finding counsel that doesn't insidiously ratchet up your anxiety about whatever it is you are, or aren't, doing. David Anderegg's Worried All the Time: Rediscovering the Joy of Parenting in the Age of Anxietydeftly punctures the self-perpetuating panic. Among the fresh contributions to the field, Wendy S. Grolnick and Kathy Seal's Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kidsis genuinely interested in what helps encourage self-motivation in kids—and usefully blunt in saying that parental overinvolvement doesn't. The authors have a refreshingly level-headed perspective in general, noting that the real problem in this country "isn't that middle class kids have too many activities but that less privileged kids don't have enough."
It is also good to be reminded that for kids of any background, the activities that truly absorb them often aren't parentally approved or obvious stepping stones to success—and that's OK. Benjamin Nugent's recently published American Nerd: The Story of My People—part memoir, part historical and sociological rumination—is a fittingly idiosyncratic portrait of the antithesis of the superkid with the perfect résumé. The "rule-loving, unathletic" specimens Nugent surveys (including himself, "a self-loathing nerd," and his friends, deep into Dungeons & Dragons) aren't budding anythings—neither losers nor geniuses. They're obsessives carving out a marginal niche that gratifies them. Yet their intense focus, which goes hand in hand with social obtuseness, has its real virtues: It propels at least some of them on a quest for a sense of meaningful order and identity that alpha kids (and their alpha parents) can be too cool—and too caught up in the race for credentials—to bother undertaking. For further reminders of the quirky paths life may have in store, check out The Guild,too, a Web serial about older nerds, which has its own charming weirdness—and a warning about helicopter parents.
In a similar spirit, Mother's Day can serve as an occasion to reflect on the disparities in family experiences and resources. Annette Lareau's Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Lifeis a fascinating guide to a cultural gap in child-rearing expectations and styles that starts early and grows. On the low-income end of the spectrum, what many teens could use is more college-directed pressure—which their parents, most of whom haven't gone to college themselves, have trouble providing, and their peers are more likely to mock than endorse. Ron Suskind's A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey From the Inner City to the Ivy Leagueis a classic about a rare student who overcame obstacles, with lots of help from his mother.
Nonparental help, though, is crucial. College Summit, which you can read about here, is an amazingly successful enterprise that steps in to supply for poor kids the intensive prodding that middle- and upper-class families take for granted (and groan about). A recent PBS segment on the program, which you can view here, offers a glimpse of how volunteers help steer these students through the admissions process, not least the essay-writing ordeal. Mothers shouldn't be surprised to learn that it takes plenty of hovering and hounding—but also listening, really hard, to teenagers trying to make sense of lives that are, after all, their own to lead.