Don't worry, be happy
by Seth Rogovoy
(WEST STOCKBRIDGE, Mass., August 8, 2003) – David Anderegg, a family and child therapist, has two words for today’s parents who worry more than ever about their children, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of American youth are probably the safest, best-nurtured generation in human history.
Well, he may not have actually uttered those words, and the thought doesn’t appear exactly in that form in his well-written new book, “Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It” (Free Press, 228 pages, $24). But in a recent conversation, Anderegg made clear his conviction that there is a lot of needless energy being spent worrying about children, and that both parents and children would profit immensely if moms and dads would lighten up.
“Basically what the book is about is reflection, about not doing anything,” said Anderegg, who will read from and sign copies of his new work at the New Marlboro Town Library on Saturday at 1. “Worrying is sort of a useless form of reflection. So what I prescribe are not do this or that but different ways to think about parenting problems.”
In his family practice of 20 years, and in his work as a school consultant and a teacher at Bennington (Vt.) College, Anderegg has been dealing with the causes and effects of parental anxiety on a daily basis. And what he sees isn’t pretty.
“I don’t think that contemporary parents are nuts,” said Anderegg. “Contemporary parents aren’t crazy or neurotic any more than they ever were. I don’t think the culture is particularly healthy.
“But there are people whose children are well-fed and healthy and apparently happy, yet they can’t sleep at night because they’re so panicky. In some ways the world has always been a dangerous place, but in some ways it’s no more dangerous than ever, and one could argue that it’s less dangerous.
“Child safety regulations, childproof medicine caps, flameproof pajamas, bike helmets, all these have made childhood safer. But all those very same things make parents feel the world is less safe because every time you put the helmet on your kid you think about the possibility of an accident, even though in all of human history this is a very good time to have children.”
Anderegg suspects that here in the Berkshires there might be a self-selected group of parents prone to overconcern about their children.
“Many families have moved here precisely because it is a safe place to raise children,” he said. “This suggests we might have a higher proportion who came here because they are more inclined to worry to begin with. But it’s useful to remind those parents that it is true – that except for children living in poverty, it is a very safe place to raise children, and therefore we really don’t have to think about some of the things our urban counterparts think about.
“Kids here do drugs and get into trouble, sure, but the things we need to worry about are rural problems like drunken driving. That’s the particular, Berkshire problem. But it’s not something to go nuts about because it’s out of control.”
In his book, Anderegg outlines some of the negative influences that fuel parents’ anxieties, including media hype, or what he calls the “tabloidization of children,” the rise of smaller families, meaning a higher percentage of children are being brought up by less experienced parents, and fears about children’s ability to compete in the educational and job marketplace.
While Anderegg shies away from action-based prescriptions to combat the malady of overparenting, he does suggest a few practical things parents can do to help correct the negative thinking that leads to irrational worry.
“They need to stop watching CNN,” he said, adding that the tabloid press and local TV news hype stories about child violence in order to gain attention in a competitive marketplace.
“There was a headline in People Magazine a few years ago, ‘Bullying: The Terrifying Epidemic,’” said Anderegg, whose book is an outgrowth of the parenting column he has written for Berkshire Homestyle magazine for the last five years. “This is exactly the thing that drives parents crazy. The fact is bullying has been around a long time. It’s not a good thing, and sometimes it’s really scary. But it does not appear to be on the increase. To call this an epidemic unnecessarily raises everyone’s anxiety level.
“We know from social science research that people who watch a lot of local news always overestimate the amount of violence in local communities. This ruins your life and makes you make bad decisions.”
Anderegg, who grew up in a Midwestern farm family as the second youngest of seven children, also dispels myths portrayed in the media surrounding such issues as drug experimentation, the prevalent use of daycare and nannies, and school violence.
“Just because it’s shown ad nauseum on CNN doesn’t mean it happens all the time,” said Anderegg about school shootings. “It’s actually very unlikely. The place where children are actually killed the most is in their own home in the first year of life. If you want to think about what’s the most dangerous place for children, that’s it -- much more dangerous than school.
“And if you look at how many people are killed in schools and how many are killed skiing every year, they’re roughly comparable, with skiing slightly more dangerous than going to high school.”
Anderegg suggests that in some cases the content of irrational worries suggests a more complex psychological dynamic. “Parents do that all the time, projecting what worried them as children and what worries them now onto their own children,” he said.
Anderegg himself is the father of two college-age children who, at least from the outside, seem like case studies in successful parenting. His twin children, Peter and Francesca, were academic stars at Monument Mountain Regional High, where they were valedictorian and salutatorian, respectively. Both are currently attending Harvard University, and both are musicians who perform classical music with their father as the Anderegg Trio.
“A lot of people who know me are suspicious of this whole book, saying ‘That’s easy for you to say, your kids are doing great,” acknowledges Anderegg, who credits his wife, Kelley DeLorenzo -- an administrator in human services at Berkshire Center for Families and Children -- with teaching him everything he knows about children.
“What we did was provide cultural experiences and foster their own interests in a very intense way,” he said. “But my children were not particularly difficult kids. They were pretty easy to raise.
“I keep reminding people that parenting is not an engineering problem, it’s an endurance test. You don’t have to do complicated things -- just the same thing over and over again. For some people that liberates them, because you don’t have to know everything.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 9, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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