I recently had the opportunity to interview Ted Cunningham about his book, Trophy Child: Saving Parents from Performance, Preparing Children for Something Greater than Themselves. This “anti-tiger mom book” tackles the idea of vanity parenting, what happens when our culture’s obsession with performance leads parents to form expectations for their kids based on the world’s standards.
Margaret: What exactly is a Trophy Child?
Ted: A trophy child is the direct result of vanity parenting. When mom and dad use the child’s attributes and accomplishments to impress others, the child is on display.
Why do you think raising a Trophy Child is prevalent in our culture?
Parenting motives have changed over the years. The shift started in the 80’s with the kid-centered home. Parents began shifting their style to be more encouraging, nurturing, and praising, bombarding kids with excessive “atta-boys,” gold stars for every paper, no-loser competitions, no-failure-allowed assignments, participatory medals and ribbons, big moments on the stage or field, and plenty of opportunity and privilege.
The shift toward the kid-centered home has many roots, but divorce is one of the leading causes of the kid-centered home and the raising of trophy children. Parents elevate their children to adult or companion status, and they require their kids to bear a burdensome emotional load. The kid-centered home is also a reaction to the way we were raised. Our moms and dads were strong in their desire to prepare and launch us into the world, and at times it was interpreted as harsh.
What are three signs someone is raising a Trophy Child?
1. You are creating and choosing environments for your children to succeed, rather than preparing and teaching them to succeed in environments they (and you) cannot control. Creating environments for our kids to succeed makes sense to most parents. It feels loving. We pick schools, churches, leagues, neighborhoods, and family friends based on this principle. Is this the best approach?
2. You accelerate the childhood milestones (birth – 10 years old), and delay the adulthood milestones. For the first 10 years or so we push our kids with programs like My Baby Can Read, potty training by first birthday, accelerated reading, gifted programs, and launching their professional sports career in kindergarten. Our children become conditioned to run, run, run. Then at age 10-13 (tween years) something happens. Our children begin to differentiate and separate from mom and dad. They pick their own clothes, friends and activities and mom and dad freak out and start to apply the brakes. This is when we start delaying the adulthood milestones. We pushed our kids for 10 years, now we want them to slow down and not “Grow up too fast.” I think the teen years are more about a parenting crisis than a teen crisis.
3. You have turned your child into your companion. There are 4 ways in which this happens. First, it can happen in the home where the parent has a buddy to participate in sports and hobbies. Second, it happens in a home where a strained marriage pushes one parent or the other to give extra attention to the kids. Third, companion parents sometimes reside in single-parent homes where the child takes on the emotional burdens of a spouse. Fourth, it happens in the home of the single child where Mom and Dad step into the role of siblings rather than the role of parents.
What are four tips you’d give to parents who want to break the cycle of raising driven kids?
1. Check your motives daily. Why do you want your kids to be so successful? What is your definition of success? Is your child an extension of you, or do you you see them as God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works?
2. Desire your child’s relationship with Jesus to be the priority, not you. When Jesus is the priority relationship, it changes everything. My child is no longer about me or what I want for them. I get to spend my days discovering along with them the good works they are to do.
3. Allow room for loss, hurt, pain and conflict. Don’t bubble wrap and helmet your kids for everything. Be most concerned about their character, not comfort. Our character is developed through difficulty. Take a step back from the playground and allow your child to develop those critically important life negotiation skills without interference from a helicopter parent.
4. Take a break from Facebook. Constantly updating your status with the accomplishments and attributes of your children, is exhausting for you and your friends.
Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church. He absolutely loves and enjoys being married to his wife, Amy. They live in Branson, MO with their two children, Corynn and Carson.
Ted is the author of Fun Loving Youand Trophy Child and coauthor of four books with Dr. Gary Smalley: The Language of Sex; From Anger to Intimacy; Great Parents Lousy Lovers; and As Long as We Both Shall Live. He is a regular guest on Focus on the Family, Life Today, and Moody Radio. He is a graduate of Liberty University and Dallas Theological Seminary.