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Stop outsourcing your parenting

Do you outsource?

Whether we like it or not, we outsource all the time. The whole idea of outsourcing is to hire out a specific job to someone who can do it cheaper or faster. Outsourcing can end up being a great thing overall for companies and individuals (from a strictly financial viewpoint) even if it means the loss of employees or experiences in the process. However, when we “outsource” our parenting, the results are harmful to families and communities.

It may be hard to imagine, but most parents ‘outsource’ ALL of the time. Honestly answer the following questions to see if you outsource:

  1. Are your kids involved in so many sports that you need to coordinate schedules with yourself, your spouse AND each one of your children?
  2. Do you have a hard time remembering when the last time EVERYONE was sitting at the dinner table at the same time for the same meal?
  3. Is your family schedule so packed during the week that there is hardly any time for everyone to do everything they have to?
  4. Do you find yourself thinking, “I don’t remember being so busy when I was a kid?”

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above questions, chances are, you have outsourced your parenting. Sometimes outsourcing can be helpful to a family member or to the whole family, but if done too much, it can be harmful.

Why we outsource

In, Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times, William Doherty, Ph.D., describes the consumerist peer pressure that many parents face. The very reason you might have answered “yes” to any of the questions above is because you fell into the parenting peer pressure trap. For instance, Dr. Doherty (2000) describes families who are devastated about a rejection letter from preschool for their three- year-old child due to ‘immaturity’, or who willingly hold back their child in first grade, not for academic reasons, but to make sure their child is the oldest on a sports team…ten years later. While these examples are extreme, some you might be familiar with are:

1) Enrolling children in more than one sport or activity per year.

When considering enrolling children in a sport or activity, take into account that each activity will likely come with some sort of mandated in-home practice. If a child has soccer, piano and choir, that equates to about 2-3 hours of practice each night, not including homework. If scouting or religious meetings are part of your family, the hours quickly add up.

2) Doing household chores (i.e. dishes, pulling weeds, mowing the lawn) yourself, instead of having a child do these tasks.

When I meet with a family and ask about chores, the most common complaint is, “I can NEVER get them to do anything around the house.” Instead, the parents are tasked with keeping the house maintained, taxi their kids all over town for different activities, cook dinner and help with homework.

3) Purchasing ‘non-essentials’ for kids.

Non-essentials can be video games, computers, phones, tablets, music or a car. The rationale I hear from parents about this topic is, “they are so involved in soccer, piano, choir, violin, baseball, and the chess club, and they have no time to earn money. . .”

Each of these examples includes the outsourcing of some essential parenting behavior or lesson, such as: good sportsmanship, hard work, earning money, saving money toward a goal, patience, commitment, time-management and goal attainment.

At the outset, it may not seem like a bad thing, but as Clayton Christenson, Ph.D., explains in, How Will You Measure Your Life, the negative impact of outsourcing is subtle. Outsourcing the development of our children’s processes, the ability to pull from resources to do new things, creates long-term effects. When children are involved in too many activities, the values and processes they could develop by participating in one or two activities become overshadowed by burnout, competition, and anxiety about ‘failing’. Providing too many resources (i.e. activities, ‘non-essentials’, or lack of responsibility) contributes to the consumerist culture Doherty (2000) warned about. Children don’t learn the processes needed to succeed in life (i.e. by working hard and getting paid, I can save up for a car, a phone or tablet). Without these processes, children will have a more difficult time becoming responsible as adults.

How to help

Both Christensen (2012) and Doherty (2000) have some good recommendations on how to use resources effectively and reduce outsourcing. A combination of their recommendations is below:

  • Ask yourself, “What will my children learn from this activity, and how can I support these lessons at home?”
  • Go deep, not wide. Encourage the development of specific talents and skills that you see in your child.
  • Involve your child in the decision-making process. Impose an upper limit on the amount of activities in which a child can enroll, and then discuss with your child which activities they want to be involved in.
  • Determine certain times during the week that will be “family time,” and do not let ANYTHING interfere. If a soccer team will punish a child for missing an activity, and that activity interferes with family time, don’t enroll in that soccer team. This can be adjusted, as long as the whole family agrees.
  • Dedicate yourself and your family to community involvement. Do things as a family that contributes to the community and provides your family opportunities to serve.

The most important thing to remember is that when we outsource any part of our parenting, we need to be deliberate about why and how it will benefit ourselves, our children, and our families.

Michael is a Marriage and Family Therapist and a PhD student at Michigan State University. His treatment focus is parenting. He also teaches parenting classes in the surrounding community. Visit his website (www.ActualityFT.com) for more information.