“Tan Mom” And The Dangers Of Forcing Lifestyle Choices On Your Children

Sometimes children need an extra push; sometimes they need the freedom to follow their own interests.

December 1, 2017
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In 2012, after being accused of taking her 5-year-old daughter into a local tanning booth, New Jersey mom Patricia Krentcil was charged with second-degree child endangerment.

Krentcil insisted her daughter was never exposed to the rays of the tanning booth. Though the appearance of burns on her daughter was what originally drew attention to the family, the parents swore the child had been burned while playing outside.

In an interview with an NBC affiliate in New York, Krentcil said that her daughter had been tagging along with her to the tanning booth for some time, but she’d merely been in the room, not in the tanning bed. Up until 2012, no one had taken issue with this habit, which she compared with bringing a child along on a trip the grocery store. The girl’s father believed that a teacher overheard her talking about going tanning with her mom at school but misinterpreted the conversation. Dubbed “Tan Mom” by media outlets, Krentcil was released on a $25,000 bail, and the story slowly faded out of national attention.

Five years later, however, Krentcil is back in the spotlight—as of July 2017, she’s thinking of suing her daughter’s school after the now 11-year-old allegedly came home with a sunburn. “After what they did to me, they didn’t put lotion on her? This time, I’m going after them,” she told the New York Post.

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Ultimately, it’s hard to say what really went down with Krentcil and her daughter, but the story does raise interesting questions about parents who force lifestyle choices on their children. Of course, this example is extreme—most parents don’t take their little ones tanning—but that doesn’t mean we can’t all learn a lesson from this. Even parents who would never imagine endangering their child’s health are guilty of pushing them to adopt certain lifestyles.

Common Lifestyle Choices Forced on Children

Tanning may not be your thing, but you still might be guilty of forcing certain activities on your children. One of the most common examples among school-aged kids are parents who place too high of a priority on extra-curricular activities likes sports and dance.

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Per Jody A. Dean, PhD, a clinical psychologist with 28 years of experience specializing in children, adolescents, and athletes: “When we talk about academics or athletics or something like dance or cheer,” there is a line between when someone “… is just being a really good parent … pushing their child to try something, to try to get better at something, to try to get skilled at something,” and “when [parents are] actually doing potential damage to the child.”

Dean describes a scenario she has experienced multiple times in her clinical practice: Parents enlist her help in convincing their child, most frequently a boy, to be more motivated in sports. These parents are certain that this child has a natural talent for a specific sport, and they feel that it would be waste for him not to play.

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“The parents will go out of the room. I look at the kid, and he would say, ‘I don’t want to do this. I like science. I don’t like this sport,’” she says.

It isn’t just sports, of course. Parents may become fixated on involving their child in dance, academics, or singing. One woman, who has chosen to remain anonymous, shares that being pushed by her mother to train as a classical singer at a strict, religious university was incredibly draining.

“This led to five years of me studying under a man who demanded complete control of my life. Food, social life, everything was related back to the operation of my voice, and grooming me for a life on the opera stage,” she shares with HealthyWay.

Years later, she says she is still working through the damage caused by her experience, especially since her faith was integrated with her training.

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Other parents may become fixated on their child’s appearance, according to Dean, and this can create an especially unhealthy dynamic between parent and child. Specifically, Dean has seen preteen girls wearing platform heels and short skirts at the mall with their moms, who are dressed in the same way.

“It’s strange,” says Dean. “The moms are really pushing these young girls to [dress] in a way that isn’t appropriate when you’re 9 or 10. It has a lot to do with the parent or mom who is aging and isn’t getting the attention she was getting [previously].”

Know when you’ve crossed the line.

According to Dean, it can be difficult for parents to realize they have crossed the line. It’s okay to put pressure on kids in situations where they need a little extra help staying motivated, she says, but how much is too much?

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Children generally react in one of three ways when engaging in activities and hobbies, says Dean. First, there are children who have a genuine love for a certain activity: “The child is super engaged. In other words, they love to go to … practice—they possibly even love the activity outside of when they’re doing it.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are children who are being pushed into something they have no interest in and do not enjoy. After two or three sessions of the activity, these children are still complaining, according to parenting resource Active for Life.

When they are doing it, they are going to look miserable, they’re going to act miserable, and they really are miserable.

Somewhere in the middle is a grey area, according to Dean: “We see parents who are trying to determine, ‘is this a child who needs a push, or have I stepped over the line?’ When the child wants to do it [but gets lazy]. We all get lazy, right?”

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In terms of sports, Active for Life wrote that while “a little nudge” helps children overcome initial shyness, it’s important to respect your child’s wishes if they continually loath the activity.

“Remember that this is about your child’s long-term attitude toward sport and well being, not about you,” the article reads. “Resist insisting on participation because you want to get your money’s worth. Or because you’re worried about your child being a ‘quitter’.”

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This is a great diagnostic for safe activities, like sports, dance, and academics. Yet if an activity could ever be harmful to a child, such as dieting or tanning, there is no grey area.

How Forcing Certain Lifestyles on Kids Does Harm

Although some parents may feel there is no harm in pushing their child to engage in an activity, if they are truly unhappy and uninterested, this parenting habit can do harm to the child. Convinced their child is the next great pianist or MLB player, parents may create an unhealthy dynamic with their child.

“Some parents believe the child is so talented in a specific area [and] if they don’t follow this path, if they … they don’t become incredibly successful, that’s their last chance. Which is probably never the case. [Parents] really do become obsessed with themselves,” Dean says.

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In this situation, the very best move is to ask for an outside perspective. Dean recommends that parents check in with coaches, teachers, and peers for honest feedback on how their child is doing in a particular activity. Additionally, parents can watch for symptoms that their child is miserable.

“What you’re going to start seeing from these kids is absolutely no engagement in the activity,” she says. “When they are doing it, they are going to look miserable, they’re going to act miserable, and they really are miserable.”

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In her clinical experience, she has witnessed children who consistently act out to get out of an activity: they pick a fight with their parents right before getting in the car, stomp back inside, and lock themselves in their room.

Dean was clear that this is different from occasional acting out or laziness, which happens with many kids who just need an extra push. She says parents should watching for regular efforts by kids to sabotage their participation in an activity by acting out.

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Other children may not act out; they’ll simply show signs that they are unhappy. They aren’t interested in the sport when they’re not playing, they don’t have friends on the team or in a class, or they don’t go out of their way to learn more.

“Kids will also feel sick. They’ll say, ‘I don’t feel good. I have a stomach ache. I feel sick.’ I have a couple of patients, actually, who would get so sick before they had to do sports [that they would] vomit …” shares Dean.

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Ultimately, parents should remember to put their child’s’ best interests first. A little push from parents can be great motivation for a child, according to Dean, but prioritizing your own interests over the child’s is a whole different beast.

Children are their own people, and they should never be required to emulate their parents’ lifestyles when it isn’t in their best interest.

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