Perplexed by book critics, women share own tales of pushy parents
'Tales from Swankville' prompts discussion on rearing children in Pleasanton
Despite national headlines drawn to Pleasanton after vicious reactions to "Tales from Swankville," the 40 or so women gathered Monday evening at a Kottinger Ranch home said the book about pushy parents caused them to look in the mirror rather than lash out at the authors.
The two-hour discussion brought out personal stories about overly competitive parents that matched those in the book, co-written by Siah Fried of Pleasanton and Georgie Ikuma of Castro Valley. Some questioned how this generation of parents became so obsessed with uber-achieving children and others asked what could be done about it.
"Every parent is upping the ante. In dance, every kid has to have a solo -- so your kid needs a solo. We're all buying into that," Ikuma said. "We don't just want to keep up with the Joneses any more. We want to be better."
The book is a series of vignettes shared by a fictitious mom named Sasha, who is appalled by actions of other parents but also shares her own parenting mistakes. The authors are both Sasha, they said.
"The point of the book is that we're all guilty," Fried said.
Elizabeth Murphy introduced herself to the group as a neighbor of Fried's although they'd never met. She became aware of the book when another neighbor covered her garage with signs belittling the author. Fried also has been asked not to teach the second session of her kid-friendly healthy living class at Walnut Grove Elementary.
"Think 'Grace under pressure.' It's one of the hardest things," Murphy told Fried. "Children observe everything so keep your head up. We all do the best we can. This isn't unique to Pleasanton."
The authors said the setting indeed was not supposed to be Pleasanton but a generic Suburbia USA. But one of the first bloggers claimed it was Pleasanton and everyone ran with that.
Much of Monday's discussion centered on parents' competitiveness.
One woman related that when she moved to Pleasanton a few years ago she joined a playgroup for her 2-year-old because she wanted adult company.
"But at this playgroup, even at 2, the moms were comparing what the kids were doing," she lamented.
Another mother said that when her daughter returned from her school's outdoor education trip, the talk was all about which child had received the most letters.
One woman recalled telling another that her child was going to play recreational soccer rather than competitive, getting the response: "Rec is for losers."
"After reading the book I looked into the mirror," said another woman. Her husband also read it and related its message to his physical therapist who told about an increase in children's sports injuries as they are pushed to succeed.
The women in attendance (and three men) agreed that today's children are overscheduled. One mother said her young daughter asked not to be signed up for anything, she just wanted play dates.
"I was OK with that -- but there was no one else home to have play dates with," she said.
A teacher commented on the harm of over-scheduling, saying, "I think the time children have alone is essential to their growth and self-knowledge."
One woman said she didn't think those lashing out at Fried were a modern phenomenon.
"Mean people have been around forever," she said. "Jane Austen talked about mean, pushy parents 200 years ago."
"The comment on someone being a 'loser,'" said another. "I mean, who would say that?"
"You're preaching to the choir here but there is a culture of entitlement in Pleasanton," said another, recalling a girl about to enter community college who told her, "You don't know how hard it is in Pleasanton to say you're going to a junior college."
The group also discussed the effect of this parental over-competitiveness on children. "Are they as affected as we think they are?" someone asked.
Mary Geasa, herself a middle school teacher, told about an AP English project at Foothill High where the students had to choose something to rebel against.
"My daughter's group chose helicopter moms," she said. "They're all good students and they get it. They're making a statement that they're OK. Their slogan is 'Parenting Is Not Product Development.'"
No one Monday night attacked the authors, although online blogs have been vindictive toward Fried, saying characters were based on them.
"I'm so grateful tonight for talking about the topic," Fried said.
Kathleen Hart-Hinek and Anna Molz hosted the evening, feeling the subject was valid plus the air needed to be cleared after the hard feelings raised in town. They said they invited Fried's critics who chose not to attend.
Fried, a health professor at Las Positas College, said she first started to question parental competitiveness when deciding whether to enroll her daughter in competitive dance. She asked her college students their thoughts on the subject and said their responses were shocking. Their poignant comments about growing up with pushy parents begin each chapter of the book.
Fried and Ikuma also appeared Monday on Brian Copeland's ABC7 morning show and will be on his KGO Newstalk 810 radio show Sunday, which airs from 9-11 a.m.
Huffington Post ran a story on the reaction in Pleasanton to "Tales from Swankville," and CNN's Anderson Cooper also contacted Fried. But the angry neighbors did not agree to talk and national news is interested in the controversy more than the book's message, Fried said.
At least the brouhaha is getting people to read the book, she added.
"The most exciting thing to me is a guy in New Jersey who read the book twice and totally sees himself in the stories," she said. Readers across the country have thanked her for getting them to look at themselves in the mirror, she said.
The book is available online and at local bookstores. The Pleasanton Public Library has three copies with a long waiting list.