The reinvention of marriage

The new couple research can save your marriage-before it starts

It’s clear–more than half of us are not only bad at marriage, we’re lousy at divorce. We’re still doing it in record numbers, but we don’t seem to be learning a thing from the experience: 60 percent of second marriages fail as well. After we face the failure, dry the tears, and explain it all to the kids, we still don’t know how to make relationships work.

So if we don’t learn from our failures, is it possible to learn from others’ successes? With this in mind, a number of researchers began a long-term look at marriage to discover what makes the good ones work. They examined every facet of marital interaction, videotaped every revealing nuance of communication, measured physiologic activity from pulse rate to electrical conductance of skin. Their findings provide nothing short of a blueprint for successful marriage.

Charting the marriage map

Twenty years as a marital therapist made it clear to Liberty Kovacs, Ph.D., that relationships unfold through time–a concept curiously absent in most views of marriage. But it was the lack of any guidelines for helping couples in distress that set her off in search of a framework for assessing their problems. Using her own empirical research, she developed a system to chart the marital relationship as it progresses (and always comes close to undoing) to accommodate two people who are themselves evolving as individuals.

Drawing theoretical bravado from group dynamics as well as psychodynamics, theories of adult development, and family systems, Kovacs contends that marriages evolve through six distinct stages toward intimacy and mutuality. Each of these passages poses specific challenges to individual and couple development. Yet while the progress may thus be predictable, says Kovacs, head of the Center for Marriage and Family Therapy in Sacramento, California, it is definitely not smooth.

The length of a marriage is no guide as to what sort of issues a couple may be stumbling over; some may stay stuck on a single issue for decades. And the development doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion from one stage to the next; rather it is cyclic. “When a couple is hit with stress at any point, they may go back to an earlier stage,” she says. All, however, face power struggles in the middle stages, and even the best don’t see the dawn of mutuality–that easy flow of support and intimacy–before 10 to 15 years.

The most important indicators of individual stages are emotional themes and interaction patterns. In the first stage for example–the mooning, spooning, Juneing phase–the marital partners see each other as perfect and identical. This is necessary for developing a sense of belonging and trust in each other’s commitment to an evolving relationship. Yet as renewed career goals or signs of external interests emerge–as they must–the other partner may view it as betrayal. The task is then to start down the rocky road of accepting differentness as enhancing the relationship.

Similarly, in the second stage, couples experience individual change as disappointment, anxiety, and self-doubt: a “What’s wrong with me?” attitude. Together, their task is to draw a distinct boundary between themselves as a unit and the rest of the world that impinges on it. It takes a strong sense of couplehood to face what happens next.

Over the next three stages, as partners’ interests diverge and develop independently, earlier efforts at accommodation now fall by the boards. Typically, each tries to control the other–a classic power struggle with all the accusation they can muster. Not only do they not agree on anything, they feel that they have lost any connection with each other. This may scare them, but they are more afraid to let down their defenses lest they be controlled by the other. What’s needed is not just the ability to recognize differences but finding new ways of negotiating them–ways of expressing themselves without crushing the other. What more often happens is that she rails while he stomps out of the house.

These scenes may be reenacted for years, even decades, as both play out patterns of behavior absorbed from parents. Likewise, it takes a great deal of time to find strategies to break through such entrenched patterns. Help takes many forms: finding ways of direct self-expression and labeling of feelings–statements that begin “I feel” rather than “He/she always does…”–and reviewing the family of origin to assess what attitudes and behaviors to keep, what to pitch.

By stage four, one or the other may be feeling the impulse to run away from the relationship. “I want time for myself” and “I need some space,” are laments that delineate the discontent. Kovacs feels that separations at this point are good if they allow the partners to “figure out who I am and what I want.”

But one spouse may already be searching for other partners or actively engaging in an affair. Kovacs calls that a diversion from the real issue–finding and completing one’s self. Another relationship only switches the focus to someone else’s needs.

If couples survive the struggles for nurturance, for power, for self, they then enter stage five–the promised land of reaching towards intimacy. “At this point, couples have a full identity to share,” and by stage six realize they can separate and reconnect without losing that identity.

Kovacs firmly believes that marriage is essential for growth and individuation–the elaborating of a distinct self. “First we grow in relation to our parents, then our peers, and then another adult. Only stable, enduring relationships allow individual growth to take place. We need to develop enough trust in a partner for the hidden parts of ourselves to surface. It takes years into a relationship.”

Redefining marriage

Viewing marriage as a process that unfolds in stages does far more than clue therapists how to help, it gives couples cause for hope even in the midst of misery, relieves some of the anxiety that they are not happy now, and gives them an agenda for working out their problems.

In addition, it affords couples a realistic perspective of duration–that relationships don’t happen overnight but take time. And it helps people abandon the idea of instant gratification. It clues them that you need to go through life making changes–designing your own marriage.

The new writ of relationships takes as a given that no marriage can be constantly happy over the years. Florence Kaslow, Ph.D., director of the Florida Couple and Family Institute in West Palm Beach and clinical professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, puts it this way: “Each partner’s personal development and the normal events of life necessitate continual adaptation, both individually and as a couple.”

In a study of 20 marriages lasting 25 years or more, she identified what distinguishes those couples most satisfied with their relationship. The major factor contributing to satisfaction in all couples was joint problem-solving ability–mentioned by 70 percent of both highly satisfied and mildly satisfied couples, and only 33 percent of the unsatisfied. Indeed, it turns up in virtually every longitudinal study of marriage. For Kovacs, it is what enables couples to navigate the passages of relationships. Howard Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and head of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, calls it constructive arguing. He finds it is the single biggest predictor of marital success over time.

For the past decade he has been studying 150 couples at yearly intervals (starting before marriage) to identify those factors most responsible for marital success. Couples go through a complete interview, a set of questionnaires, and a talk with each other about the major issues in their lives. The session is videotaped to later observe how couples actually respond and communicate.

“The quality of the couple’s communication before marriage is one of the best predictors of future marital success,” Markman said in a report to the National Institutes of Mental Health. He calls financial and sexual problems “red herrings”–wrongly blamed for breakups and dissatisfaction. “Many people believe that the causes of marital problems are the differences between people and problem areas such as money, sex, children. However, our findings indicate it is not the differences that are important, but how these differences and problems are handled, particularly early in marriage.”

The art of arguing

Couples who are able to successfully resolve problems when they develop have the best chance to go on to a successful marriage. Markman’s results indicate that “problems early in marriage worsen over time rather than get better as many couples expect. Rather than viewing differences and conflicts as a sign of incompatibility, couples need to see them as opportunities for developing skills that they can use for the rest of their relationship.”

Trouble is, says Markman, couples have no opportunity to learn the necessary communication and problem-solving skills. The few who do were lucky enough to grow up among parents who had them. And while the skills can be learned, he says it is urgent for couples to learn them before problems develop. “We have found that couples are more motivated to work on issues when things are going well than when things are terrible.” Besides, most couples early in a relationship form patterns of response that, like shells, harden around them–anger, resentment, depression–and are difficult to change.

So he has developed the five-session Premarital Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) to teach problem-solving skills to about-to-be-married couples. “We teach them the rules and the boundaries for creating constructive conflict.” The latest results show that those who learn constructive arguing before marriage have half the divorce rate of those without such training. There are also lower levels of negative communication and two to three times less physical violence. These couples aren’t just sticking it out, their satisfaction remains consistently higher than that of the control group as they march through the child-rearing years–a time other studies have shown to markedly reduce marital satisfaction.

For the last three years, Markman has been offering his constructive-arguing program in the Denver area. Not only does the love life of couples improve, there are positive effects on the children, on their self-esteem and social development. “PREP gives kids the ability to manage conflict in relationships, and in themselves. The major point is that relationship discord is a significant risk factor for many forms of psychopathology in adults and children,” he says. “Many problems brought to individual psychotherapy are really relationship problems” rather than intrapsychic ones. “First and foremost is depression among women. Our studies show a co-variation of depression and marital problems.” The link is the buildup of negative affect.

Managing conflict

As Markman’s studies progress, he is focusing more on the dark side of marriage. “People too often look only at the positive side. But what is central to the marital relationship is the ability to manage negative emotions. Thirty to fifty percent of couples are mutually abusive–now that’s a sign of poor conflict management. Abuse erupts from the frustration of not being able to manage negative feelings.”

Reactions to conflict should be the first line of attack in marital therapy, Markman suggests. But not just any negotiating skills will do. The arguing skills must be learned in the context of the relationship. “Some elements of conflict are relationship-specific,” he says. “Marriage has a unique ability to tap into emotional issues from the families of origin.”

Men and women handle conflict in radically different ways that subvert the relationship. Men flee, women fight; and they stay stuck in this pattern. Some researchers now believe that men simply have more difficulty than women in handling conflict–a result of early experiences, gender stereotyping, and especially, physiology.

Men feel pain differently, according to John Gottman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His credo is that direct measurements of physiologic response to interaction give a far more reliable picture of what couples are experiencing than merely asking them. His data show that men get more physiologically aroused–their hearts beat faster, they sweat more, and they move more–during marital conflicts, or even just anticipating them.

These signs are so unpleasant that, faced with relationship conflict, men withdraw altogether, a response Gottman calls “stonewalling”–in which the listener presents a stone wall to the speaker. They don’t move the face much, avoid eye contact, hold the neck rigid, and fail to give the usual listener responses. When a husband stonewalls, communication ends and marital satisfaction plummets. At first he physiologically withdraws; later, he withdraws emotionally. He becomes overwhelmed by his wife’s emotions and avoids any conflict with her. She responds by trying to re-engage him–advancing as he withdraws, setting up an escalating pattern of anger and frustration. Miserable as it is, if couples stay in this pattern, there’s some hope. But if the wife counter-defends herself by withdrawing, then essentially the couple is leading separate, parallel lives–heading down two tracks that never intersect. Men pay a high price for their escapist behavior: It precludes any hope for intimacy.

Accentuating the positive

While learning better methods of conflict management may be necessary for happiness, it is not sufficient to ensure it. There’s more to a good marriage, and that, every study shows, is a whole lot of “positive affect”–the expression of affection that keeps the couple at a high level of satisfaction. “Marital conflict by itself is not destructive for a marriage if it also includes positive affects such as humor, positive problem-solving, agreement, assent, empathy, and active non-defensive listening,” Gottman found in his studies.

In Kaslow’s Florida study, couples married 25 years or more were asked to cite the factors they believed contributed to the longevity of their marriage. Forty percent of the satisfied couples stated that they “have fun” together and treasure it. What’s more, both partners agreed it was an element in their satisfaction. Among the couples only mildly satisfied or unsatisfied, fun, humor and playfulness were not even part of the picture. “A great deal of expressed affection” was high on the list of essential ingredients for a good marriage.

“All the positive stuff has to be there,” says Markman of his own study findings. “Attraction. Love. These create a commitment to work at marriage.”

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where a major study of 373 new couples is now in its fourth of six years, the picture on positiveness is clearly outlined by Elizabeth M. Douvan, professor of psychology and research scientist at the Institute for Social Research. She found that “affective affirmation”–the communication of loving attitudes–is “by far the strongest predictor” of marital quality.

Affective affirmation of the self–unconditional approval from one’s mate-through nonverbal exchange is so powerful in marriage, Douvan finds, that it brings about a remarkable transformation, what her team calls “accommodation.” Each person winds up moving toward the spouse’s innermost ideal of a partner. “If he is accepted for the way he is,” says Douvan, “he winds up doing things her way. And she moves toward his way.”

From the collective efforts of researchers, there is a model of marriage evolving that sees the relationship as a dynamic process of constructing a shared reality. Conflict is a major arena for marital communication and relationship negotiation. Styles of conflict are all-important, and good styles can be learned–the earlier the better. The points where people fail can now be mapped, and clinical researchers are pinpointing where and how help is needed. As Denver’s Howard Markman puts it: “I’m optimistic about the future of marriage.”

The Six Stages of Marriage

1. Romance (Honeymoon) Fusion

2. Expectations Compromise

3. Power Struggle Control

4. Seven-Year Itch Competition

(regardless of time married)

5. Reconciliation Cooperation

6. Acceptance Collaboration


Marriage is dead! The twin vises of church and law have relaxed their grip on matrimony. We’ve been liberated from the grim obligation to stay in a poisonous or abusive marriage for the sake of the kids or for appearances. The divorce rate has stayed constant at nearly 50 percent for the last two decades. The ease with which we enter and dissolve unions makes marriage seem like a prime-time spectator sport, whether it’s Britney Spears in Vegas or bimbos chasing after the Bachelor.

Long live the new marriage! We once prized the institution for the practical pairing of a cash-producing father and a home-building mother. Now we want it all—a partner who reflects our taste and status, who sees us for who we are, who loves us for all the “right” reasons, who helps us become the person we want to be. We’ve done away with a rigid social order, adopting instead an even more onerous obligation: the mandate to find a perfect match. Anything short of this ideal prompts us to ask: Is this all there is? Am I as happy as I should be? Could there be somebody out there who’s better for me? As often as not, we answer yes to that last question and fall victim to our own great expectations.

That somebody is, of course, our soul mate, the man or woman who will counter our weaknesses, amplify our strengths and provide the unflagging support and respect that is the essence of a contemporary relationship. The reality is that few marriages or partnerships consistently live up to this ideal. The result is a commitment limbo, in which we care deeply for our partner but keep one stealthy foot out the door of our hearts. In so doing, we subject the relationship to constant review: Would I be happier, smarter, a better person with someone else? It’s a painful modern quandary. “Nothing has produced more unhappiness than the concept of the soul mate,” says Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman.

Consider Jeremy, a social worker who married a businesswoman in his early twenties. He met another woman, a psychologist, at age 29, and after two agonizing years, left his wife for her. But it didn’t work out—after four years of cohabitation, and her escalating pleas to marry, he walked out on her, as well. Jeremy now realizes that the relationship with his wife was solid and workable but thinks he couldn’t have seen that 10 years ago, when he left her. “There was always someone better around the corner—and the safety and security of marriage morphed into boredom and stasis. The allure of willing and exciting females was too hard to resist,” he admits. Now 42 and still single, Jeremy acknowledges, “I hurt others, and I hurt myself.”

Like Jeremy, many of us either dodge the decision to commit or commit without fully relinquishing the right to keep looking—opting for an arrangement psychotherapist Terrence Real terms “stable ambiguity.” “You park on the border of the relationship, so you’re in it but not of it,” he says. There are a million ways to do that: You can be in a relationship but not be sure it’s really the right one, have an eye open for a better deal or something on the side, choose someone impossible or far away.

Yet commitment and marriage offer real physical and financial rewards. Touting the benefits of marriage may sound like conservative policy rhetoric, but nonpartisan sociological research backs it up: Committed partners have it all over singles, at least on average. Married people are more financially stable, according to Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago and a coauthor of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better Off. Both married men and married women have more assets on average than singles; for women, the differential is huge.

The benefits go beyond the piggy bank. Married people, particularly men, tend to live longer than people who aren’t married. Couples also live better: When people expect to stay together, says Waite, they pool their resources, increasing their individual standard of living. They also pool their expertise—in cooking, say, or financial management. In general, women improve men’s health by putting a stop to stupid bachelor tricks and bugging their husbands to exercise and eat their vegetables. Plus, people who aren’t comparing their partners to someone else in bed have less trouble performing and are more emotionally satisfied with sex. The relationship doesn’t have to be wonderful for life to get better, says Waite: The statistics hold true for mediocre marriages as well as for passionate ones.

The pragmatic benefits of partnership used to be foremost in our minds. The idea of marriage as a vehicle for self-fulfillment and happiness is relatively new, says Paul Amato, professor of sociology, demography and family studies at Penn State University. Surveys of high school and college students 50 or 60 years ago found that most wanted to get married in order to have children or own a home. Now, most report that they plan to get married for love. This increased emphasis on emotional fulfillment within marriage leaves couples ill-prepared for the realities they will probably face.

Because the early phase of a relationship is marked by excitement and idealization, “many romantic, passionate couples expect to have that excitement forever,” says Barry McCarthy, a clinical psychologist and coauthor—with his wife, Emily McCarthy—of Getting It Right the First Time: How to Build a Healthy Marriage. Longing for the charged energy of the early days, people look elsewhere or split up.

Flagging passion is often interpreted as the death knell of a relationship. You begin to wonder whether you’re really right for each other after all. You’re comfortable together, but you don’t really connect the way you used to. Wouldn’t it be more honest—and braver—to just admit that it’s not working and call it off? “People are made to feel that remaining in a marriage that doesn’t make you blissfully happy is an act of existential cowardice,” says Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist.

Coleman says that the constant cultural pressure to have it all—a great sex life, a wonderful family—has made people ashamed of their less-than-perfect relationships and question whether such unions are worth hanging on to. Feelings of dissatisfaction or disappointment are natural, but they can seem intolerable when standards are sky-high. “It’s a recent historical event that people expect to get so much from individual partners,” says Coleman, author of Imperfect Harmony, in which he advises couples in lackluster marriages to stick it out—especially if they have kids. “There’s an enormous amount of pressure on marriages to live up to an unrealistic ideal.”

Michaela, 28, was drawn to Bernardo, 30, in part because of their differences: She’d grown up in European boarding schools, he fought his way out of a New York City ghetto. “Our backgrounds made us more interesting to each other,” says Michaela. “I was a spoiled brat, and he’d been supporting himself from the age of 14, which I admired.” Their first two years of marriage were rewarding, but their fights took a toll. “I felt that because he hadn’t grown up in a normal family, he didn’t grasp basic issues of courtesy and accountability,” says Michaela. They were temperamental opposites: He was a screamer, and she was a sulker. She recalls, “After we fought, I needed to be drawn out of my corner, but he took that to mean that I was a cold bitch.” Michaela reluctantly concluded that the two were incompatible.

In fact, argue psychologists and marital advocates, there’s no such thing as true compatibility. “Marriage is a disagreement machine,” says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. “All couples disagree about all the same things. We have a highly romanticized notion that if we were with the right person, we wouldn’t fight.” Discord springs eternal over money, kids, sex and leisure time, but psychologist John Gottman has shown that long-term, happily married couples disagree about these things just as much as couples who divorce.

“There is a mythology of ‘the wrong person,’” agrees Pittman. “All marriages are incompatible. All marriages are between people from different families, people who have a different view of things. The magic is to develop binocular vision, to see life through your partner’s eyes as well as through your own.”

The realization that we’re not going to get everything we want from a partner is not just sobering, it’s downright miserable. But it is also a necessary step in building a mature relationship, according to Real, who has written about the subject in How Can I Get Through to You: Closing the Intimacy Gap Between Men and Women. “The paradox of intimacy is that our ability to stay close rests on our ability to tolerate solitude inside a relationship,” he says. “A central aspect of grown-up love is grief. All of us long for—and think we deserve—perfection.” We can hardly be blamed for striving for bliss and self-fulfillment in our romantic lives—our inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness is guaranteed in the first blueprint of American society.

This same respect for our own needs spurred the divorce-law reforms of the 1960s and 1970s. During that era, “The culture shifted to emphasize individual satisfaction, and marriage was part of that,” explains Paul Amato, who has followed more than 2,000 families for 20 years in a long-term study of marriage and divorce. Amato says that this shift did some good by freeing people from abusive and intolerable marriages. But it had an unintended side effect: encouraging people to abandon relationships that may be worth salvaging. In a society hell-bent on individual achievement and autonomy, working on a difficult relationship may get short shrift, says psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of Should You Leave?

“So much of what we learn has to do with the self, the ego, rather than giving over the self to things like a relationship,” Kramer says. In our competitive world, we’re rewarded for our individual achievements rather than for how we help others. We value independence over cooperation, and sacrifices for values like loyalty and continuity seem foolish. “I think we get the divorce rate that we deserve as a culture.”

The steadfast focus on our own potential may turn a partner into an accessory in the quest for self-actualization, says Maggie Robbins, a therapist in New York City. “We think that this person should reflect the beauty and perfection that is the inner me—or, more often, that this person should compensate for the yuckiness and mess that is the inner me,” says Robbins. “This is what makes you tell your wife, ‘Lose some weight—you’re making me look bad,’ not ‘Lose some weight, you’re at risk for diabetes.’”

Michaela was consistently embarrassed by Bernardo’s behavior when they were among friends. “He’d become sullen and withdrawn—he had a shifty way of looking off to the side when he didn’t want to talk. I felt like it reflected badly on me,” she admits. Michaela left him and is now dating a wealthy entrepreneur. “I just thought there had to be someone else out there for me.”

The urge to find a soul mate is not fueled just by notions of romantic manifest destiny. Trends in the workforce and in the media create a sense of limitless romantic possibility. According to Scott South, a demographer at SUNY-Albany, proximity to potential partners has a powerful effect on relationships. South and his colleagues found higher divorce rates among people living in communities or working in professions where they encounter lots of potential partners—people who match them in age, race and education level. “These results hold true not just for unhappy marriages but also for happy ones,” says South.

The temptations aren’t always living, breathing people. According to research by psychologists Sara Gutierres and Douglas Kenrick, both of Arizona State University, we find reasonably attractive people less appealing when we’ve just seen a hunk or a hottie—and we’re bombarded daily by images of gorgeous models and actors. When we watch Lord of the Rings, Viggo Mortensen’s kingly mien and Liv Tyler’s elfin charm can make our husbands and wives look all too schlumpy.

Kramer sees a similar pull in the narratives that surround us. “The number of stories that tell us about other lives we could lead—in magazine articles, television shows, books—has increased enormously. We have an enormous reservoir of possibilities,” says Kramer.

And these possibilities can drive us to despair. Too many choices have been shown to stymie consumers, and an array of alternative mates is no exception. In an era when marriages were difficult to dissolve, couples rated their marriages as more satisfying than do today’s couples, for whom divorce is a clear option, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

While we expect marriage to be “happily ever after,” the truth is that for most people, neither marriage nor divorce seem to have a decisive impact on happiness. Although Waite’s research shows that married people are happier than their single counterparts, other studies have found that after a couple years of marriage, people are just about as happy (or unhappy) as they were before settling down. And assuming that marriage will automatically provide contentment is itself a surefire recipe for misery.

“Marriage is not supposed to make you happy. It is supposed to make you married,” says Pittman. “When you are all the way in your marriage, you are free to do useful things, become a better person.” A committed relationship allows you to drop pretenses and seductions, expose your weaknesses, be yourself—and know that you will be loved, warts and all. “A real relationship is the collision of my humanity and yours, in all its joy and limitations,” says Real. “How partners handle that collision is what determines the quality of their relationship.”

Such a down-to-earth view of marriage is hardly romantic, but that doesn’t mean it’s not profound: An authentic relationship with another person, says Pittman, is “one of the first steps toward connecting with the human condition—which is necessary if you’re going to become fulfilled as a human being.” If we accept these humble terms, the quest for a soul mate might just be a noble pursuit after all.

Becoming a parent

Maybe it’s the cyclist in the park, trim under his sleek metallic blue helmet, cruising along the dirt path… at three miles an hour. On his tricycle.

Or perhaps it’s today’s playground, all-rubber-cushioned surface where kids used to skin their knees. And… wait a minute… those aren’t little kids playing. Their mommies — and especially their daddies — are in there with them, coplaying or play-by-play coaching. Few take it half-easy on the perimeter benches, as parents used to do, letting the kids figure things out for themselves.

Then there are the sanitizing gels, with which over a third of parents now send their kids to school, according to a recent survey. Presumably, parents now worry that school bathrooms are not good enough for their children.

Consider the teacher new to an upscale suburban town. Shuffling through the sheaf of reports certifying the educational “accommodations” he was required to make for many of his history students, he was struck by the exhaustive, well-written — and obviously costly — one on behalf of a girl who was already proving among the most competent of his ninth-graders. “She’s somewhat neurotic,” he confides, “but she is bright, organized and conscientious — the type who’d get to school to turn in a paper on time, even if she were dying of stomach flu.” He finally found the disability he was to make allowances for: difficulty with Gestalt thinking. The 13-year-old “couldn’t see the big picture.” That cleverly devised defect (what 13-year-old can construct the big picture?) would allow her to take all her tests untimed, especially the big one at the end of the rainbow, the college-worthy SAT.

Behold the wholly sanitized childhood, without skinned knees or the occasional C in history. “Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”

Messing up, however, even in the playground, is wildly out of style. Although error and experimentation are the true mothers of success, parents are taking pains to remove failure from the equation.

“Life is planned out for us,” says Elise Kramer, a Cornell University junior. “But we don’t know what to want.” As Elkind puts it, “Parents and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they’re geared to academic achievement.”

No one doubts that there are significant economic forces pushing parents to invest so heavily in their children’s outcome from an early age. But taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees. With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply a moral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth. Whether we want to or not, we’re on our way to creating a nation of wimps.

The Fragility Factor

College, it seems, is where the fragility factor is now making its greatest mark. It’s where intellectual and developmental tracks converge as the emotional training wheels come off. By all accounts, psychological distress is rampant on college campuses. It takes a variety of forms, including anxiety and depression — which are increasingly regarded as two faces of the same coin — binge drinking and substance abuse, self-mutilation and other forms of disconnection. The mental state of students is now so precarious for so many that, says Steven Hyman, provost of Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, “it is interfering with the core mission of the university.”

The severity of student mental health problems has been rising since 1988, according to an annual survey of counseling center directors. Through 1996, the most common problems raised by students were relationship issues. That is developmentally appropriate, reports Sherry Benton, assistant director of counseling at Kansas State University. But in 1996, anxiety overtook relationship concerns and has remained the major problem. The University of Michigan Depression Center, the nation’s first, estimates that 15 percent of college students nationwide are suffering from that disorder alone.

Relationship problems haven’t gone away; their nature has dramatically shifted and the severity escalated. Colleges report ever more cases of obsessive pursuit, otherwise known as stalking, leading to violence, even death. Anorexia or bulimia in florid or subclinical form now afflict 40 percent of women at some time in their college career. Eleven weeks into a semester, reports psychologist Russ Federman, head of counseling at the University of Virginia, “all appointment slots are filled. But the students don’t stop coming.”

Drinking, too, has changed. Once a means of social lubrication, it has acquired a darker, more desperate nature. Campuses nationwide are reporting record increases in binge drinking over the past decade, with students often stuporous in class, if they get there at all. Psychologist Paul E. Joffe, chair of the suicide prevention team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, contends that at bottom binge-drinking is a quest for authenticity and intensity of experience. It gives young people something all their own to talk about, and sharing stories about the path to passing out is a primary purpose. It’s an inverted world in which drinking to oblivion is the way to feel connected and alive.

“There is a ritual every university administrator has come to fear,” reports John Portmann, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. “Every fall, parents drop off their well-groomed freshmen and within two or three days many have consumed a dangerous amount of alcohol and placed themselves in harm’s way. These kids have been controlled for so long, they just go crazy.”

Heavy drinking has also become the quickest and easiest way to gain acceptance, says psychologist Bernardo J. Carducci, professor at Indiana University Southeast and founder of its Shyness Research Institute. “Much of collegiate social activity is centered on alcohol consumption because it’s an anxiety reducer and demands no social skills,” he says. “Plus it provides an instant identity; it lets people know that you are willing to belong.”

Welcome to the Hothouse

Talk to a college president or administrator and you’re almost certainly bound to hear tales of the parents who call at 2 a.m. to protest Branden’s C in economics because it’s going to damage his shot at grad school.

Shortly after psychologist Robert Epstein announced to his university students that he expected them to work hard and would hold them to high standards, he heard from a parent — on official judicial stationery — asking how he could dare mistreat the young. Epstein, former editor in chief of Psychology Today, eventually filed a complaint with the California commission on judicial misconduct, and the judge was censured for abusing his office — but not before he created havoc in the psychology department at the University of California San Diego.

Enter: grade inflation. When he took over as president of Harvard in July 2001, Lawrence Summers publicly ridiculed the value of honors after discovering that 94 percent of the college’s seniors were graduating with them. Safer to lower the bar than raise the discomfort level. Grade inflation is the institutional response to parental anxiety about school demands on children, contends social historian Peter Stearns of George Mason University. As such, it is a pure index of emotional overinvestment in a child’s success. And it rests on a notion of juvenile frailty — the assumption that children are easily bruised and need explicit uplift,” Stearns argues in his book, Anxious Parenting: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.

Parental protectionism may reach its most comic excesses in college, but it doesn’t begin there. Primary schools and high schools are arguably just as guilty of grade inflation. But if you’re searching for someone to blame, consider Dr. Seuss. “Parents have told their kids from day one that there’s no end to what they are capable of doing,” says Virginia’s Portmann. “They read them the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! and create bumper stickers telling the world their child is an honor student. American parents today expect their children to be perfect — the smartest, fastest, most charming people in the universe. And if they can’t get the children to prove it on their own, they’ll turn to doctors to make their kids into the people that parents want to believe their kids are.”

What they’re really doing, he stresses, is “showing kids how to work the system for their own benefit.”

And subjecting them to intense scrutiny. “I wish my parents had some hobby other than me,” one young patient told David Anderegg, a child psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts, and professor of psychology at Bennington College. Anderegg finds that anxious parents are hyperattentive to their kids, reactive to every blip of their child’s day, eager to solve every problem for their child — and believe that’s good parenting. “If you have an infant and the baby has gas, burping the baby is being a good parent. But when you have a 10-year-old who has metaphoric gas, you don’t have to burp him. You have to let him sit with it, try to figure out what to do about it. He then learns to tolerate moderate amounts of difficulty, and it’s not the end of the world.”

Arrivederci, Playtime

In the hothouse that child raising has become, play is all but dead. Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess. And what play there is has been corrupted. The organized sports many kids participate in are managed by adults; difficulties that arise are not worked out by kids but adjudicated by adult referees.

“So many toys now are designed by and for adults,” says Tufts’ Elkind. When kids do engage in their own kind of play, parents become alarmed. Anderegg points to kids exercising time-honored curiosity by playing doctor. “It’s normal for children to have curiosity about other children’s genitals,” he says. “But when they do, most parents I know are totally freaked out. They wonder what’s wrong.”

Kids are having a hard time even playing neighborhood pick-up games because they’ve never done it, observes Barbara Carlson, president and cofounder of Putting Families First. “They’ve been told by their coaches where on the field to stand, told by their parents what color socks to wear, told by the referees who’s won and what’s fair. Kids are losing leadership skills.”

A lot has been written about the commercialization of children’s play, but not the side effects, says Elkind. “Children aren’t getting any benefits out of play as they once did.” From the beginning play helps children learn how to control themselves, how to interact with others. Contrary to the widely held belief that only intellectual activities build a sharp brain, it’s in play that cognitive agility really develops. Studies of children and adults around the world demonstrate that social engagement actually improves intellectual skills. It fosters decision-making, memory and thinking, speed of mental processing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the human mind is believed to have evolved to deal with social problems.

The Eternal Umbilicus

It’s bad enough that today’s children are raised in a psychological hothouse where they are overmonitored and oversheltered. But that hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that you can thank the cell phone. Even in college — or perhaps especially at college — students are typically in contact with their parents several times a day, reporting every flicker of experience. One long-distance call overheard on a recent cross-campus walk: “Hi, Mom. I just got an ice-cream cone; can you believe they put sprinkles on the bottom as well as on top?”

“Kids are constantly talking to parents,” laments Cornell student Kramer, which makes them perpetually homesick. Of course, they’re not telling the folks everything, notes Portmann. “They’re not calling their parents to say, ‘I really went wild last Friday at the frat house and now I might have chlamydia. Should I go to the student health center?'”

The perpetual access to parents infantilizes the young, keeping them in a permanent state of dependency. Whenever the slightest difficulty arises, “they’re constantly referring to their parents for guidance,” reports Kramer. They’re not learning how to manage for themselves.

Think of the cell phone as the eternal umbilicus. One of the ways we grow up is by internalizing an image of Mom and Dad and the values and advice they imparted over the early years. Then, whenever we find ourselves faced with uncertainty or difficulty, we call on that internalized image. We become, in a way, all the wise adults we’ve had the privilege to know. “But cell phones keep kids from figuring out what to do,” says Anderegg. “They’ve never internalized any images; all they’ve internalized is ‘call Mom or Dad.'”

Some psychologists think we have yet to recognize the full impact of the cell phone on child development, because its use is so new. Although there are far too many variables to establish clear causes and effects, Indiana’s Carducci believes that reliance on cell phones undermines the young by destroying the ability to plan ahead. “The first thing students do when they walk out the door of my classroom is flip open the cell phone. Ninety-five percent of the conversations go like this: ‘I just got out of class; I’ll see you in the library in five minutes.’ Absent the phone, you’d have to make arrangements ahead of time; you’d have to think ahead.”

Herein lies another possible pathway to depression. The ability to plan resides in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the executive branch of the brain. The PFC is a critical part of the self-regulation system, and it’s deeply implicated in depression, a disorder increasingly seen as caused or maintained by unregulated thought patterns — lack of intellectual rigor, if you will. Cognitive therapy owes its very effectiveness to the systematic application of critical thinking to emotional reactions. Further, it’s in the setting of goals and progress in working toward them, however mundane they are, that positive feelings are generated. From such everyday activity, resistance to depression is born.

What’s more, cell phones — along with the instant availability of cash and almost any consumer good your heart desires — promote fragility by weakening self-regulation. “You get used to things happening right away,” says Carducci. You not only want the pizza now, you generalize that expectation to other domains, like friendship and intimate relationships. You become frustrated and impatient easily. You become unwilling to work out problems. And so relationships fail — perhaps the single most powerful experience leading to depression.

From Scrutiny to Anxiety… and Beyond

The 1990s witnessed a landmark reversal in the traditional patterns of psychopathology. While rates of depression rise with advancing age among people over 40, they’re now increasing fastest among children, striking more children at younger and younger ages.

In his now-famous studies of how children’s temperaments play out, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences. About 20 percent of babies are born with a high-strung temperament. They can be spotted even in the womb; they have fast heartbeats. Their nervous systems are innately programmed to be overexcitable in response to stimulation, constantly sending out false alarms about what is dangerous.

As infants and children this group experiences stress in situations most kids find unthreatening, and they may go through childhood and even adulthood fearful of unfamiliar people and events, withdrawn and shy. At school age they become cautious, quiet and introverted. Left to their own devices they grow up shrinking from social encounters. They lack confidence around others. They’re easily influenced by others. They are sitting ducks for bullies. And they are on the path to depression.

While their innate reactivity seems to destine all these children for later anxiety disorders, things didn’t turn out that way. Between a touchy temperament in infancy and persistence of anxiety stand two highly significant things: parents. Kagan found to his surprise that the development of anxiety was scarcely inevitable despite apparent genetic programming. At age 2, none of the overexcitable infants wound up fearful if their parents backed off from hovering and allowed the children to find some comfortable level of accommodation to the world on their own. Those parents who overprotected their children — directly observed by conducting interviews in the home — brought out the worst in them.

A small percentage of children seem almost invulnerable to anxiety from the start. But the overwhelming majority of kids are somewhere in between. For them, overparenting can program the nervous system to create lifelong vulnerability to anxiety and depression.

There is in these studies a lesson for all parents. Those who allow their kids to find a way to deal with life’s day-to-day stresses by themselves are helping them develop resilience and coping strategies. “Children need to be gently encouraged to take risks and learn that nothing terrible happens,” says Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and head of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute. “They need gradual exposure to find that the world is not dangerous. Having overprotective parents is a risk factor for anxiety disorders because children do not have opportunities to master their innate shyness and become more comfortable in the world.” They never learn to dampen the pathways from perception to alarm reaction.

Hothouse parenting undermines children in other ways, too, says Anderegg. Being examined all the time makes children extremely self-conscious. As a result they get less communicative; scrutiny teaches them to bury their real feelings deeply. And most of all, self-consciousness removes the safety to be experimental and playful. “If every drawing is going to end up on your parents’ refrigerator, you’re not free to fool around, to goof up or make mistakes,” says Anderegg.

Parental hovering is why so many teenagers are so ironic, he notes. It’s a kind of detachment, “a way of hiding in plain sight. They just don’t want to be exposed to any more scrutiny.”

Parents are always so concerned about children having high self-esteem, he adds. “But when you cheat on their behalf to get them ahead of other children” — by pursuing accommodations and recommendations — you just completely corrode their sense of self. They feel ‘I couldn’t do this on my own.’ It robs them of their own sense of efficacy.” A child comes to think, “if I need every advantage I can get, then perhaps there is really something wrong with me.” A slam dunk for depression.

Virginia’s Portmann feels the effects are even more pernicious; they weaken the whole fabric of society. He sees young people becoming weaker right before his eyes, more responsive to the herd, too eager to fit in — less assertive in the classroom, unwilling to disagree with their peers, afraid to question authority, more willing to conform to the expectations of those on the next rung of power above them.

Endless Adolescence

The end result of cheating childhood is to extend it forever. Despite all the parental pressure, and probably because of it, kids are pushing back — in their own way. They’re taking longer to grow up.

Adulthood no longer begins when adolescence ends, according to a recent report by University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank F. Furstenberg and colleagues. There is, instead, a growing no-man’s-land of postadolescence from 20 to 30, which they dub “early adulthood.” Those in it look like adults but “haven’t become fully adult yet — traditionally defined as finishing school, landing a job with benefits, marrying and parenting — because they are not ready or perhaps not permitted to do so.”

Using the classic benchmarks of adulthood, 65 percent of males had reached adulthood by the age of 30 in 1960. By contrast, in 2000, only 31 percent had. Among women, 77 percent met the benchmarks of adulthood by age 30 in 1960. By 2000, the number had fallen to 46 percent.

Boom Boom Boomerang

Take away play from the front end of development and it finds a way onto the back end. A steady march of success through regimented childhood arranged and monitored by parents creates young adults who need time to explore themselves. “They often need a period in college or afterward to legitimately experiment — to be children,” says historian Stearns. “There’s decent historical evidence to suggest that societies that allow kids a few years of latitude and even moderate [rebellion] end up with healthier kids than societies that pretend such impulses don’t exist.”

Marriage is one benchmark of adulthood, but its antecedents extend well into childhood. “The precursor to marriage is dating, and the precursor to dating is playing,” says Carducci. The less time children spend in free play, the less socially competent they’ll be as adults. It’s in play that we learn give and take, the fundamental rhythm of all relationships. We learn how to read the feelings of others and how to negotiate conflicts. Taking the play out of childhood, he says, is bound to create a developmental lag, and he sees it clearly in the social patterns of today’s adolescents and young adults, who hang around in groups that are more typical of childhood. Not to be forgotten: The backdrop of continued high levels of divorce confuses kids already too fragile to take the huge risk of commitment.

Just Whose Shark Tank Is It Anyway?

The stressful world of cutthroat competition that parents see their kids facing may not even exist. Or it exists, but more in their mind than in reality — not quite a fiction, more like a distorting mirror. “Parents perceive the world as a terribly competitive place,” observes Anderegg. “And many of them project that onto their children when they’re the ones who live or work in a competitive environment. They then imagine that their children must be swimming in a big shark tank, too.”

“It’s hard to know what the world is going to look like 10 years from now,” says Elkind. “How best do you prepare kids for that? Parents think that earlier is better. That’s a natural intuition, but it happens to be wrong.”

What if parents have micromanaged their kids’ lives because they’ve hitched their measurement of success to a single event whose value to life and paycheck they have frantically overestimated? No one denies the Ivy League offers excellent learning experiences, but most educators know that some of the best programs exist at schools that don’t top the U.S. News and World Report list, and that with the right attitude — a willingness to be engaged by new ideas — it’s possible to get a meaningful education almost anywhere. Further, argues historian Stearns, there are ample openings for students at an array of colleges. “We have a competitive frenzy that frankly involves parents more than it involves kids themselves,” he observes, both as a father of eight and teacher of many. “Kids are more ambivalent about the college race than are parents .”

Yet the very process of application to select colleges undermines both the goal of education and the inherent strengths of young people. “It makes kids sneaky,” says Anderegg. Bending rules and calling in favors to give one’s kid a competitive edge is morally corrosive.

Like Stearns, he is alarmed that parents, pursuing disability diagnoses so that children can take untimed SATs, actually encourage kids to think of themselves as sickly and fragile. Colleges no longer know when SATs are untimed — but the kids know. “The kids know when you’re cheating on their behalf,” says Anderegg, “and it makes them feel terribly guilty. Sometimes they arrange to fail to right the scales. And when you cheat on their behalf, you completely undermine their sense of self-esteem. They feel they didn’t earn it on their own.”

In buying their children accommodations to assuage their own anxiety, parents are actually locking their kids into fragility. Says the suburban teacher: “Exams are a fact of life. They are anxiety-producing. The kids never learn how to cope with anxiety.”

Putting Worry in its Place

Children, however, are not the only ones who are harmed by hyperconcern. Vigilance is enormously taxing — and it’s taken all the fun out of parenting. “Parenting has in some measurable ways become less enjoyable than it used to be,” says Stearns. “I find parents less willing to indulge their children’s sense of time. So they either force-feed them or do things for them.”

Parents need to abandon the idea of perfection and give up some of the invasive control they’ve maintained over their children. The goal of parenting, Portmann reminds, is to raise an independent human being. Sooner or later, he says, most kids will be forced to confront their own mediocrity. Parents may find it easier to give up some control if they recognize they have exaggerated many of the dangers of childhood — although they have steadfastly ignored others, namely the removal of recess from schools and the ubiquity of video games that encourage aggression.

The childhood we’ve introduced to our children is very different from that in past eras, Epstein stresses. Children no longer work at young ages. They stay in school for longer periods of time and spend more time exclusively in the company of peers. Children are far less integrated into adult society than they used to be at every step of the way. We’ve introduced laws that give children many rights and protections — although we have allowed media and marketers to have free access.

In changing the nature of childhood, Stearns argues, we’ve introduced a tendency to assume that children can’t handle difficult situations. “Middle-class parents especially assume that if kids start getting into difficulty they need to rush in and do it for them, rather than let them flounder a bit and learn from it. I don’t mean we should abandon them,” he says, “but give them more credit for figuring things out.” And recognize that parents themselves have created many of the stresses and anxieties children are suffering from, without giving them tools to manage them.

While the adults are at it, they need to remember that one of the goals of higher education is to help young people develop the capacity to think for themselves.

Although we’re well on our way to making kids more fragile, no one thinks that kids and young adults are fundamentally more flawed than in previous generations. Maybe many will “recover” from diagnoses too liberally slapped on to them. In his own studies of 14 skills he has identified as essential for adulthood in American culture, from love to leadership, Epstein has found that “although teens don’t necessarily behave in a competent way, they have the potential to be every bit as competent and as incompetent as adults.”

Parental anxiety has its place. But the way things now stand, it’s not being applied wisely. We’re paying too much attention to too few kids — and in the end, the wrong kids. As with the girl whose parents bought her the Gestalt-defect diagnosis, resources are being expended for kids who don’t need them.

There are kids who are worth worrying about — kids in poverty, stresses Anderegg. “We focus so much on our own children,” says Elkind, “It’s time to begin caring about all children.”

Procrastination: Ten Things To Know

There are many ways to avoid success in life, but the most sure-fire just might be procrastination. Procrastinators sabotage themselves. They put obstacles in their own path. They actually choose paths that hurt their performance.

Why would people do that? I talked to two of the world’s leading experts on procrastination: Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, and Timorthy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Neither one is a procrastinator, and both answered my many questions immediately.

Twenty percent of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. For them procrastination is a lifestyle, albeit a maladaptive one. And it cuts across all domains of their life. They don’t pay bills on time. They miss opportunities for buying tickets to concerts. They don’t cash gift certificates or checks. They file income tax returns late. They leave their Christmas shopping until Christmas eve.
It’s not trivial, although as a culture we don’t take it seriously as a problem. It represents a profound problem of self-regulation. And there may be more of it in the U.S. than in other countries because we are so nice; we don’t call people on their excuses (“my grandmother died last week”) even when we don’t believe them.
Procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time, although they are more optimistic than others. “Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up,” insists Dr. Ferrari.
Procrastinators are made not born. Procrastination is learned in the family milieu, but not directly. It is one response to an authoritarian parenting style. Having a harsh, controlling father keeps children from developing the ability to regulate themselves, from internalizing their own intentions and then learning to act on them. Procrastination can even be a form of rebellion, one of the few forms available under such circumstances. What’s more, under those household conditions, procrastinators turn more to friends than to parents for support, and their friends may reinforce procrastination because they tend to be tolerant of their excuses.
Procrastination predicts higher levels of consumption of alcohol among those people who drink. Procrastinators drink more than they intend to—a manifestation of generalized problems in self-regulation. That is over and above the effect of avoidant coping styles that underlie procrastination and lead to disengagement via substance abuse.
Procrastinators tell lies to themselves. Such as, “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow.” Or “I work best under pressure.” But in fact they do not get the urge the next day or work best under pressure. In addition, they protect their sense of self by saying “this isn’t important.” Another big lie procrastinators indulge is that time pressure makes them more creative. Unfortunately they do not turn out to be more creative; they only feel that way. They squander their resources.
Procrastinators actively look for distractions, particularly ones that don’t take a lot of commitment on their part. Checking e-mail is almost perfect for this purpose. They distract themselves as a way of regulating their emotions such as fear of failure.
There’s more than one flavor of procrastination. People procrastinate for different reasons. Dr. Ferrari identifies three basic types of procrastinators:
arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush.
avoiders, who may be avoiding fear of failure or even fear of success, but in either case are very concerned with what others think of them; they would rather have others think they lack effort than ability.
decisional procrastinators, who cannot make a decision. Not making a decision absolves procrastinators of responsibility for the outcome of events.
There are big costs to procrastination. Health is one. Just over the course of a single academic term, procrastinating college students had such evidence of compromised immune systems as more colds and flu, more gastrointestinal problems. And they had insomnia. In addition, procrastination has a high cost to others as well as oneself; it shifts the burden of responsibilities onto others, who become resentful. Procrastination destroys teamwork in the workplace and private relationships.
Procrastinators can change their behavior—but doing so consumes a lot of psychic energy. And it doesn’t necessarily mean one feels transformed internally. It can be done with highly structured cognitive behavioral therapy.

Compelling reasons to send your children to Germany’s international schools

Many English-speaking expatriates are educating their children at one of Germany’s international schools, and an education at such a school has numerous advantages.

There is, of course, instruction in the native language. And, since the student body is usually quite international, they expose the young people to a variety of cultures. They also do a better job than most German schools of introducing the students to computers, and the program of sports and extracurricular activities is more like what they are accustomed to at home.

Physical plants and facilities are usually quite modern, clean and comfortable, with new equipment more conducive to learning. And the curriculae among international schools is uniform, allowing ease of transfer. They usually are accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) and the European Council of International Schools (ECIS) and offer the International Baccalaureate as well as the American high school diploma.

The costs, however, are high, approximating what a US college education commands: as much as €11,000 per high school student per year. Preschool and elementary school grades cost 30 to 50 percent less. Additional costs include transportation, lunches, class trips and various special activities.

Here is a selection of some of the major schools.

Munich International School

Munich International School, facing the future squarely in the eye, is aggressively pursuing policies to meet the ever-increasing demand for international school-style education in southern Bavaria.

With a respectable 98 percent of its graduates being accepted at the finer schools of higher learning in the United States and throughout Europe, MIS, located at Starnberg outside Munich, is further enhancing rewards for high achievers. Two full scholarships for students currently pursuing the two-year pre-university International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma have been awarded through the school’s scholarship program.

In keeping with its emphasis on academics, the Senior School curriculum at MIS has recently been enriched by the addition of essential contemporary courses such as computer Sstudies, “IT in a Global Society,” economics, and film studies, among others.

Munich International School reports such an extensive performing arts program for all age groups attending that a small city could well be envious. Mid-November saw 24 members of the MIS Band in Hungary sounding off on main stage at the Budapest International School. Museums, castles, and a Danube cruise rounded out the cultural program. Three weeks later in December, MIS World choir members sang at Munich’s Prinzregenten Theater with Sunnyi Melles and the Munich Chamber Orchestra conducted by the Kammerorchester’s renowned maestro Christoph Poppen. Back on Campus in suburban Starnberg, MIS Middle School’s musical “Man of Steel” will give 10–13 year old students the chance to strut their stuff in main roles, dance and vocal ensembles. Perhaps MIS’s biggest musical highlight this year will be the April production of “Oliver” at the school. It will involve 100 performers from grades 4–10, together with parents, faculty, the MIS Adult Community and World choirs.

MIS places academic emphasis on music, too as is reflected in a new music course ” group performance” for those working towards the IB Diploma. Far from Munich international soloist competition at the Hague will see two young MIS brass players, James Mitchell and Eric Redinger, performing on baritone horn and trumpet respectively at the Solo/Ensemble Festival in the Dutch capital.

An astonishing list of music-dance activities are available to MIS students: ballet, tap, jazz and even flamenco dance classes are among extracurriculars. Voice and instrumental instruction are available privately on campus as well as a training band, an orchestra, a jazz group, Carl Orff ensembles (the late composer, an area resident, is buried nearby at Andechs Monastery,) and no less than three choir groups! Could one expect less from the town that hosted Di Lasso, Mozart, Wagner and Strauss?

And, for all those who don’t sing and swing and play the flute, MIS also prides itself on other quality after school extracurricular courses. Among them are art, drama, filmmaking, ceramics and jewelry design. In a word, as the song goes, “Who could ask for anything more?”

Steady growth marked by constant plant construction continues to expand MIS’s physical parameters to accommodate the 1,350 students expected to attend in the near future, a growth of more than 45 percent within less than a single decade. A new classroom wing will house language and scientific laboratories as well as a performing arts center. A third gymnasium, student lounge and expanded cafeteria facilities are being added, as well as extended parking facilities. For further information, check the school website.

Berlin International School

Berlin International School, with a centrally located campus in a pretty suburban area, is a state-recognized private school, offering instruction to children from pre-school to grade 5. It was established in 1998 under the umbrella of Private Kant-Schule e.V., and, as a state recognized school, it ensures that the Berlin curriculum goals are met. The curriculum, however, is enriched and driven by the Primary Years Program of the International Baccalaureate Organization.

Students of the primary school have between 29 and 33 teaching periods per week. These lessons include Language Arts, Math, Units of Inquiry (Social Studies-Social Sciences), Art, Music, Physical Education as well as English or German as a Foreign Language. Lunch is cooked on site and served in the Cafeteria.

Some 300 students from 42 nations are presently enrolled. The largest percentage of students are German, followed by North Americans and Asians. Most classroom instruction is in English, and B.I.S. has a very low teacher-student ratio. Both the German Abitur and the International Baccalaureate are offered. The school’s website provides more information.

Bonn International School

Bonn International School’s recognition by the city for its vital place in the economic growth of the region has resulted in a funding program for construction of a new facility designed for 600 students grades pre-K -12. The current “green field” location next to the United Nations on the banks of the Rhine will hopefully see the building work start within two years.

In its relatively short history, the Bonn International School has achieved recognition a “World School,” following the full authorization of all International Baccalaureate Organization programs. The provision of a rigorous program, recognized throughout the world, is an important part of the school’s mission.

Most students from BIS continue on to further and higher education. In the past few years the school has helped students gain entry to Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics, MIT, Cornell, Stanford and McGill universities.

The school is a diverse learning environment with 55 nationalities represented among the 380 students on roll. If you would like to learn more about the school as a community, visit its website.

International School of Düsseldorf

The International School of Düsseldorf continues to grow, reflecting a finding of the German government that the Rhein-Ruhr area, centering on Düsseldorf, shows the fastest increase in English-speaking expatriates.

The average enrollment is 800 students from 40 nations, and a full- and part-time faculty of 97 from 15 countries provides instruction from pre-K to grade 13. Facilities include two libraries, six science labs, three music rooms, three art rooms, four computer rooms, a 400-seat theater and two cafeterias.

Sports and other extra curricular activities are important, too. There are two off-campus athletic fields including a clubhouse, a full-sized basketball court, tennis courts and track and field facilities. The school offers soccer, basketball and volleyball teams, and individual free time programs include ballet, hip-hop, judo, swimming, floor hockey, debate, theater and music and a model U.N.

The International Baccalaureate is offered and the entire program is accorded NEASC and ECIS accreditation as well as the vaunted Nordrhein-Westfalen Ministry of Education seal of approval. German is a requirement starting in Kindergarten, although instruction is in English. For full details visit, the school’s website.

Erasmus International School

Erasmus International School was established in 1999 to cater for the growing needs of the English speaking expatriate community in the Berlin and Brandenburg area of Germany.

The school is a humanistic non-denominational private school offering a complete K–12 program. For boarding students from age 16 a facility for up to 90 students is available. Students are accepted from Pre-School up to Grade 11. In June 2003, for the first time Grade 12 students will graduate at Erasmus IS.

The Erasmus school received state recognition for the primary and secondary schools in June 2000, and is the only international school in Germany officially recognized as a gymnasium. The City of Potsdam provided a recently vacated school building, complete with sports hall.

The school is due to relocate from its current premises at Flotow Strasse to its own campus at Kirchsteigfeld, Potsdam in 2004. The site in Kirchsteigfeld will be an ideal location for a large, well-equipped school. The campus will be developed in three stages, catering for up to 600, 1,000 and 1,450 students respectively. The school’s website can give you more information.

Frankfurt International School

The Frankfurt International School (FIS) is organized into four school divisions: the Primary Division, the Elementary Division, and the Upper School in Oberursel, and the International School Wiesbaden (ISW) which operates as a branch of FIS at a separate campus in Wiesbaden.

The main (Waldlust) campus in Oberursel, about 15 kilometers from downtown Frankfurt, houses the Elementary School starting with grade 2, and the Upper School. The Primary Division, with classes from age three through grade 1, is located on an adjacent property to the main campus. Programs for children aged 3 to 11 (through grade 6) are offered at the ISW campus. FIS is recognized as an allgemeinbildende Ergänzungsschule.

There are currently over 1800 students from 50 different countries attending FIS and ISW. They are 31 percent American, 17 percent German, 12 percent British, 5 percent Japanese, 6 percent Korean and 4 percent Canadian. The annual turnover of expatriate pupils ranges between 20 and 25 percent of the total student body.

The school employs 293 faculty and staff from 25 countries. Each member of the faculty has at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent and a teaching license from his or her respective country. Approximately 60 percent of the faculty have advanced degrees and 28 percent have served for over 10 years in the school.

FIS is accredited by NEASC and the ECIS, and is a member school of the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO). FIS is a registered examination center for the International Baccalaureate (IB), the American College Board Entrance Examinations (SAT), and the University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate for International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE).

English is the primary language of instruction and English as a Second Language (ESL) support is available for all students who need it. German courses, at a variety of levels, are available in all grades and required of virtually every student. The school’s website is at

International School Hamburg

The International School Hamburg is a co-educational day school for students from age 3 to the 12th grade. It was founded in 1957, thereby earning the distinction of being the first international school in Gemany. The ISH school buildings in Holmbrook were originally built in 1972. They were renovated and extended in 1999. A new wing was built to accommodate the Early Childhood Centre, eight classes from Primary 1 to Grade 2, the Junior School Library and rooms for Music, German, ESL, Special Educational Needs and the School Counselor. The building also has new offices for the school administration and a cafeteria.

There are separate areas provided for each secondary curriculum. There are rooms that include two large Visual Education studios with a ceramics area including a kiln and a dark room for photographic work, a Computer Laboratory, a Technology workshop, a shared IT room for Science and Mathematics, five Science Laboratories, a Library and Media Center and a Gymnasium. There are also rooms for Music and Drama and a large Aula used for public performances and meetings. The school has an outdoor all-weather sports facility, recreational areas and a playground. The are two drop-off areas for students brought to school by car. Visit the school’s website for further information.

Internationale Schule Frankfurt-Rhein-Main

The ISF Internationale Schule Frankfurt-Rhein-Main, founded by the city of Frankfurt, the State of Hesse and multinational corporations, offers some 850 students education from Pre-Kindergarten through Grade 13.

The new, purpose-built, state-of-the-art campus in Frankfurt-Sindlingen is equidistant from the city centers of Frankfurt, Wiesbaden and Darmstadt and adjacent to the beautiful residential areas of the Taunus. Facilities include a theater, indoor, semi-Olympic sized swimming pool and tennis courts in addition to advanced music, art, and academic facilities.

Students have three options for their route to university: the ISF FRM Secondary School diploma, the U.S. Advanced Placement diploma for 12th graders and the British A-Level Grade 13 diploma.

Internationale Schule Frankfurt-Rhein-Main is an accredited member of NCA (North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, CASI (Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement) and CITA (the Commission on International and Trans-Regional Accreditation). Additionally, ISF is a regular member of the European Council of International Schools (ECIS) and the Association of German International Schools (AGIS). For much more information, visit the school’s website.


Internationale Schule am Rhein in Neuss (ISR/Neuss), located on the left Rhine bank across from Düsseldorf, will open its doors in September 2003. Initially, K to Grade 5 will be offered, with grades to be added in sequence year by year for the next seven years until a full high school program is attained. Given adequate demand, the schedule will be accelerated.

ISR/Neuss’s initial physical plant is contained in a modern building, which is part of a vocational training center in the Hammfeld section of town, close to Autobahn 57. But the school has its own separate entrance and grounds for the children. including a multi-purpose indoor sports hall, an indoor swimming pool. The new Sportpark/Neuss Stadtwald are close by offering additional recreation opportunities..

In the academic year 2006-2007, ISR/Neuss is planning to move into its own specially constructed facilities on the Konrad-Adenauer-Ring.

ISR/Neuss is a Sabis® system school. Like its role-model in Hessen, the ISF Frankfurt Rhein Main, ISR/Neuss is founded by the County and City of Neuss by more than 15 major corporations, individuals, and commercial organizations headquartered in and around the Nordrhein-Westfalen capital.

ISR/Neuss is busily obtaining accreditation at press time. When completed certifications to be awarded will include the International Baccalaureate (IB), ISR High School Diploma, US Advanced Placement Exams, British AS/A-Level Exams, and the British International General Certificate of Secondary Education.

Monthly testing in the lower grades and weekly tests for Grades 5 and up keep children, parents and educators continuously appraised of academic progress. Of particular importance are the extended morning and afternoon supervised activities programs from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. available for children whose parents are employed.

Even though ISR/Neuss is the newest addition to the burgeoning Düsseldorf international school scene, its debut is no surprise. Its existence has been several years in the planning. Indeed, it will be a welcome ally and neighbor to the long-established International School of Düsseldorf. Visit the school’s website, send them en e-mail, or call +49 2131 40388-0.

International School Hannover Region

The International School Hannover Region has undergone a transformation by moving into fine purpose-built facilities which have undergone extensive renovation and modernization. The large, well furnished classrooms, modern science labs, state of the art computer laboratory, well-stocked library, music, art and sports facilities contribute well to the quality of education offered at the school.

The ISHR last June graduated its first class of seniors, all of whom had completed their International Baccalaureate Diploma examinations. These young men and women now have gone on to study in universities around the world.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, the 3- and 4-year-olds of the International Kindergarten section are already exploring the world through constructive play and the English language, skills which will stand them in good stead as they move through the school.

One of the aims of the school is to promote a positive and reciprocal relationship with the neighborhood of Kleefeld, the city of Hannover, state of Lower Saxony, and the host country, Germany. For more information check the school’s website.

International School of Stuttgart

The International School of Stuttgart keeps on growing. Two new buildings were opened in time for the start of the 2002-2003 school year, providing brand-new quarters for the Early Learning Center and Elementary School, a second library, a cafeteria, a sports hall, offices and classrooms.

Founded in 1985 to serve the needs of the local international community, the school is a private, non-profit institution offering education to students between the ages of three and 18 years. The ISS student body is truly multicultural, with close to 500 students from around 30 different nations. The faculty is similarly diversified, with qualified professionals representing 15 nationalities.

In the High School, ISS offers the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. In the 2001-02 school year the Lower School began a three year implementation of the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program. This was followed by the implementation of the Middle Years Program in the Middle School starting in the 2002-03 school year.

Child Development Basics

The child development section of our site provides parents with information on physical, mental and emotional growth and development in children and teenagers. The information on the pages in this section helps parents know what to expect from their children as they mature. Child development information can help parents know when they are expecting too much from a child as well as become aware of lags in development that may benefit from professional help. The pages in this section not only provide information on the activities and achievements usually displayed at a given stage of development but also direct readers to information on how to help children and adolescents reach their full potential as they grow and develop.

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