Over-Scheduled Families
By Alvin Rosenfeld, MD
January 26, 2004
Rodeph Shalom School, NYC

by Alvin Rosenfeld, MD

I know that you wouldn't be here this frigid Monday if you weren't totally committed to being the best parents you could be. I want to promote that, which makes it my job to convince you that you can do more by doing less. It's a hard task because I am fighting a tidal wave; an over-scheduled family style is being touted in books, magazines, and television as the best way to raise children. Yet I suspect that following this style's recommendations actually may be getting unhappy children diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD, bipolar, and depressed, contributing to angry, discouraged adolescents being involved with drugs, alcohol, and premature sex, and damaging our marriages (Luthar and Becker).

This hyperparenting program is enticing; it promises to create "successful children" who get into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, U of P, Duke, UVA, Cornell, and Princeton. It gives a clear-cut, though limitless, blueprint: Enriching every facet of a child, done through activities started early --preferably prenatally -combined with intense practice, parental selflessness, and ceaseless devotion to being best will create "winner" kids. Deprived of these activities, children will be - plainly put -losers and their parents will have no one to blame but themselves!

The widespread adoption of this over-scheduled family style has altered family lives. In the past 20 years, unstructured children's activities have declined by 50%, structured sports time has doubled, household conversations have become far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased by 28%.

The method distrusts biology -the result of a million years of evolution - and treats growing up as merely a rough outline that contemporary science and technology can improve on dramatically. Child development is erroneously seen as a straight line: The child who reads early will be the Tiger Woods of the verbal SAT's. So parents are urged to accelerate development; one Dad paid the Nanny $500 for every milestone his daughter beat. She babbled early; the nanny got $500. She crawled early, $500!

Anecdotal evidence contrary to this philosophy is overlooked: Mickey Mantle was a poor hitter as a boy; Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10; and George Gershwin was having considerable success as a child hoodlum before he became passionate about music. It also underemphasizes the importance of personal devotion to overcoming limitations: James Earl Jones had a speech impediment he worked hard to overcome.

No facts I know support this idea, though it is highly profitable for many entrepreneurs. No matter! I can't hurt, right? So, for instance, we play "Baby Einstein" tapes to stimulate infantile brain development. We forget that while adult Albert was a genius, he talked late and did poorly at school. Were he a student in any elite NYC private school today, he would get a comprehensive evaluation and end up on Ritalin. Deprived of his daydreams, he probably would be able to focus more fully on the complex demands of fourth grade math. He might not discover the Theory of Relativity, but you can't have everything.

This method runs contrary to the reassurance we know new parents need. Dr. Spock the pediatrician -- not Mr. Spock the Vulcan -- did everything he could to diminish parental anxiety, because he knew that we all do far better when we are relaxed. And 50 years ago, Spock was what parents read. Today, parental insecurity is kindled and tweaked. Stores have racks of books and forty or more parenting magazines. Their advice often makes parents so anxious and vigilant that they scrutinize their infants and young children: Does Michelle babble early enough, does Lee crawl sooner than his cousins?

Any delay or deviation that parents notice, however minor, raises concern. So parents get specialists to help them intervene early, just in case. One mother was warned that her five-year-old daughter had a "pencil holding" deficiency, a potential portent of serious problems ahead. Tutoring was recommended. The Mom ignored that sage advice; miraculously, the daughter learned to live with her disability. Eventually, she attended Princeton. She still holds her pencil oddly.

Because it is never too early to prepare for college, hyper-parenting starts before birth and is prevalent through the teens:

1) Although our homes are stunningly enriched by any international standard, we bring home newborns, who would be perfectly comfortable sleeping in a fleece lined drawer, to fully equipped $5-10,000 nurseries.

2) Whole states get involved. Convinced by research that "proved" that listening to Mozart in infancy enhances later mathematical ability, former Governor Zell signed a bill to send every Georgia newborn home with a Mozart CD. No matter that research on the "Mozart Effect" was done on college students, or that the benefit was short-lived. Moreover, no research has shown that Mozart is any better than Mahler, Mick Jagger, polka music, or the Dixie Chicks. If well-conducted scientific research proved that the music that most promoted brain development was Gangsta Rap, would we regularly play it at home? What if we prefer the Beatles? Could we survive the guilt that we just might selfishly be depriving our child of ten precious IQ points?

3) The belief in this child rearing style has transformed parenting into a competitive sport. Children are tutored for nursery school ERB's and prepped for their interviews. After their child is accepted, parents fret over whether the educational program is rigorous enough for their 3 year-old.

4) Although research that found no correlation between the amount of homework early elementary school students do and their achievement levels (a clear association does exist in high school,) homework young children are assigned has increased dramatically. Many parents do use homework to teach an important skill: hiring consultants, because often they, and their friends, do - or should I say "help with" -- the child's homework. Some schools have divided long-term projects, like fourth grade dioramas, into those the child made, and those that the parents clearly helped with, because Kyle's Panda project looks like a strong design contender for the new World Trade Center.

5) In the race to success, basic health and the notion of "balance" get ignored: Kids' carry 30-pound, textbook filled, backpacks that likely damage their spinal columns in the long-term effect. Children are pressured and anxious: Two mothers at one elite NYC school counted that of the fourth grade girls performing at a school piano recital, 16 of 36 had tics.

6) Because elite colleges admit a disproportionate percentage of athletes, parents push kids athletically, enrolling four year olds, kids too young to understand the rules of soccer, let alone master the complex physical challenges of controlling a ball while running down a field -- or even which goal they are aiming at -- in competitive leagues.

They hire demanding -- even abusive -- coaches who train "winners." Every "serious" coach feels entitled to all of a family's free time. A ten-year-old's ice hockey practice is expected to take precedence over the parents' Saturday night dinner with friends, not once, but every week. Until a scandal erupts, everyone overlooks the fact that coaches not infrequently emotionally, and sexually, abuse elite athletes.

7) No school-aged child can be average! They are either gifted or learning disabled. Sometimes, learning disabled is preferable. One Ivy League admissions officer told wealthy donors to get their grandchildren diagnosed ADD so they could take their SAT exams un-timed and, now, un-asterisked, making them easier to admit.

8) This mentality has high school students sleep-deprived as they busily rush from activity, to endless homework, to tutors, to volunteering at charities to shape resumes to fit what elite colleges supposedly are looking for. One affluent Mom insisted that any child who has not started a charitable foundation by 17 has no shot at Yale. For the best SAT tutors in New York City, wealthy parents paid $1000 an hour five years ago - I don't know the cost today.

9) Deception is fostered. The 10th grade essays one affluent mom had been writing for her son had been earning only B's, so she hired a professional writer to help raise his grades. If he got into Harvard, the writer was told, this "consulting job" could become a "long-term gig." Kids lie about their activities; college resumes are on steroids. No actual human could be that accomplished at 17. Because universities know about this, some have started randomly checking whether applicants' purported accomplishments are real or fabricated.

The social trends that have fostered this situation are complex and involve changes in, 1) the family, 2) technology, and 3) parents' expectations of themselves.

The family: For millennia, families were mutually co-operative, productive units where everyone, whatever their age, contributed to economic survival. Today, children are economically useless and have become the parents' greatest financial liability: "Do you know how much it costs to raise a kid today?"

Technology: Doppler stethoscopes and ultrasounds allow parents-to-be to bond with "conceptuses." Unwittingly, this new technology has moved embryos to center stage. Rather than treating expectant mothers as special -- to be indulged with pickles and ice cream -contemporary books treat them as simply more, or less, selfless vessels for carrying pregnancy's central player, his majesty the fetus! And until some time in the 20th Century, childhood at least ended between seven and 17, not at 26 or 34. [When is a Jewish fetus viable? When it finishes medical school!]

Changed Expectations of Parents: In contrast to our being child-centered, the last generation's world was adult centered. The idea that my parents might cancel a night at Grandma's for my game was about as likely as my spotting a whooping crane on the Hudson River. Rather, we kids hung around family and social events, listening to the adults talking or discussing events they considered important.

These changes have altered life for our kids as well; they end up either self-centered or feeling guilty. Good kids, who can no longer repay our sacrifices with hard work on the family farm, can only repay us with high grades, popularity, athletic accomplishment, and the ultimate proof of success -- elite college admission.

Most sixth graders know what they have to do to go Ivy; tenth graders have mastered it. It involves, 1) never saying what you really think to teachers -- they write your college recommendations; 2) manufacturing resumes that make you sound like a seamless cross between Michael Jordan and Mother Theresa; 3) doing community service to help yourself - not the less fortunate - (one ninth-grader told me that her aunt suggested she teach art to the deaf because it would look good on a college application;) 4) working endlessly, even at subjects you hate; and 5) ignoring what suits you specifically. In sum, it involves manicuring reality, crafting yourself into what others say you ought to look like, not what your inner voice tells you to become. Is it any wonder that so many Americans feel like frauds?

This hurts kids' self-esteem. Over-scheduling tells our kids, subliminally, "If I am as good as my parents say, why do I need constant self-improvement? I must not be very good at all." It also says that we want them to be hyperactive, over-achieving, over-scheduled workaholics who win whatever the cost! Would you buy into that lifestyle? Some kids who can't excel at school toke up and drop out. As one adolescent told me, "In my family, it is Harvard, Yale, or nothing. And I just can't measure up!"

Those who resent their parents, the pressure, and/or the fraudulent system may insist they have superior values: One teenager told me, "I want my parents to judge who I am, not how I look."

Hyper-parenting is built on the premise that getting a kid into the Ivies is the gold medal of the parenting Olympics. I struggle with this notion because as much as I know it is in error, I can not fully abandon it.

I suspect that stick-to-it-tiveness and not leaving the ball field are crucial aspects of success in life. Kids who go to elite schools are ambitious, tenacious, and willing to play the system to get there. So if they retain these traits and don't burn out - as many do - they will likely do well. What about income? Some studies suggest that students who go to the very elite schools earn more in their lifetimes, but other research found that the kids who actually gain most from elite schools are the children of the indigent who get opportunities and connections there that more affluent students have by virtue of being their parents' children.

Available studies I know use primarily economic outcomes. Let's say that we accept the contemporary "businessman-as-god" religion, tarnished though it is since Enron and WorldCom. In Japan - and I am told in Great Britain -- most business leaders come from a few elite schools. What about America? Which college actually has the highest percentage of CEO's/1000 students? Harvard? Yale? Princeton? No. The Ivy League produced only 13%. It is Washington and Lee! Elite schools do help you get a better first job; after that, personal performance matters.

Furthermore, real creativity - the engine of American economic success -- is a quality colleges may not recognize. One young man desperately wanted to make films. He applied to UCLA's film program and was rejected. After a time at Long Beach State, he applied to transfer to USC's prestigious film program. He was rejected. But he was tenacious and succeeded. His name, Steven Spielberg! This has been dubbed the "Spielberg Effect," stating that the best indicator of being successful is the belief that you belong in elite institutions, whether or not you get in.

Are elite colleges really best for undergraduates? The ones with professional schools usually are parts of research universities that reward faculty getting research grants, particularly in fields where these are available. In promotions, teaching is a low priority. An aggressive student may spend individual or small group time with famous professors, but most see them primarily in large lecture courses. Graduate students usually teach undergrads in sections; a student usually gets 12 hours of instruction weekly. Is the 4-500 hours of annual group instruction really worth $40-50,000 a year? The students most satisfied with their undergraduate educations seem to be those from small liberal arts colleges.

But resisting the siren call of the Ivies is difficult; I ask my daughter, now in 11th grade, where the graduates of her school got admitted this year. I try - hard though it is -- to remember Jung's statement, "the shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases."

Harvard and Yale really are great universities that are great to be part of if you are the right kind of student. But some school in the third or fourth tier may be the perfect fit for your high school senior. For instance, one student was interested in aeronautical engineering; for him Ohio State was the best place to be. And in my experience, following your passion, when combined with some common sense, gives a person the best shot at a good life and the wonderful sense that they lived their life, not someone else's. In the classic words of Groucho, not Karl, Marx, "The real question is whether there is a life before death."

I wish schooling were the only place we parents had abandoned good sense, balance, and judgment. But kids' athletics is another where we have forgotten that childhood is a preparation, not a full performance.

Hobbies are great; athletics can make important contributions to children's health, self-protective instincts, and self-esteem. But today, everything in sports is subjected to scrutiny and judgment. The American Academy of Pediatrics warned parents about the dangers of children competing in demanding, incredibly competitive sports. They strongly advised that kids play multiple sports and specialize in one, if they must, only after puberty.

Is anyone listening? Take gymnastics. Should we be concerned that 90% of competitive female gymnasts get their first period a year or two late? A 1996 study reported disordered eating in 100% of elite female gymnasts and osteoporosis in more than half. Many do lifelong damage to their joints and spinal columns. Are they really examples for our daughters to emulate?

Although we put our children into protective head and body gear, orthopedic surgeons recently reported a worrisome increase in recreation-linked injuries among 5-14 year olds. They debated whether these kids had 2.2 million bone fractures, dislocations, and muscle injuries last year, or 3.5 million. Should we accept this as simply the price of "going for the gold?"

Holding up the fanaticism that necessarily goes into winning Olympic gold as a model, offers an insidious psychological message: Everything should be sacrificed for a medal. Many play, few win. Most of us will have peak experiences in our lives… every decade or two! Our words tell kids to "just say no" to drugs and premature sex. But our cheering says that we value action, and super-highs. No wonder so many people find everyday life, and time alone, boring.

How is this pressure for kids? I asked a 14-year-old boy who was a very good athlete but only a so-so student what it was like to excel at sports. He said that it was nice in some ways, but he would prefer just playing ball with his friends.

"Why?" I asked.

"I'm judged in school work," he replied. "I'm judged when I play ball. I just want some place where I'm not judged!"

Does empirical evidence support the "winning is everything" notion? The Gluecks did a classic study of juvenile delinquency; 40 years later George Vailliant, a Harvard psychiatrist, asked these people - who were then in their 50's -- about their lives. Despite sophisticated statistics, the variable that most predicted a good life was neither poverty nor severe abuse. Rather, what helped them - and protected some very vulnerable children from a bad life - was one good relationship.

If it is true that relationships - not activities - make for good lives, shouldn't we encourage our kids' and our family's relationships rather than worrying about Johnny hitting the longest ball in Little League? And what exactly do we consider "winning?" Is the famous CEO a success even though he did not get invited to his daughter's wedding?

In racing, what are we seeking? Hemingway captured this dilemma: "Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain, 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called by the Masai 'Ngaje Ngai,' The House of G_d. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude."

I have ambitions for my children and expect them to make something worthwhile of their lives. But I also want them to be mentally well, relatively free of unnecessary stress that might undo their equilibrium, and to assume the difficult responsibility of being the authors of their own lives.

In my clinical experience, parents who really know who their child is and have a visceral faith that the child will eventually find a good place in life, maximize the odds of that happening. Parents who say, through actions and gestures, that they are very nervous about their children's futures - and therefore have to improve them incessantly -- diminish the odds. They also may create a self-fulfilling prophecy: After all, every child resents a parents' lack of faith in them.

Parents deserve a life too! Kids I've known whose parents were pleased with their lives and marriages did far better. So go out with your spouse on Saturday night; have fun in bed. It's good for your kids.

What about play just for itself? Many of us devalue it as purposeless. Today's children are so tightly scheduled that many have never invented a backyard game or had time to just hang out with friends. Few get rewarded for the joy they found in discovering, imagining, creating, and exploring. When not in constant, frenzied motion, our kids have no idea of what to do and become bored. So Mom and Dad end up acting like cruise ship activities directors; isn't being a parent a higher calling than that?

Boredom, which we dread, is not necessarily bad. It can stimulate kids to think, create, and hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write this unusual story or draw that unique picture. America's economic success is based on people -- like David Packard, Bill Gates, and of course, Steven Spielberg -- who tinkered and followed their inner passions. Kids need time to be alone, to rehearse in their minds, to relax and veg out, something that video games do for many boys. It may be their one "Zen" experience where they actually feel centered.

Teaching Character

I think we also are abrogating a fundamental responsibility, teaching children character. How do we do that? Whether or not we have thought through our philosophy of life, our daily actions broadcast it to our children. By applauding this idea and finding that one weird or reprehensible, by saying yes to this play date and no to that one, by valuing people of character and personal courage rather than kowtowing to wealth and station, we pass on our beliefs and culture. No kid I ever knew listens to what his or her parent says. Didn't you know from the tone of your father's voice exactly what he really meant? Intelligent children watch what their parents do and come to their own conclusions, emulating or rejecting that way of life based on whether -- from the child's perspective - it works.

As Uri Bronfenbrenner said, our kids swallow us whole; that's how values get passed on. Do we give back the dollar of extra change the waitress mistakenly gave us, even if no one noticed? Do we apologize for yelling? Do we chide our own dad for hitting our misbehaving daughter, or do we ask her to forgive and forget, because right or wrong, we must respect our elders? If we had to choose between our child being a good person with a good family life, or a Princeton grad, which would we take?

If all we do is work constantly and expect everyone else to do the same, our children may conclude that we do not consider joy integral to a good life. Yet an old Jewish tradition holds that in the afterlife, we will have to answer to God for every pleasure He permitted us in which we did not partake.

As we parents race from activity to activity, are we promoting basic decency? If there is only one right way to succeed, the Ivy way, where do cooperation, generosity, and kindness fit in? Furthermore, some of us run fast so we don't have to ponder what we are doing with their lives. Other parents look to children to give meaning to their existence. But living vicariously through kids is too heavy a load for them to bear.

To help children become independent and successful, to encourage their thinking for themselves, we parents have to think for ourselves, to decide what life means for us. It is a hard task. But consciously or by default, we answer it every day in the choices we make and the actions we take.

I personally feel that we ought to rush a little less and reflect a little more.

As a culture, we have gone from being adult-centered to being child centered, which is mainly for the good. But in doing so we have robbed our kids of the chance to see us being intelligent adults. Genetics being what they are, we are likely just as bright as our parents; we are far more educated. When we were in college, we were concerned with politics, music, art, history, war, peace, sports, business, world events, and the like. So why do our kids primarily see us discussing kid's schedules? If they emulate us, how will they learn to think about important matters when it is their world?

To stimulate warm relationships with our children - the ones we all need - we need to be with them with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of spending time together. On walks, shooting hoops, playing Monopoly, whatever! What our children really need is us. The greatest gift we can give them is the deep, inner conviction that they don't have to perform for us to love and cherish them. "No need for clever conversation. I love you just the way you are."

We desperately need to regain balance as families. Even in this age of anxiety, we wake up in safe neighborhoods, have a superb educational system, and have food, shelter, and an opportunity for meaningful relationships and lives. So despite the current threats, or maybe because of them, we ought to start appreciating our own, and our children's, enormous good fortune.


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