Over-Scheduling Children and Hyper-Parenting
by Alvin Rosenfeld, MD
We try hard to be good parents. But our job has been made immeasurably more difficult because an over-scheduled child rearing style is being touted as the best way to raise kids. Actually, this style unbalances families, damages marriages, and contributes to unhappy, overstressed children being diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD, bipolar, and depressed, and to adolescents getting involved with drugs, alcohol, and premature sex, (Luthar and Becker, Child Development, October, 2002).
This ambitious child-rearing program asserts that success is measured by a single standard: The college a beloved child goes to. The right activities, started early enough--preferably prenatally-- combined with regular practice, near fanatical devotion, and intense parental guidance will make children - and their loving parents -- "winners" because the kids get into Harvard, BC, Yale, Vanderbilt, Duke, UVA, Cornell, and Princeton. Children deprived of these activities will be - like their parents --losers.
No objective evidence supports this contention. Anecdotes contradicting it are discounted: Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10; Mickey Mantle was a poor hitter as a boy, and James Earl Jones had a speech impediment he worked hard to overcome. Data reveals that attending college dramatically increases lifetime income, but none shows that elite college attendance leads to inordinate success in life, let alone to happiness or to being a "good" person.
Our family lives are being harmed. A University of Minnesota study (Doherty) shows that in the past 20 years, structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children's activities have declined by 50%, household conversations are far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased by 28%.
Overscheduling children is appealing because gives parents the illusion of control over a child's future; it promises to make child development -the biological blueprint that a million years of evolution has created - a rough outline that modern technology can accelerate dramatically. In contrast to Moliere's idea that "the trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit," kids are hot-housed. Contrary to current scientific knowledge, development is presumed to be linear so the child who speaks early will score highest on their verbal SAT's, which is why one Connecticut parent paid the Nanny $500 for every milestone the child beat.
Dr. Benjamin Spock maintained that parent-educators ought to increase parental comfort and self-confidence. But this hyper-parenting program does the opposite; it makes devoted parents anxious: Does Lee crawl sooner than his cousin, does Michelle babble early? Any delay - no matter how minor -might be ominous. One mother was told 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. Today, she is at Princeton. She still holds her pencil oddly.
Because it is never too early to shoot for the Ivies, hyper-parenting is prevalent at all ages and stages:
Although our homes are stunningly enriched by any international standard, American parents bring newborns - who could just as soon sleep in a blanket-lined breadbox -- home to $10-15,000, fully equipped nurseries. To provide early brain stimulation, they play "Baby Einstein" tapes, an odd model because while adult Albert was a genius, he talked late and did poorly at school. Today he surely would get a comprehensive evaluation and end up on Ritalin so he could focus more fully on the complex demands of fourth grade math.
Whole states get involved. Convinced by research that "showed" that listening to Mozart in infancy enhanced 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 it was short-lived. Moreover, has any systematic study shown that Mozart is superior to, say, Mahler, Mick Jagger, or the Dixie Chicks. If well-conducted scientific research proved that the music that most promoted brain development was Gangsta Rap, would we make it national policy to broadcast it to living rooms all over suburban America?
Parenting has become our most competitive sport! Test scores have become as essential for nursery admission as for Yale. As the Wall Street Journal reported (11/15/02, Page A1), some wealthy families "hire consultants … for as much as $4000 to advise on the [preschool] application process." After their child is accepted, parents fret over whether a nursery school's educational program is academically rigorous enough.
No school-aged child can be average! They are either gifted or learning disabled. Sometimes, learning disabled is preferred since then the child can take their SAT exams un-timed and, now, un-asterisked.
Homework has increased dramatically between 1981 and 1997, tripling among 6-8 year olds (who clearly need far more homework than they get.) Yet Prof. Harris Cooper found no relationship between the amount of homework early elementary school students do and their achievement levels (though a clear association does exist in high school.) Health is ignored: Some states are considering eliminating recess for middle and high school students, but overlook the 30-pound, textbook filled backpacks and their likely long-term effects on spinal columns.
Duke gives sports scholarships. So parents enroll 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.
Demanding -- even abusive -- coaches who train "winners" are sought out; many entice parents with reports of the athletes they coached who now attend Ivy League schools, in large part, they assert, because of athletic accomplishments. Every coach feels entitled to all of a child's, and a family's, free time. A ten-year-old's ice hockey practice is expected to take precedence over a friend's sleepover birthday party or the parents' Saturday night, candlelit dinner, not once, but every week.
Enjoyment matters little; one boy told me he didn't like soccer but couldn't quit the Premier league because it would harm his chances for an excellent college. He was 11. Until a scandal erupts, parents and national sports organizations overlook the fact that coaches not infrequently emotionally and sexually abuse elite athletes.
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 their resumes so they 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.
Deception is fostered. Another mother hired a professional writer for her 10th grader so he could get into Harvard; the essays she had been writing for him were earning only B's. So it comes as no surprise that many college applicants' resumes are often "manufactured" reflecting nothing about the soul and spirit of the student. Starting next year, the University of California system will - because it realizes it has to -- randomly check the purported accomplishments of its applicants.
The social trends that have promoted over-scheduling are complex and involve changes in, 1) the family, 2) education, 3) technology, and 4) 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?" This has fundamentally changed parent-child relationships and kids' self-esteem.
Education: Twenty-five years ago, we were sure that Japan would defeat us economically. Although we won - since 1999, the Japanese have reformed education trying to get their kids to think more creatively, like ours do - mainstream American education has adopted the least beneficial aspect of their approach, standardized, measurable education, which often translates into children learning conformity and unimaginative thought patterns, exactly what our economy does not need in the future.
We have ignored what was most valuable in the Japanese approach. Harold Stevenson, a University of Michigan psychology professor, found that Asian parents stress perseverance and not letting mistakes derail their children's efforts. By contrast, "U.S. parents put their emphasis on the grade or score. Result: American kids had shorter attention spans, gave up quicker, and often were over-perfectionists," so concerned with getting the right answer that they never learn from why they got something wrong, which is far more instructive.
Technology: Arthur C Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Our Doppler stethoscopes and ultrasounds have fundamentally altered our experience and the emotional center of pregnancy. By allowing parents-to-be to bond with "conceptuses," (who among us has not shown off their 12-week fetus's sonogram?) this new technology has consigned expectant women to subordinate positions. Rather than treating them as special -- to be indulged with pickles and ice cream -contemporary books treat mothers as simply more, or less, selfless vessels for carrying pregnancy's central player, his majesty the fetus! Parenting should be endless sacrifice for the talent, the child. And until some time in the 20th Century, childhood at least ended between seven and 13, not at 26 or 34. [When is a Jewish fetus viable? When it finishes medical school!]
Changed Expectations of Parents: The last generation sometimes felt that children were to be seen and neither listened to nor heard. Parents never cancelled adult activities for a kid's game. It left many of us feeling insecure because we seemed unimportant to our parents. So we vowed to be involved with kids. And we are! A study showed that today's parents spend considerably more time with their children. Unfortunately, careful analysis shows that much of that time is spent chauffeuring them between activities.
We work so hard at "parenting" - a word that did not even exist 50 years ago -- that we want some sign that our efforts are succeeding. We scrutinize our child for clues, adding more enrichment. But this intense attention gives children another subliminal message: "If I am as good as my parents say, why do I need constant self-improvement? I must not be very good at all."
Our sacrifices also make our children feel guilty. Being good kids, they often try to 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 on steroids. Everyone else is; 3) doing community service to help yourself - not the poor, less fortunate, or handicapped - (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 being what others say you ought to be, not what your inner voice tells you to become.
Some kids who can't excel at school give 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, rebel and may get involved with drugs, alcohol, or premature sex. Some insist they have better values: One teenager said to me, "I want my parents to judge who I am, not how I look."
Others win the brass ring, get to the Ivies, and break down in their first year; I see them when they drop out and come back home. Dick Cheney may have been one from a prior generation. For years they had ignored the stress and left no time to relax or to really learn. They can't figure out whether they accomplished all this to please their parents or because they actually wanted to. So in high school and later at college, they party and drink to excess - particularly on weekends -- to reduce the inner stress, discomfort, and confusion about their identity.
All this hurrying and over-scheduling also tells our kids that we want them to be hyperactive, over-achieving, over-scheduled workaholics who win whatever the cost! Would you buy into that lifestyle, or would you start to ask - as many kids have asked me -- whether if college, grad school, and work life were all one continuous treadmill, why not get off right now.
Let me ask the un-ask able: Do the elite schools deliver? For some kids they are simply terrific places to be. Let's say that we accept the contemporary "businessman-as-god" religion, tarnished though it is since Enron and WorldCom. Unlike Japan - and I am told Great Britain -- where most business leaders come from a few elite schools, only 13% of American corporate CEO's are Ivy graduates, a relatively small percentage given these schools' extreme selectivity. Which college actually has the highest percentage of CEO's/1000 students? Washington and Lee! Students who went to schools with 100-point higher average SAT's do earn 6% more than students at the lower scoring school. But when students at these "lesser" schools with the same 100 points higher SAT's are studied, they have the same income. It is the student, not the school.
Elite colleges - especially those with professional schools -- are usually parts of research universities, which reward research, not teaching. An aggressive student may spend individual or small group time with famous professors but most see them primarily in huge lecture courses. Graduate students usually teach undergrads in smaller groups. Is that really worth $30-35,000 a year? One survey - flawed as they all are -- reported that the students most satisfied with their educations were those who went to small, liberal arts colleges.
Jung said, "the shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases." Some non-elite schools are a perfect fit for the passions of certain high school seniors. For instance, one student I knew was interested in aeronautic engineering; for him Ohio State was the best place to be. Elite schools do get you a better first job. But later success seems to depend on personal performance at the job, not the college you graduated from.
I wish education were the only example of our abandoning good sense, balance, and judgment. But kids' athletics is another painful example. We have forgotten that childhood is a preparation, not a full performance. Today, everything in kids' sports is done to elite standards.
How is it for the 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 some of 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!"
Hobbies are great; athletics can make important contributions to children's health, self-protective instincts, and self-esteem. But in subjecting everything kids do to scrutiny and judgment, in giving a high or low score to their every move, in professionalizing their play, we have diminished sports' benefits.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warned parents about the dangers of girls competing in demanding, incredibly competitive sports. They strongly advised that children play multiple sports and specialize in one, if they must, only after puberty.
Is anyone listening? Take elite gymnastics. Should we be concerned that 90% of competitive female gymnasts get their first period a year or two later than their non-gymnast schoolmates? A 1996 New England Journal of Medicine study reported disordered eating in 100% of elite female gymnasts and osteoporosis in more than half. Should our daughters emulate these girls?
We put our children into all sorts of protective head and body gear. Despite these, orthopedic surgeons recently reported a worrisome increase in recreation-linked injuries in 5-14 year olds. Their argument was whether last year there were 2.2 million bone fractures, dislocations, and muscle injuries in kids 5-14, 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 to strive for, offers an insidious psychological message. It implies that everything should be sacrificed Olympic gold. Many play, few win. Most of us will have peak experiences in our lives… Maybe every decade or two! We tell kids to "just say no" to drugs and premature sex. But then we say that life is about constant motion, action, and super-highs. No wonder so many people are seeking cheap, but costly thrills, and find everyday life, and time alone, boring. Use cocaine, climb Everest, emulate Shackleton. That's really being alive.
Does empirical evidence support the "winning is everything" notion? The Gluecks did a classic study of juvenile delinquency; 40 years later Vailliant, at Harvard, asked these kids - then in their 50's -- about their lives. Despite sophisticated statistics, the variable that most predicted a good life was neither poverty nor severe the abuse. Rather, what helped - and protected some of these very vulnerable children from a bad life - was one good relationship.
Other studies show that closeness, particularly to mothers, protects adolescents from serious bad behavior. If that is true and we want good lives for our children, shouldn't we encourage their relationships rather than worrying about their hitting the longest ball in Little League? Should we be concerned that national survey data (HHS, 1999) showed that among 12-17 year olds, closeness to parents tends to be inversely linked with household income (Luthar and Becker, 2002)? What do we consider "winning?" Is the famous corporate CEO a success even though he did not get invited to his daughter's wedding?
Like you, 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 stress that might undo their equilibrium. In my clinical experience, parents who know who their child is and have a visceral faith that the child will eventually find a good place in life, maximizes 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 and may also create a self-fulfilling prophecy. After all, anxiety usually brings out the worst in everyone!
I also think that children do better if they feel that they are living their own lives. If parents say, "forget about struggling to find what suits you, go for Stanford, Rice, or Duke and become an investment banker" - they tell kids to follow someone else's script rather than assuming the difficult responsibility of being the authors of their own lives, which may be why so many adult Americans feel like frauds.
Isaac Newton said "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore." But we devalue true play, thereby damaging imagination and creativity. Children are so tightly scheduled that many have never invented a backyard game or had time to just hang out with friends. No one has ever rewarded the joy of discovering and examining. When not racing, our kids have no idea of what to do and become bored. So Mom and Dad end up acting like cruise ship activities directors; I think that being a parent is a higher calling.
And boredom can be constructive. It can stimulate kids to think, create, and hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write that unusual story or draw this unique picture. America's economic success is based on people who tinkered and followed their passions, like David Packard, Bill Gates, Paul Simon, or Steven Spielberg. Over-scheduling discourages that. Kids need some solitude, time to be alone, to rehearse in their minds, to relax and veg out, something that video games actually do for many boys. It may be their one "Zen" experience where they actually feel centered.
We treat accomplishments as the measure of a person. In doing so, we abrogate our most fundamental responsibility, teaching children character. In fact, a recent Public Agenda study showed that 53% of parents feel that they were doing a worse job than their parents did, particularly at instilling values and ethics!
But how do we instill values? 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, we pass on our values and culture. No kid listens to what his or her parent says. Intelligent children watch what they do and come to their own conclusions, emulating or rejecting that way of life based on whether -- from the child's perspective - it works.
It is like discipline, which comes from the word "disciple." Christ's disciples followed him because they wanted to emulate the way of life he personified. Our kids emulate us in the same way. 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 all we do is work constantly, 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 and which we did not partake in.
As we parents race from activity to activity, are we providing children with a childhood that promotes emotional health and basic decency? If there is only one right way to succeed, the Ivy way, where do cooperation, generosity, and kindness fit in? Furthermore, some grown-ups run fast so they don't have to ponder what they 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 teach them to think 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 give an answer 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.
We adults need to become adults again. We are educated; when we were younger, we spoke about politics, music, art, business, world events, and the like. So why do our children see us primarily discussing kid's schedules and activities? How will they learn to emulate us when it is their world?
To stimulate warm relationships with children - the ones we all need - parents need to spend some time with them with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of spending time together. Doing that convinces kids that their parents cherish and value who they are more than any award they receive. What our children really need is us. "No need for clever conversation. I love you just the way you are." The greatest gift we can give our children, the deep, inner conviction that they don't have to perform for us to love and cherish them. We have a Mothers Day and a Fathers Day. We need a national family night to be together, and to reflect on whether this overscheduled lifestyle is good for us or for our children, which is why I have established National Family Night (www.nationalfamilynight.org).
As part of family night, we also need to recall how to play together as a family. Playing gives our children a chance to really know us. As Plato said over 2300 years ago, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of discussion." And a child who knows their parent in their "bones" is bolstered through life's difficult times.
Even in this time of saber rattling, we wake up in safe neighborhoods, have a good 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.