Harvard, Soccer, Over-Scheduled Families
Address by Alvin Rosenfeld, MD
March 30, 2005

With attribution, this talk can be quoted from freely!

I’m sure that every Westport parent here tonight wants to be the best parent possible. I have the same goal for myself and hope that what I say will help you think about how to reach it. But my words will be cautionary: Ambition, social pressure, and competitiveness are conspiring to make us lose perspective and fall prey to a contemporary cultural disease Nicole Wise and I called “hyperparenting.” It often weakens our marriages and gets the children we are trying so hard to raise well, overwhelmed, discouraged, and diagnosed as learning disabled, bipolar, ADD, anxious, and depressed.

Over-scheduling – in academics, sports, and community service –is how hyper-parenting is translated into a daily reality: It encourages parents to become relentlessly self-sacrificing, enrolling children in enrichment activities early so they can excel at academics, athletics, or quirky specialties – like playing French horn on ice. Hyper-parenting makes a promise: Follow the program and your can attend a top notch university with high name recognition which guarantees a great life. Deprive your kids of like these activities and they will be losers; their only acceptance letter will be to Southeast Central Kentucky State Junior College’s extension program, they will have miserable lives, and you will have only yourself to blame!

As hyper-parenting has spread, “family life” has eroded: in just the past 20 years structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children’s activities have gone down 50%, household conversations have become far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased 28%. Kids have become talent to be groomed; Moms with masters and PhD’s have become chauffeurs.

This high power program sacrifices tranquility and intimacy and increases parental anxiety. Hyper-parenting urges us to pressure our children starting prenatally. Marketers sell products with compelling titles like “Baby Einstein” to fill the void. Do you really want a baby Einstein? While adult Albert was a genius, he talked late and did poorly at school. If Einstein’s parents were alive today, poor little Albert would get a comprehensive evaluation and end up on Ritalin. Deprived of his daydreams, he might not discover the Theory of Relativity, but he certainly would focus more fully on the complex demands of fourth grade math. And as someone who prefers his children two-eared, I find the name Baby Van Gogh downright horrifying.

No scientific evidence supports this childrearing method. It also ignores biological facts: Child development is the end result of a million years of evolution. Hyper-parenting’s central notion is that accelerate milestones is good: The child who speaks early will be Tiger Woods of the verbal SAT’s. This may be true for developing facility with foreign languages. But for other skills, some anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite: Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10; Mickey Mantle was a poor hitter as a boy; and until he discovered music, George Gershwin specialized, apparently quite successfully, in being a child hoodlum. In fact, one reporter was sure Gershwin had to have been musical as a small child, and asked him if he hadn’t played something. Gershwin replied, “Only hooky!” Furthermore, many exceptional people do not follow a childhood gift to adult excellence. Rather, they choose an endeavor that challenged them or helped them overcome an impediment: James Earl Jones was not born with that fabulous voice. He had a speech impediment he worked hard to overcome.

Hyper-parenting starts before birth and marches steadily through children’s development:

  1. Although our homes are stunningly enriched by any international or historical standard, we feel compelled to play Mozart to wombs and to bring newborns home to fully equipped $10-15,000, nurseries. Sure it’s fun, but our infants would be just as comfortable in a blanket-lined breadbox.

  2. Whole states get involved. Convinced by research that “proved” that listening to Mozart in infancy enhanced later mathematical ability, former Governor Zell Miller – who recently achieved fame by publicly suggesting that he settle a difference of opinion with Chris Matthews in a duel -- signed a bill to send every Georgia newborn home with a Mozart CD. But research on the “Mozart Effect” was done on college students; the benefit lasted hours. Moreover, no research had shown that Mozart is superior to Mahler, Mick Jagger, polka music, whale songs, or the Dixie Chicks. If research proved that the music that most promoted children’s brain development was Gangsta Rap, would we play it all day?

  3. Child rearing is now America’s most competitive, and expensive, adult sport. Children are tutored for nursery school ERB’s. To have an advantage later, they are “red-shirted,” repeating kindergarten so they are among the oldest in the grade. If this trend continues, by 2070, athletically-gifted 19 year olds may have to decide between starting kindergarten and playing pro ball.

  4. Hyper-parenting has repealed fundamental laws of statistics! No longer is any school-aged child average. Each is either gifted or learning disabled. Today, LD can be preferable since then kids can take their SAT’s un-timed and un-asterisked.

  5. Prof. Harris Cooper’s research found no, I repeat no correlation between the amounts of homework early elementary school students do and their later achievement (although a strong association does exist in high school.) Nevertheless, homework has increased dramatically! Some schools expect parents to be devoted homework helpers; others have divided projects, like third grade dioramas, into those the child made, and those the parents clearly helped with, because Josh’s panther habitat looks like it had been designed by I. M. Pei.

  6. Pressure is everywhere: Two mothers noticed that of 36 fourth grade girls performing at a private school piano recital, sixteen had tics.

  7. Superior, recruited basketball, football, and hockey players have greatly increased chances of being admitted to elite universities. 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. Kids who are excellent at the sport but would rather do something else are urged to play – being recruited to Stanford might be the result!

    Demanding -- even abusive -- coaches who train “winners” are sought out. 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. So what if the marriage suffers. Johnny might make Duke! Parents scope out sports colleges are seeking, like women’s crew, and nudge the kids into them.

    Many play, few win! Dan Doyle provided some sobering statistics: 475,000 boys will play 4th grade basketball in organized U.S. leagues; 87,000 are playing in their Senior Year in High School; less than 1 out of 100, 4,000, are playing College Basketball; 30 end up playing in the NBA. And if you pitch yourself as an athlete and have superior grades and SAT scores but are not recruited, you actually may hurt your chances of getting admitted.

  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 their resumes so they fit what elite colleges supposedly are looking for. They look for “unusual instruments to play – like oboe or French horn – because universities supposedly are looking for them.

  9. Deception is fostered. Essays one affluent mom, an Ivy League grad herself, had been writing for her 10th grader had been earning only B’s, so she hired a professional writer to help him. If he got into Harvard, she told the writer, it could become a “long-term gig.”

  10. And admissions officers who, other than at Cornell, are not professors or faculty, then choose who among our beloved children gets accepted. What qualifies them? Read Jacques Steinberg’s The Gatekeepers. One of Wesleyan’s admissions officers left to become an air steward, but United Airlines ultimately rejected him.

  11. What does this admissions process do to our kids? A physics professor retired after 30 years at West Point. He decided to teach at a prestigious private high school. West Point is probably the most regimented college in America. A cadet’s every moment is filled with the demands of faculty or the military. Yet this teacher was shocked to find that teenagers’ at this lovely, nurturing private school lived lives as regimented as those of a West Point cadet. Every moment of their day was loaded with classes and homework, plus a full schedule of sports and after-school activities.

Most private school sixth graders know what they have to do to go Ivy; tenth graders have mastered it. It involves, 1) being careful about saying what you really think to teachers -- they ultimately write your college recommendations; 2) manufacturing resumes on steroids even if you get mono in the process. Everyone else is; 3) doing community service to seem big-hearted – (one ninth-grader told me that her aunt suggested she teach art to the deaf because it would look good on a college application; an affluent, private school Mom insisted that any child who has not started a charitable foundation by 17 has no shot at Yale;) 4) working endlessly, even at subjects you hate; 5) crafting your persona into what others say you ought to be, not what your inner voice tells you to become. Although every expert report says that the new economy will need creativity, kids have no time and few rewards to develop it; 6) so parents hire help: Kids are tutored at endless subjects. For the best SAT tutors, wealthy NYC parents pay upwards of $1000 an hour and fight to get a place on the waiting list; and, 7) giving up sleeping, 8) taking as many AP courses – college courses really – in high school’s junior and senior years. Is it any surprise that so many American teenagers feel like frauds, and exhausted ones at that?

As a society, we are telling kids, subliminally, that they ought to be hyperactive, over-scheduled workaholics who win the game whatever the rules and personal cost! Perhaps that pressure to focus on what you can accomplish rather than on who you are accounts for why the diagnosis of anxiety in adolescence is predominantly a middle and upper class disorder. Close to 9% of affluent teenagers suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, overanxious disorder, excessive shyness, panic disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder, not counting the ubiquitous eating disorders.

Others are depressed; one teenager told me that he is the only one of his friends who does not cut himself to feel better. Others 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!” Many take drugs or alcohol to relieve emotional distress. Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman (1998) found that by the 12th grade, affluent youth reported the highest rates of using marijuana, inhalants, and tranquilizers. Luthar and Becker found that this was likely associated with the “overemphasis on achievement and,” unfortunately, “isolation from parents.” As Bettelheim and I wrote, some parents insist on children’s accomplishments but don’t take time to know their kids as individuals. Some kids insist they have better values: One multiply tattooed teenaged girl who was pierced all over felt she judged things less superficially than her affluent, accomplished parents: “I want my parents to judge who I am, not how I look.” What is less often noted is that as a result of the pressure, parents suffer the same anxiety and depressive disorders.

Schools at all levels face a daunting challenge, to both teach basic skills and to encourage independent thinking. Some critics argue that what schools really teach kids is not how to be successful adults, but how to be successful children. The current testing craze certainly emphasizes conformity. But for America to have a chance to lead innovation, we might do better if schools fostered creativity (a topic I will address in a different talk next month) and looked for out of the box thinking, rather than rewarding kids who connect all the dots just right. If we are to flourish, universities need to embrace the bright, rebellious kids who challenge authority intelligently.

The entire world has decided that innovation will drive the future economy. Can elite American colleges really judge who will be truly creative? I think not. One young man desperately wanted to make films. He applied to UCLA’s film program and was rejected. So he went to Long Beach State. Later he applied to transfer to USC’s prestigious film program. Rejected again! But he was tenacious and elbowed his way into the industry. His name, Steven Spielberg!

Are elite colleges places where undergraduates learn most? The ones with professional schools are usually parts of research universities. In academic promotions, teaching is a low priority; getting research grants matters. At Harvard, students usually see famous professors in huge lecture courses except when they teach disciplines – like classics -- that do not land them huge consulting fees. Given the choice, would any group of 2000 intelligent students actually spend, collectively, eight million dollars for Jim Maas’s semester-long psychology course at Cornell?

Resisting the siren call of the Ivies is difficult; I openly admit that I am addicted. But we ought to remember Jung’s statement, “the shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” A Harvard style education is not right for every kid. Finding your special niche is!

In upscale communities like Westport, we often look down on technical and crafts education as “low class.” Yet some visually and spatially gifted kids are great with figuring out how things work. White collar jobs are being exported to India; that trend is likely to accelerate. But we will always need local mechanics, repairmen, and carpenters. I sometimes ponder an experience a surgeon colleague had. He complained to his plumber about his bill. The plumber looked at him derisively: “Doc! Plumbers drive Porsches. But tile men drive Ferraris!”

Schooling is not the only place we had abandoned good sense. In kids’ athletics we also forgot 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 collaborative ability, and to their sense of responsibility, work, and self-esteem. They should be fun! For many, they are part of a family tradition rooted in a cultural ideal from ancient Greece. But today, many childhood sports have been professionalized. Take elite 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 examples for our daughters to emulate?

Although we put our children into protective head and body gear, orthopedic surgeons report 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 annually, or 3.5 million. Should we accept sacrificing your body as an appropriate cost of "going for the gold?" Kids are at practice for incredibly long times; many actually play very little. On my son’s small, private high school football team, three boys shattered their legs this year alone. Does it really have to be so hard and time consuming?

Celebrating the fanaticism that necessarily goes into winning Olympic gold also offers an insidious psychological message: Everything should be sacrificed for first place. In reality, 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 life is about super-highs. Which is it?

Does empirical evidence support the “winning is everything” notion? The Gluecks did a classic study of juvenile delinquency; 40 years later George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist, asked these people –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 that is true, shouldn’t we encourage our kids’ relationships rather than worrying about their hitting the longest ball in Little League? School friendships can last a lifetime; my best friend in high school fixed me up with my wife and has managed my money for 25 years. I expect my kids to make something worthwhile of their lives. I pressure them to do well and achieve. But I try, occasionally successfully, to balance that with cherishing their friends and hoping they are mentally well and relatively free of unnecessary stress that might undo their equilibrium.

Comfort and acceptance bring out the best in everyone; anxiety and doubt the worst. In my clinical experience, parents who really know who their child is, accept the child for that, 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. Over-scheduling makes kids feel, subliminally, "I must not be very good at all or I wouldn’t need constant self-improvement." That can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: After all, the child resents the parents’ lack of faith in her and, to get even, may live up to the expectation!

After Sputnik, everyone was supposed to be an engineer. I knew many of them at college. None are still in the field. We can not predict the future either. Children deserve to feel that they are living their own lives, not one parents or the government has decided they ought to live. If parents say, “just become investment bankers,” they tell their kids to follow someone else’s lucrative script rather than assuming the difficult responsibility – and challenge -- of being authors of their own lives with some gentle guidance from their elders.

Parents deserve a life too! We know firsthand that every good parent sacrifices plenty. You do; I do! Yet every kid I’ve known whose parents were pleased with their lives and marriage did far better. I don’t think that being frazzled and feeling superior because you sacrifice so much is good for anyone. An ancient Jewish saying explained what made a life balanced: If I am not for myself, who will be for me (i.e. you need to be selfish;) if I am only for myself, what am I (i.e. you have to care for others;) and, if not now, when? i.e. don’t put off life’s joys until senescence. Enjoy yourself and your spouse more! Have more fun in bed!

Many of us devalue true play, which needs no purpose beyond the pleasure of being. Diminishing play’s importance damages imagination and creativity because it does not treat as precious children’s natural joy in discovering. Today’s children are so tightly scheduled that many have never invented a backyard game, created an “I hate boys” club, or had time to just hang out with friends. 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; isn’t being a parent a higher calling than that?

Boredom 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 who challenged conventional wisdom, followed their inner passions, tinkered, and did the impossible – people like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, David Packard, Bill Gates, and of course, Steven Spielberg. Kids need some alone time 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.

In treating accomplishments and income as the true measures of people, we may abrogate a more 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. No kid I know listens to what his or her parent says. They watch what their parents do. We transmit our values every day in the choices we make and actions we take. Are we modeling the kind of life we recommend? Do we treat our spouse respectfully? Do we read books and love to learn? Can we hear what others say? Do we kowtow to wealth and station or do we value people of character and personal courage, rich and poor alike? Do we play fair? Do we drive home a bit tipsy after a party or pass out drunk on the couch? Do we worry more about our appearance or how we treat others? Do we try to be close to real friends and to get balance in our lives? If we had to choose between our child having a good family life or being a Dartmouth 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. Do we really want to model all work and no play?

As we race between enrichment activities, are we promoting emotional health or basic decency? If there is only one right way to succeed, the Ivy way, where do cooperation, generosity, and kindness fit in? Is there room any more for the truly “good kid?” Furthermore, some grown-ups run fast so they don’t have to ponder what they are doing with their lives. 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, and we need to become ourselves, a daunting challenge. But consciously or by default, we address it every day in the choices we make and the actions we take.

Maybe we ought to rush a little less and reflect, and smell the roses, a little more!

As a culture, we have gone from being adult-centered to being child centered, which is mainly for the good. In doing so we also have given kids a sense that the world revolves around them – starting with his majesty the fetus --- robbing them of the chance to see us being intelligent adults. We are the best educated generation ever; when we were younger, we were concerned with politics, music, art, sports, business, world events, and the like. So why do our kids see primarily us discussing kid’s schedules and activities? If they never see us as adults being adults, how will they learn to think about important matters when it is their world?

To stimulate warm relationships with children – the ones we all need – parents need to be with them with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of spending time together. On walks, shooting hoops, playing board games, 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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