Stressed, Over-scheduled families:
Raising and Educating Children
in a hyper-parenting, post-9/11 World

November 5, 2004
Talk to the Connecticut and New York Associations of Independent Schools
Address by Alvin Rosenfeld, MD

With attribution, this talk may be quoted from freely.

It is a great honor to be here. I would like to thank Doug Lyons and Fred Calder for inviting me, and all of you for taking the time to be here.

Other speakers have been telling you about serious new threats facing America, and ways that independent schools might help create a better society. I do not consider fear and anxiety not phenomena. So I will start with a brief historical perspective on families, look at where kids are today, and suggest ways that you might help them.

Before industrialization transformed America in the late 19th Century, most Americans lived on farms, practiced crafts, or ran small shops. Human labor helped power the productive process. Children were essential, whether working as apprentices or gathering eggs, milking cows, helping to keep the shop stocked, or the forge stoked. Even if parental love was lacking, mutual financial self-interest made families work together lest they starve.

As Steven Mintz wrote in his wonderful book, Huck’s Raft, “The earnings of children ten to fifteen often amounted to 20% of a family’s income and spelled the difference between economic well-being and destitution.” Illness, epidemics, and infections made early death frequent. Both of Thomas Jefferson’s parents died by the time he was 14. Women had numerous children; mothers died in childbirth, children died young. Of Mary Lincoln’s four children, one survived to adulthood.

For children, the need to work might have been harsh, but the system was pass/fail: You either did you chores or you didn’t. When darkness fell, work ended. Whether or not you liked your father or mother, respect was demanded. Sometimes, it was the natural outgrowth of living together and working side-by-side every day. How could you watch your father hitch a team of huge oxen to a plow, or your mother turn raw animal fat into candles, and not respect them?

Adults were clearly in charge. But by 14, all but the children of the well-to-do were essentially adults, in the work force full time. William Cody, Buffalo Bill, was already a Pony Express rider at 14. Schooling was intermittent, particularly outside of urban centers. But it was less necessary, even for professionals; Abraham Lincoln had less than a full year of formal schooling, yet he became a very successful attorney. Though literacy rates grew in 19th century America, immigrants who could neither read nor write could still earn a living.

History makes our anxiety seem typical. During the Revolutionary war, 1% of America’s population died. The Civil War was even deadlier; when it ended, widows and orphans abounded. In one World War I battle, a million men were killed or maimed. Yet microbes have always been our deadliest foe. The worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 infected 28% of all Americans (Tice). An estimated 675,000 died of influenza, ten times as many as in the war.

Then we suffered the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and WW II. I grew up with nuclear devastation just around every corner. My independent school taught me how to deal with it: Position myself under my desk, tuck my head between my legs, and as we kids joked, “kiss my butt goodbye.” Although I suspected that no butt-tuck position was going to save me if a hydrogen bomb incinerated NYC, I magically sort of suspected it might because I trusted authority. And unless something was terribly wrong in families or their emotional, social, or economic situation, neither parents nor kids seemed miserably anxious.

Our optimism was in line with what professionals had realized a decade earlier, during the blitzkrieg bombings of London: The psychological state of the parent – not the severity of the physical threat -- shaped children’s reactions. Psychoanalyst Grete Bibring noted that “children evacuated to safety zones with mothers who are suffering from fears and anxiety frequently showed more nervous symptoms than those left in the center of bombing zones with calm and well-balanced mothers.”  

The world of 125 years ago no longer exists. Rather than families working alongside one another, we primarily consume together, playing, vacationing, and shopping. Economically, children are useless, loss centers. That is why we say, “Do you know how much it costs to raise a kid today?”

Today, family bonds are based on affection, a flimsier tie than avoiding starvation. Because families no longer produce together, they need those emotional bonds strengthened. But a child rearing madness – hyper-parenting -- seized the western world long before 9/11and has weakened those ties. Rather than encouraging relationships, this over-scheduled method stresses awards and accomplishments, not who a kid is, but what he or she can achieve.

It started about 20 years ago, when parents first came to believe that rushing and over-scheduling – in academics, sports, and community service –were valuable parts of a simple, but demanding, child-rearing program to “build better children: If you were relentless, totally self-sacrificing, and devoted to your child, he or she would succeed. Lollygag and your child would be – plainly put –a loser; when his or her only acceptance letter is to Southeast Central Kentucky State Junior College, you will have no one to blame but yourself!

Parents got anxious: In NYC, getting into Episcopal or the 92nd Street Y Nursery Schools became as hard, and as critical as getting into Harvard. So some children were tutored for nursery school ERB’s. Prominent people used high profile connections to get in. Kids were “red-shirted” so they were among the oldest in the class. If this trend continues, by 2070, athletically gifted 19 year olds may have to choose between starting kindergarten and playing pro ball.

Parents have always been committed to their children’s success. But in contrast to 40 years ago, parenting is now the most competitive adult sport in America. This has profound effects on independent schools, the fields on which these passionate parental aspirations are played out. The force is so powerful that even the laws of statistics have been repealed. Today, no child can be average! Each is either gifted or learning disabled. LD can be preferable. An 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.

In this pressured parenting atmosphere, your schools are expected to pile on homework to accelerate student achievement even though research found no correlation between the amount of homework early elementary school students do and their later achievement levels (a clear association does exist in high school.) Because parents are divided, schools can’t get it right: If you don’t assign homework, some parents complain that you are not stressing kindergarten academics sufficiently. When you do, other parents complain that the workload is too heavy so their kids have no free time.

Many schools expect parents to be co-teachers, told to read with their kids, help them with projects, and assist with homework, as if fourth graders had not already spent seven hours that day in a learning environment, and parents had neither a job nor other important commitments. My wife, a pediatrician, was looked at askance when she refused to regularly help with projects and told my daughter, “I’ve already done 5th grade!” Other schools, however, are concerned with the opposite, how over-involved parents have become and how professional they expect kids’ work to be: These schools have divided projects, like third grade dioramas, into those the child made, and those that the parents clearly helped with because Kyle’s Gorilla habitat looks like a Bronx zoo wing designed by I. M. Pei.

We have become hyper perfectionistic, so all professionals, including teachers, are expected to scrutinize kids, never asking how being scrutinized affects them. I know how it affects me -- poorly! Schools have little choice but to be hyper-vigilant since supposedly, early intervention is critical. One independent school told a mother that her five-year-old daughter had a “pencil holding” deficiency. Tutoring was strongly recommended to prevent potentially serious difficulties from developing later. This confident Mom ignored this sage advice; miraculously, her daughter learned to live with her disability. Eventually, she attended Princeton. She still holds her pencil oddly.

Elite college admission is the gold medal of the Parenting Olympics; independent schools are expected to produce it. The quality of future applicants to your schools depends on that outcome. Students regularly think about it: Many sixth graders talk about 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 appear 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. If you are a superb soccer player but hate the sport, play anyway – it could be your ticket to Stanford; 6) hiring help: For the best SAT tutors, wealthy NYC parents pay upwards of $1000 an hour and fight to get a place; and, 7) giving up sleeping. Is it any surprise that so many American teenagers feel like frauds, and exhausted ones at that?

One teacher 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 West Point cadets. Every moment of their day was loaded with classes and homework, plus a full schedule of sports and after-school activities.

Psychiatrists and educators value integrity. But for many kids, winning at any cost – including deception – is becoming the norm. Parents encourage it. The essays one 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.” I guess he was learning a lot about out-sourcing: For the less financially “gifted,” companies offer students “help” with college application essays so they turn out to be “Uniquely U,” the actual name of one Connecticut company.

Sports used to be fun. Robert Meeropol wrote about his 1950’s childhood: “My group of half dozen eight-to-ten year olds would often play for fifteen minutes and then argue for a much longer period of time whether a runner was safe or out. Endless argument, negotiation, and reconciliation served as a rich self-guided social laboratory. Winning was fun, but learning how to do so without alienating those on the other team, who might be your teammates tomorrow, was more important.”

 Today, play and leisure often have been professionalized; winning is everything. Adults run the show, and the other team is the enemy. Campbell wrote that, “Families’ expectations of sport [have] shifted from … playing sports because it was fun, to a more formalized culture of play, including lessons, camps, clinics, and competition of all sorts…” hopefully leading to college recruitment or scholarship. (In B&L) That expectation has even insinuated itself into middle school sports; while many kids still love sports, the medical results are not pretty. Orthopedic surgeons report between 2.2 and 3.5 million recreation-linked bone fractures, dislocations, and muscle injuries annually among 5-14 year olds. Two years ago, my son broke his arm, through the growth plate, playing 7th grade football; this year, three of his high school teammate shattered their legs in scrimmages or games. Kids are at practice for incredibly long times; many actually play very little. Does it really have to be so hard, dangerous, and time consuming?

Just when we need better family relationships, hyper-parenting has eroded them: In the past 20 years, structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children’s activities have declined 50%, household conversations have become far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased 28%. Hyper-parenting is weakening marriages and getting many insecure, discontented students diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD, anxious, or depressed.

 What teenagers are being told, subliminally, is that they ought to be hyperactive, over-scheduled workaholics who win no matter the cost! Perhaps that pressure 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; last week, one teenager told me that he is the only one of his friends who does not cut himself to feel better. 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.

Families and schools were already anxious and pressured when 9/11 made us realize that some people want to kill Americans, in part because we are powerful and successful. I interviewed kids in 1991, during and shortly after the first Gulf war. They had the same fears then. That study concluded that it would be hard to over-estimate television’s impact. “Although American children were not living in the battle zone, television transported the battle zone right into their living rooms.” The news showed massacres, complete with dead bodies. While neither kids nor adults really want to look, we are morbidly fascinated and do. In a way, that hooks us. Seeing it, we imagine it internally, and experience it emotionally. In a way, it becomes part of our personal, internal experience. Emotionally, we were there! Just as abused kids return to their parents looking for relief, we return to the news for reassurance, but only get traumatized again.

Media coverage distorts our sense of time and frequency. We see every high profile crime from every angle, over and over. Although each horrible event – like the Challenger exploding, or Polly Klass being abducted, abused, and killed -- occurred only once, we – and our children –see it five, ten, a hundred times, which makes it seem like it is happening all the time. We become terrified, unwilling, vicarious participants in a tragedy. Even though America’s crime rate has dropped, we become convinced that danger lurks everywhere and buy more locks for our doors.

 As heads of prestigious private schools, that is the world you and the families you serve inhabit. What can you do to alleviate some of the discomfort? What might help? I would like to share a few observations and hope that you will carry some back to your schools.

First, what can you tell parents really matters? The Gluecks did a classic study of potential juvenile delinquents in Massachusetts; 40 years later a Harvard psychiatrist studied these people, who were then in their 50’s. The variable that most predicted a good life was neither poverty nor severe abuse. Rather, what helped some very vulnerable children – and protected them from a bad life – was one good relationship.

If that is true, shouldn’t parents encourage kids’ relationships rather than worrying about their hitting the longest ball in Little League? Is a world famous CEO a success even though he did not get invited to his daughter’s wedding? We all have ambitions for our children and expect them to make something worthwhile of their lives. But if we want them to be mentally well, relatively free of unnecessary stress that might undo their equilibrium, maybe we ought to focus on having good relationships.

Today's teen-agers often feel lost and can get hostile towards us in their struggle for ersatz independence. While they ask not to be seen with us at the movies, they tell researchers that what they most want is quiet time with their parents. In my clinical experience, parents who really know their child and have a visceral faith that their child is a good person who will eventually find their 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 scrutinize and improve them -- diminish the odds. Anxiety brings out the worst in everyone!

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, fishing, playing Monopoly, watching movies, 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,” a goal National Family Night (http://www.nationalfamilynight.org/) is trying to encourage.

Second, in treating accomplishments and income as the true measures of people, we abrogate a more fundamental responsibility, teaching children character. Times and epochs change; Western ethics have been relatively constant for 2000 years, with a simple, central idea: Do unto others. So I am delighted that private schools have honor codes and expect students to live up to them. To make those codes more effective, parents, teachers, and administrators have to live up to them too. No kid I know listens to what we say. Intelligent children watch what parents and teachers do and emulate it. We have a superb historical example in Christ’s disciples, who aspired to the way of life he exemplified.

Our kids do the same with us. Are we modeling the kind of life we recommend? Do we read books and love to learn? Do we think and change our opinion if someone – even a student -- makes a better, cogent argument? Can we hear what others say? Can we admit error? Do we support school programs – like many of the drug and alcohol education programs – that tell parents to lie about their pasts yet expect kids and politicians to tell the truth? Do we kowtow to wealth and station – giving big donors’ children special treatment -- or value people of character and personal courage, rich and poor alike? Do we drive home a bit tipsy after a party? Do we worry more about our status or how we treat others? Do we try to be close to real friends and to get balance in our lives?

Third, to make adult life attractive to teenagers, we also need to encourage – and model -- having fun. Do we work constantly and expect everyone else to do the same? Does pleasure have an important place in our life? 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.

Fourth, I wish you could persuade parents that they needn’t be akin to cruise ship activities directors. Boredom 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 bucked conventional wisdom, followed their inner passions, tinkered, and did the impossible – people like Alexander Graham Bell, David Packard, Bill Gates, and Matt Groening. Kids need some alone time to rehearse in their minds, to relax and veg out. Some schools have a no TV week; I wish it were a no TV year. In the absence of canned entertainment, kids may be forced to invent their own games and write more imaginative school papers.

Fifth, hyper-parenting is built on the premise that the best college experience is the same for everyone. Yet some very thoughtful critics argue that we do not teach students to be successful adults, but to be successful children. America has many paths to success and high SAT scores do not necessarily correlate with them. One young man desperately wanted to make films. He applied to UCLA’s prestigious film program and was rejected. So he went to Long Beach State. Later he applied to USC’s film program. He was rejected again. But he was tenacious and elbowed his way into the industry. His name, Steven Spielberg!

Perhaps he went unrecognized because many schools overlook out of the box thinking, and reward the goody-goody kids who do everything right. Maybe we need to embrace the bright, rebellious kids who challenge authority intelligently or resist received wisdom. Can you imagine the conversation in the Gates kitchen when Bill announced he was dropping out of Harvard!

Furthermore – and I know what I am about to say is highly controversial -- we probably have enough investment bankers. But isn’t that winning big? Most independent school parents – including me – look down on anything but high paying, white color jobs. The world isn’t always how we see it. We consider technical and crafts education “low class.” Yet no matter how many jobs go to India, we will still need 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 my surgeon friend condescendingly: “Doc! Plumbers drive Porsches, but tile men drive Ferraris!”

As school heads, you can help parents like me appreciate that we would do well to remember Jung’s comment, “the shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” Life is not a steep pyramid where only very few people develop meaningful lives. The goal ought to be for each student to discover a niche that suits him or her uniquely, to be the author of a life that seems real, rather than feeling like a marionette in someone else’s play.

Sixth is an idea I am still wrestling with and shaping. Western civilization is in the midst of a quiet, but profound, cultural revolution entirely new in history. In most societies, including our own until very recently, men and women have conjugal relationships, but economic roles, social interaction, friendships, heart-to-heart intimate conversations, games, and jokes were predominantly same-sexed. We are just now struggling to figure out how to build a society where men and women – who must defer true social adulthood until their late 20’s or 30’s – can be social, political, professional, and economic equals, as well as personally intimate best friends. Independent schools and universities are at the center of this ongoing revolution. Sexual roles, mores, and expectations have changed. Yet no final resolution and new pattern has solidified. Those of us who now have “senior status” must appreciate and applaud these changes, and encourage the current generation in their efforts to find a comfortable resolution.

Finally, in every past crisis, war, and age of anxiety, children have done better when they could do something concrete to help in the effort. In World War II they saved tin foil and sold bonds. The same holds true now. That may be why kids need to write letters to soldiers and to give toys for Iraqi kids. It may also be why so many boys spend hours shooting terrorists in computer games. It is their way to get mastery of their anxieties and to participate in the ongoing battle. Maybe our schools could think of innovative ways to help kids to be involved.

It would also be great if kids could see their parents being intelligent adults, discussing matters other than play dates and carpools. Monica Lewinsky, 9/11, and the 2004 election helped in a way; they forced families to discuss important adult matters. 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 deal with important matters when it is their world?

Our fear of terrorism is legitimate, particularly in the tri-state area. Yet the WHO says what most threatens humanity is the potential bird flu pandemic. We need to remember the lessons of London in the Blitzkrieg: Parents’ reactions make all the difference. For parents to be calm, they have to step back from the hyper-parenting madness and figure out what really matters in life. School heads can encourage families’ regaining that balance. Even in this age of fear, 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.

After the Cold War ended, we thought that history had ended; an earthly Paradise was here. Unfortunately, history continues its occasionally painful march. If we put the current dangers in context, the contemporary anxieties about terrorism and orange alerts will be bearable. Our kids, like us, will figure out how to live well despite the anxiety. Life has never been carefree; adulthood has always had anxieties. Despite painful losses, we have survived prior threats. We will survive this one too. That is what parent’s need to appreciate. It was Freud’s point: Living well means enjoying living, working, and loving despite the anxiety. Not a bad aspiration!


Buy the Book
Contact the Authors