Harvard, Soccer, Over-Scheduled Families
by Alvin Rosenfeld, MD
We try so hard to be good parents, but our job is being made much more difficult because an over-scheduled child rearing style is being touted as the best to raise children. Following this over-scheduled lifestyle actually may be damaging our marriages, getting unhappy children diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD, bipolar, and depressed, and causing adolescents to be involved with drugs, alcohol, and premature sex (Luthar and Becker).
This hyperparenting program never asks what makes a person good or worthwhile; it aims to create "successful children," defined by a simple measure -- how highly ranked is the college he or she goes to. This makes the path to successful parenting simple: Enrichment activities should be started early --preferably prenatally (play Mozart to you womb) —and combined with regular practice, tenacity, and devotion. Result: Your child will be a "winner" who gets into Harvard, Yale, Stanford, U of C, Duke, UVA, Cornell, and Princeton. Any child deprived of these activities will – plainly put – be a loser, and his or her parents will have no one to blame but themselves!
Beliefs support this contention; evidence and anecdotes to the contrary are overlooked. Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10; Mickey Mantle was a poor hitter as a boy; James Earl Jones had a speech impediment he worked hard to overcome; and George Gershwin was more or less a child hoodlum with ADHD until he discovered music.
This overzealous rearing style has changed American families. In the past 20 years, as structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children’s activities have declined by 50%, household conversations have become far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased by 28%.
This model is built on the contention that child development –the biological result of a million years of evolution – is merely a rough outline that enrichment can improve on dramatically. Development is erroneously presumed to follow a straight line, e.g. the child who speaks early will be the Tiger Woods of the verbal SAT’s. So parents try to accelerate development; one parent paid the Nanny $500 for every milestone their daughter beat. She babbled early, $500. She crawled early, $500!
Parents become anxious and competitively scrutinize their infants and young children: Does Michelle babble early enough, does Lee crawl sooner than his cousins? Any delay or aberration, however minor, may 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 throughout childhood:
1) Although our homes are stunningly enriched by any international standard, American parents bring newborns 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. I am sure that today he would get a comprehensive evaluation and end up on Ritalin so he could focus more fully on the complex demands of fourth grade math. Deprived of his ability to daydream, he might not have discovered the Theory of Relativity, but you can’t have everything.
2) Whole states get involved. Convinced by research that "proved" 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 – not children -- and that the benefit was short-lived. Moreover, no research has shown that Mozart is superior to 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 make it national policy to broadcast it to living rooms all over suburban America?
3) The belief in this child rearing has transformed parenting into a competitive, and expensive, sport! The Wall Street Journal reported (11/15/02, Page A1) that some wealthy families "hire consultants … for as much as $4000 to advise on the [preschool] application process." Children I know are tutored for nursery school ERB’s. After their child is accepted, parents fret over whether a nursery school’s educational program is academically rigorous enough.
4) No school-aged child can be average! Each is either gifted or learning disabled. Sometimes, learning disabled is preferable. One Ivy League admissions officer told wealthy donors to get their grandchild diagnosed ADD so they could take their SAT exams un-timed and, now, un-asterisked, making them easier to admit.
5) Homework has increased dramatically, even though 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.) Parents often do the child’s work. Some schools have divided projects, like fourth grade dioramas, into those the child made, and those which the parents clearly helped with, because Kyle’s zoo project looks like it had been designed by an architect.
But parents today are assumed to be involved and – since we parents don’t have enough to do -- schools give homework we are expected to help with.
6) Basic health gets ignored: Some states are considering eliminating recess for middle and high school students so they can learn more, but overlook kids’ 30-pound, textbook filled backpacks and their likely long-term effects on spinal columns. Two mothers at an elite private school counted that of all the fourth grade girls performing at a school piano recital, 16 of 36 had tics.
7) 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.
8) Demanding -- even abusive -- coaches who train "winners" are sought out because colleges admit a disproportionate percentage of athletes. 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.
9) 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. For the best SAT tutors in New York City, wealthy parents pay $1000 an hour.
10) Deception is fostered. The 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 get into Harvard. If he got in, the writer was told it could become a "long-term gig." Because the colleges know they have to, 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 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! 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: The last generation’s world was adult centered; often, children were neither listened to nor heard. Parents never cancelled adult activities for a kid’s game. Rather, the kids sometimes hung around family and social events, listening to the adults talking or discussing events they considered important.
Many of us who were children then felt bored and insecure because we seemed like relatively unimportant appendages 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.
Our sacrifices also make our children feel guilty. Being good kids who can no longer repay us with work on the family farm, 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 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 crafting yourself into what others say you ought to be, not what your inner voice tells you to become. Is it any wonder that so many Americans feel like frauds?
All this hurrying and 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 tells them 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 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 told me, "I want my parents to judge who I am, not how I look."
Others get to the Ivies and break down in their first year; I see them when they come back home. For years they had ignored the stress and left no time to relax or to really learn. 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 who they are, real people or fabricated resumes.
Hyper-parenting is built on the premise that getting into an elite school is sort of like a Ferrari or Rolls Royce, the best. This presumption is so ingrained in our thinking that it is hard for most people, me included, to question it. Who among us would give up a Ralph Lauren shirt for one from Wal-Mart?
Do facts support our beliefs? The research is contradictory. Some studies suggest that it is the student’s SAT score, not the school they went to, that determines whether they earn more money in a lifetime. Other research suggests that students who go to the very elite schools earn far more, not surprising given how ambitious, tenacious, and willing to play the system you have to be to get there. But other research suggests that the kids who actually gain most from going to 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.
Whatever the facts turn out to be, these studies’ values are economic. Maybe our highest priority is economic too. That may be why in this managed care world, the number of male applicants to medical schools has dropped dramatically. 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!
Colleges may not recognize real creativity amidst manufactured resumes. A young man desperately wanted to make films. He applied to UCLA’s film program and was rejected. So he went to Long Beach State. After a time there, he applied to transfer to USC’s prestigious film program. He was rejected again. But he was tenacious and elbowed his way into the industry. 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 places where undergraduates learn? The ones with professional schools usually are parts of research universities and reward getting research grants. 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 huge lecture courses. Graduate students usually teach undergrads in smaller groups. Is that really worth $40,000 a year? Whatever! That decal sure looks good on a BMW!
In the current Harvard Magazine, ex-President Bok decried academia’s corroding its core values by being commercialized, increasingly using their elite status to be very profitable businesses. But the prestigious image does encourage large donors and fatten these schools’ already enormous endowment. To get on the gravy train, many elite schools that are less well endowed than Harvard, and that includes just about everybody, have created special admissions categories so they can admit 3-5% of their student body – non-legacies -- based not on ability but on hoped for future donations.
Resisting the siren call of the Ivies is difficult; I still ask my daughter where the graduates of her prep school got admitted this year. But with our own kids in today’s world, maybe the best we can do is to remember Jung’s statement, "the shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases." Some school that is not elite may be a 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.
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 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? As an example, 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 follow?
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 gold. 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 then our cheering says 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.
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 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)?
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?
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.
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, the child resents the parents’ lack of faith -- and anxiety usually brings out the worst in everyone! In making parents nervous, hyper-parenting makes them more likely to scrutinize their children anxiously, thereby promoting a bad outcome.
Children deserve to feel that they are living their own lives. If parents say, "forget about what suits you, go for Stanford, Yale, or Duke," – they tell kids that the label is more important than the education. If they say " just become an investment banker," they tell you to follow someone else’s lucrative script rather than assuming the difficult responsibility of being the author of your own life.
Parents deserve a life too! Every kid I’ve known whose parents were pleased with their lives and marriage did far better.
Many of us devalue true play, which needs no purpose beyond the pleasure of being. Or we justify it as a "child’s work," and therefore, permissible. Diminishing play’s importance damages imagination and creativity. Today’s 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 they found in 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; 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 tinkered and followed their inner passions – people like David Packard, Bill Gates, and of course, 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.
In treating accomplishments and income as the true measure of a person, we abrogate 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 kowtowing to wealth and station or valuing people of character and personal courage, we pass on our beliefs and culture. No kid I ever knew listens to what his or her parent says. Did you? 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.
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? Is life about more than money? If we had to choose between our child being a good person with a good family life, or a Yale grad, which would we choose?
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 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 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 given our kids a sense that the world revolves around them and have robbed them of the chance to see us being intelligent adults. We are at least as educated as our parents were; when we were younger, we were concerned with politics, music, art, sports, business, world events, and the like. So why do we prevent our children from seeing us discuss these? Usually our kids see us discussing kid’s schedules and activities. If they emulate us, 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 Monopoly, whatever! What our children really need is us. The greatest gift we can give themis 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." The problem is both local and national. We need 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) and hope you will consider starting a branch here.
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, particularly here at Parker, 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.