Talk to New York ISAAGNY - N.Y. Independent Schools Association
November 6, 2002 - revised November 18, 2002

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 harms children's capacity to be self-reliant; it also 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, as a recent study by Luthar and Becker demonstrated (Child Development, October, 2002).

The goal of this ambitious child-rearing program is admission to an elite college. The over-scheduled mentality asserts that the right activities, started early enough--preferably prenatally-- combined with regular practice, near fanatical devotion, and intense parental guidance will make children "winners" who get into Harvard, BC, Yale, Vanderbilt, Duke, UVA, and Princeton. Children deprived of these activities will be losers, period!

In fact, no objective evidence supports this contention. Facts refuting 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. And while data supports the notion that attending college dramatically increases lifetime income, no data I am aware of has shown that elite college attendance inexorably leads to success in life, let alone to happiness.

However, as a University of Minnesota study shows (Doherty), this mentality has led to a diminution in family time and free time. In the past 20 years, unstructured children's activities have declined by 50% while structured sports time has doubled. Household conversations have shown a dramatic decline, family dinners have declined 33%, and family vacations have decreased by 28%.

Overscheduling children from an early age is appealing because it seems to give us control over the future. In the hyper-parenting model, even biological givens of child development -products of a million years of evolution and adaptation - become merely rough outlines that parents, using modern science and technology, can improve dramatically. Contrary to current scientific knowledge, development is presumed to be linear: The child who speaks early will score highest on their verbal SAT's. So one Connecticut parent paid her Nanny $500 for every milestone her child beat.

Dr. Benjamin Spock maintained that parent-educators ought to increase parental self-confidence. But this hyper-parenting program does the opposite; it makes devoted parents anxious; they end up scrutinizing their children. 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 sign 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 home newborns - who could just as soon sleep in a blanket-lined breadbox -- to $10- 15,000, fully equipped nurseries. To provide early brain stimulation, parents play "Baby Einstein" tapes. But while adult Albert was a genius, Baby Einstein talked late and did poorly at school. Today he would get a comprehensive evaluation and likely would 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, and Mozart specifically, 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 supposed "Mozart effect" was done on college students or that the effect was short-lived. The product still sells. 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 hospital nurseries and living rooms all over suburban America?

Test scores in New York City have become as essential for nursery admission as they are for Yale. As the Wall Street Journal reported (11/15/02, Page A1), some wealthy families "hire consultants, with names such as IvyWise Kids, for as much as $4000 to advise on the [preschool] application process." So without anyone knowing it, parents have three year olds tutored and then fret over whether a school's educational program is academically rigorous enough for four year olds.

No school-aged child can be average! They can either be gifted or learning disabled. Sometimes, learning disabled is preferred, since then they can take their SAT exams un-timed and un-asterisked.

The amount of homework has increased dramatically between 1981 and 199 7, tripling among 6-8 year olds (who clearly need far more homework than they get.) Yet Prof. Harris Cooper at the University of Missouri-Columbia examined the results of more than 120 research studies and found that they showed no relationship between the amounts of homework elementary school students do and their achievement levels. To increase learning, some states are considering eliminating recess for middle and high school students. Schools advocate healthy lunches so children's bodies grow straight, but ignore the 30-pound, textbook filled backpacks that have long-term effects on kids' 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.

Balance has no value! Demanding -- even abusive -- coaches who train "winners" are sought out; many of these coaches entice parents with reports of how many of their former athletes now attend Ivy League schools, in large part, they say, because of their athletic excellence. School-aged kids' sports are professionalized; 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 their parents' candlelit, Saturday night dinner with a spouse, not once, but every week.

Even enjoyment matters little; one boy told me he didn't even like soccer but couldn't leave the Premier league because it might harm his chances for an excellent college. He was 11. Until a scandal erupts, the fact that coaches not infrequently sexually and emotionally abuse elite athletes is also overlooked, both by parents and sports organizations.

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 Greenwich, Connecticut Mom insisted that any child who has not started a charitable foundation by 17 has no shot at Harvard. These college applicants' resumes are often "manufactured"; they often reflect nothing about the soul and spirit of the student, but are designed to get the desired response from admissions officers. The University of California system will starting next year - because it realizes it has to -- randomly check the purported accomplishments of its applicants.

The social trends that have promoted over-scheduling are complex; I have too little time - and likely too little intelligence -- to discuss them fully. But I will mention changes in, 1) the family, 2) education, 3) technology, and 4) parents' expectations of themselves, that fuel this madness.

The family: For millennia, families were mutually co-operative, productive units where every person, whatever their age, contributed to economic survival. Today, children are economically useless. Rather than being a family's greatest asset, they have become the parents' greatest financial liability: "Do you know how much it costs to raise a kid today?" As my friend and co-author Bruno Bettelheim wrote (Bettelheim and Rosenfeld, The Art of the Obvious, Knopf, 1993), that has fundamentally changed parent-child relationships.

Education: Twenty-five years ago, we were certain that Japan would defeat us economically. Although we won - since 1999, the Japanese Ministry of Education has reformed education trying to get their kids to think more creatively, the way ours do - mainstream American education has adopted the least beneficial aspect of their approach. Because Japanese schoolchildren - and some in other countries -- perform better on standardized tests, we want standardized, measurable education, even though this often translates into children learning conformity, unimaginative thought patterns, and good parroting skills, exactly what our economy does not need in the future.

We have ignored what was most valuable in the Japanese approach. I suspect that their strong families are central. Harold Stevenson, a University of Michigan psychology professor, also found that Asian students do better because their parents stress their children's perseverance and not letting mistakes derail their efforts. By contrast, "instead of giving priority to how much effort kids put into learning, 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 advanced technology has fundamentally altered everything, including, through Doppler stethoscopes and ultrasounds, 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 photos, now available from GE in 4-D -- this new technology has consigned expectant women to a subordinate position. Rather than treating them as special -- in a mysterious, vulnerable situation to be indulged with pickles and ice cream -- books for expectant parents 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: I get annoyed when I hear this generation derided as shallow or self-centered. Most parents try hard and sacrifice so much; many feel they were under-parented. 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; many never showed up for games or school plays, never witnessed their children's great triumphs, were there to comfort them in their on-the field humiliations, or could see their disappointment when they spent the whole game warming the bench.

It left many kids feeling insecure because they felt unimportant to their parents, who are the center of every child's emotional life. So the generations of the late 1960's to 1980's vowed to be involved with kids. And they are! Another University of Michigan study showed that today's parents spend 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, anxiously judging how fast they grow and achieve milestones, how early they learn to read, how good they are at ballet or creative writing. 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 good grades, popularity, athletic accomplishment, and the ultimate -- 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) and working endlessly, even at subjects you hate. In sum, it involves being what others say you ought to be, not what your inner voice tells you to become.

Some, 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. One said to me, "I want my parents to judge me for who I am, not how I look."

Others win the brass ring and get to the Ivies but break down in their first year; I see them when they come back home from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. They don't know who they are and whose life are they living? 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.

Do the elite schools deliver? For some kids they are simply terrific places to be. Do they deliver success in life, as common belief holds? Let's say that we accept the contemporary businessman as god religion. Unlike Japan - and I am told Great Britain -- where most business leaders come from a few elite schools, only 13% of corporate CEO's are Ivy graduates, a relatively small percentage given their 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 that 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 professors but mostly they see these professors 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. Furthermore, 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 schooling were the only place we had abandoned good sense, balance, and judgment. Contemporary kids' athletics is another painful place we have forgotten that childhood is a preparation, not a full performance. Kids are not supposed to excel, or even be good, at anything. They are learning. But everything in kids' sports is done to elite standards. One Mom said, "Imagine the pressure when you have six hockey games a weekend? And what is a hockey team doing assigning two to possibly three hockey games a weekend?" But being in the thick of it and loving her kids, she sees no alternative.

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 and self-esteem. But in subjecting everything kids do to scrutiny and judgment, in giving a high or low score to their every move, we have diminished - and in some cases eliminated - sports' benefits. Which is why a friend of mine, a two gold medal winner at the Olympics, does not let her son play travel soccer.

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 menstrual 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. Are these girls we want our daughters to emulate?

Should we be alarmed that orthopedic surgeons recently reported a worrisome increase in recreation-linked stress fractures, ligament tears, and tendonitis 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 for a peak experience. Many play, few win. Most of us will have peak experiences in our lives… Maybe every decade or two! Very few of us will win Nobel prizes or Olympic gold. 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 George Vailliant, at Harvard, found these kids - then in their 50's -- and asked them about their subsequent lives. Despite Vailliant's using sophisticated statistics, the variable that that most predicted a good life was neither the degree of poverty nor how severe the abuse. Rather, what helped - and protected some of these very vulnerable children from a bad one - 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 a good life 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; I am sure I would be proud if they went to Princeton, particularly if that is their own true aspiration, not mine. But I also want them to be mentally well. Like you, my family's story is still being written. In my clinical experience, parents who give their children a deep sense that the parent knows who their child is, and has a visceral faith that the child will eventually find a good place in life, maximizes the odds of this 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 a script rather than assuming the difficult responsibility of being the authors of their own lives. Is it any surprise that so many adult Americans feel like frauds, as studies show they do?

Over-scheduling damages imagination and creativity. It leaves children so tightly scheduled that many never figure out how to spend free time; they have never invented a backyard game or had time to just hang out with friends. When not racing, they have no idea of what to do and complain of being bored. So Mom and Dad end up acting like cruise ship activities directors; I think that being a parent is a higher calling.

Furthermore, boredom isn't necessarily bad. Samuel Butler, the 17th Century poet, said, "To do great work, a man must be idle as well as very industrious." Boredom stimulates 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. Kids need some solitude, time to just be alone, to rehearse in their minds, relax, and veg out, something video games - the affluent parent's nemesis -- actually do for many boys.

Teaching Character

We are sacrificing more than enjoyment. In focusing on activities, we abrogate our most fundamental responsibility: Teaching children character and how to lead a good life and be good citizens. In fact, despite parents' devotion, 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 or tries to teach. 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 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, more than any activity, 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." This is 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 also need to recall how to play together as a family. Playing together 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 has their parent in their "bones" is bolstered through life's difficult times.

Even in this time of uncertainty, 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.


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