The Over-Scheduled Family
With attribution, this talk can be quoted from freely!
Everyone here tonight wants to be the best parent possible. I share that goal but have to warn you that an anxious social pressure is hampering your and my efforts. This destructive force can weaken our marriages and get our beloved children overwhelmed, discouraged, and diagnosed as learning disabled, ADD, anxious, or depressed. I call this pressure “hyper-parenting.”
Exerting its influence through over-scheduling, hyper-parenting compels parents to become relentlessly self-sacrificing, enrolling children in activities early so they can excel at academics, athletics, or quirky specialties. Each scheduled activity is said to be a critical step in a larger hyper-parenting program that makes an irresistible promise: Make all the right moves and your child will get into a top name university and be a winner at life. It insinuates a serious threat: Deprive your kids of these activities and their only acceptance letter will be to Southeast Kentucky State Junior College’s night extension program. They will have miserable lives, and you will have only one person to blame: yourself.
Given these alternatives and assuming that like me you lack super-human self-confidence, how can you not hyper-parent? So widely accepted has hyper-parenting become that “family life” has eroded: In just the past 20 years structured sports time has doubled, household conversations have become far less frequent, and family dinners have declined 33%. In many families, moms with masters and PhD’s have become chauffeurs.
Hyper-parenting insinuates itself into our lives as early as conception. It diminishes our tranquility and self-assuredness while increasing our anxiety about whether we are good parents. We come to believe that we need special, high-tech gizmos and gadgets to do our job properly. We need machines to pipe Mozart into expectant mothers’ wombs and products like Baby Einstein to enrich toddlers. Parents like that Einstein image but had better not look at it too closely. While adult Albert was a genius, he talked late and did poorly at school. If he were alive today, his parents likely would get him a comprehensive evaluation and would put him on Ritalin. He might not discover the theory of relativity but he surewould pay more attention to fourth grade math. And what about Baby Van Gogh? As someone who prefers my children remain both mentally well and two-eared, the notion of my child being like him is downright horrifying.
In our scientific age, you would expect that hyper-parenting is rooted in empirical evidence. It is not. Even hyper-parenting’s central tenet – the idea that parents ought to vigorously accelerate milestones –may be wrong. Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10 and until George Gershwin discovered music, he specialized, apparently with considerable success, in being a child hoodlum. Unlike Tiger Woods, Mickey Mantle was a poor hitter as a boy and Michael Jordan did not make his junior high school J.V. basketball team. Furthermore, many exceptional people choose a vocation because it involves a skill acquired in overcoming a handicap: James Earl Jones developed that fabulous voice overcoming his speech impediment.
If facts don’t fuel hyper-parenting, what does? Fear and anxiety! I would like to give a few examples of how this phenomenon starts before birth and marches steadily through children’s development:
Given this program, is it any surprise that so many American teenagers feel like frauds, and exhausted ones at that? Society is telling kids, subliminally, that they ought to be hyperactive, over-scheduled workaholics who win the game whatever the rules, prize, or personal cost! Perhaps that pressure to accomplish -- rather than being encouraged to develop what you yourself value -- accounts for the high prevalence of anxiety disorders, especially among middle and upper class adolescents. Close to 9% of affluent teenagers suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, overanxious disorder, excessive shyness, panic disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder, not counting the near-ubiquitous eating disorders.
Other teenagers are depressed. Many of those take alcohol to relieve emotional distress or drugs to escape the stress and go into drug-induced daydreams. Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman (1998) found that by 12th grade, affluent youth reported the highest rates of marijuana, inhalant, and tranquilizer use, although that has diminished somewhat lately. Luthar and Becker (2002) found that this was likely associated with the “overemphasis on achievement and,” unfortunately, “isolation from parents.” As Bettelheim and I wrote (1993), some parents insist on children’s accomplishments but don’t take time to know their kids as individuals. It is not only the children who are harmed. As a result of pressure and absence of deeper values, parents often suffer from the same anxiety and depressive disorders as their children do.
Hyper-parenting and its discontents may hurt our future. The entire world has concluded that innovation will drive the 21st Century’s economy. To stay in the game, America will need to foster creativity and out of the box thinking; yet the current approach to schooling often makes connect-the-dots specialists the winners.
There is good reason to wonder whether elite American universities can see which kids will turn out to be truly creative. One example: A young man desperately wanted to make films. He applied to UCLA’s film program. He was rejected so he went to Long Beach State. He later applied to transfer to USC’s prestigious film program. Rejected again! But he knew he could make films, was tenacious, and elbowed his way into the industry. His name, Steven Spielberg!
Elite colleges with professional schools may not be the best place for undergraduates. Students usually see famous professors in huge introductory courses. As Andrew Hacker recently wrote, elite universities are dominated by “faculties for whom thoughtful consideration of undergraduate education is simply not on the agenda.” (NYRB, 11/3/05, P. 53) Given the choice, would any group of 2000 intelligent students actually spend, collectively, eight million or more dollars for Jim Maas’s semester-long psychology course at Cornell? Aren’t Teaching Company tapes are a lot cheaper?
Furthermore, when you look closely at the research, what seems to make the difference in an upper middle class kid’s success is their innate talent, motivation, and achievement, such as on the SAT’s, not the college they attend. America has 200 or more excellent colleges! But facts can’t change our brand-name loyalty. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and MIT are such compelling names that few of us – me included – can resist their siren call. But as Hacker notes, student satisfaction is “highest in colleges that keep their enrollments small, don’t have graduate programs, and are not necessarily nationally known.” A Harvard style education guarantees neither success nor happiness. Remember Jung’s wise statement, “the shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” Finding a niche in life that fits your nature is far more likely to do that!
Education is not the only place we have forgotten to be sensible. Kids’ athletics is another. Hobbies are great. When taught by sensible coaches, athletics can make important contributions to a child’s health, self-protective instincts, character development, collaborative ability, work ethic, and self-esteem. Sports are part of some families’ long-standing valuable traditions. Sound mind and sound body! Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow!
Sports should also be fun; many can be enjoyed for a lifetime. Today, many childhood sports have been professionalized. Four year olds, kids too young to understand the rules, get signed up for competitive leagues. Girls are urged to be gymnasts; their parents are seduced with intimations of college scholarships in the offing. Yet 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 gymnasts do lifelong damage to their joints and spinal columns. Are they really examples for our daughters to emulate?
Elite gymnasts are not a singular case. Ill, injured, and concussed kids are pressured to return to their competitive teams long before their pediatrician says they are ready. A recent Washington Post article states that “at least 300,000 sports concussions occur in children annually.” (Levine, 10/10/06) Orthopedic surgeons report that between 2.2 and 3.5 million 5-14 year olds suffer bone fractures, dislocations, and sports related muscle injuries annually. Do kids’ sports really have to be so intense and time consuming? Out of 40 football players on my son’s Rye Country Day School team, three shattered their legs in just one season. Should we accept a child’s sacrificing his body as an appropriate cost of "going for the gold?"
Does empirical evidence support the “winning is everything” notion? George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist, followed people’s lives for 20, 30, 40, even 50 years. Despite sophisticated statistics, two variables that predicted a good life were one good relationship and a capacity for real play. If that is true, should we encourage our kids’ relationships and their playfulness or worry about whether they hit the longest ball in Little League?
Valliant’s findings resemble what I see in clinical practice: Relationships make all the difference. Comfort and acceptance bring out the best in everyone; anxiety and doubt the worst. Parents who really know their child and have a visceral faith that he or she will eventually find a good place in life, maximize the odds of their child succeeding. 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.
I would never discourage parents from pushing their kids some; children need to know that their parents expect them to make something of their lives. But over-scheduling often accomplishes the opposite; it makes kids feel, "I must not be very good at all or I wouldn’t need constant self-improvement." Parental over-scheduling and incessant scrutiny can also create a self-fulfilling prophecy: After all, the child resents the parents’ lack of faith and, to get even, may live down to that expectation!
Over-emphasizing organized, scheduled activities also makes us devalue Valliant’s second factor, true play, which requires no specific goal at all. Einstein maintained that “imagination is more useful than knowledge.” In not treating a child’s natural joy in discovering as precious, we can damage imagination and creativity. The hyper-parenting mentality says that every moment should be productive, so we criticize our kids when they just want to lollygag. Yet 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 like that, the ones who followed their inner passions, tinkered, and did the impossible – people like Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, David Packard, Gordy Berry, Matt Groening, and college dropouts Michael Dell and Bill Gates. 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 that actually makes them feel centered.
Something else in the hyper-parenting notion of “success” is flawed: When we treat accomplishments and income as the true measures of people, we may abrogate a fundamental responsibility, teaching our children character.
How do we teach character? We do not need to have consciously thought through our philosophy of life. Since actions speak louder than words, we transmit our values every day in the choices we make and actions we take. The word “discipline” is derived from disciple. Christ’s disciples following because in their daily actions they hoped to emulate the path he had modeled. Do we model the kind of life we recommend? Do our kids see us treating our spouse respectfully, reading books, and loving to learn something new? Do they experience us listening to what they, and others, say? Do they watch us kowtow to wealth and station or see us valuing people of character and personal courage, rich and poor alike? Do they see us playing fair, trying to be close to real friends and to get balance in our lives? Have they seen us come home a bit tipsy after a party or pass out drunk on the couch? If we had to choose between our child having a good family life or being a Duke grad, do they know which we would take?
If all we do is work constantly and expect everyone else to do the same, our children may conclude that we don’t 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?
Worrying about the kids makes us overlook the fact that we, their parents, are the bedrock their identities are built on. If we really want to help our children become independent and successful, to encourage their thinking for themselves, we parents have to give them a solid foundation. We have to think for ourselves, to decide what life means for us. 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.
Like their parents, children deserve to feel that they are living a life that is their own, not one that adults have decided they ought to live. If parents say, “Stop being silly! Just become an investment banker,” 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, hopefully with some wise, gentle guidance from their elders.
Parents deserve to have a life too! Every kid I’ve known whose parents were pleased with their lives and marriage did far better. I don’t think that competitive parenting -- in which we hold up how frazzled we are as a merit badge and proudly compare how much more we are sacrificing -- helps any kid. 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. Want to help your kids? Enjoy yourself and your spouse more! Have more fun in bed!
So what else can we do? As long as society makes parenting America’s most competitive sport, we are somewhat limited in what we can do as individuals. But we are not powerless. For starters, try cutting back 5-10%, which for many families means just one or two weeknights a month with no activities. You may find that life becomes sane again.
Think about limiting activities. Doing so does not make you a bad parent; it means you are a responsible adult who can make the difficult, sensible decisions for their family. Some families make firm rules (such as one sport per child per season) while others make decisions on a case-by-case basis. But if you say “yes” to too many enrichment opportunities, the whole family will pay the price.
Be skeptical about expert advice. Like fashion, science has fads. One year we are encouraged to limit fat in toddlers’ diets, the next we are warned that doing so may be harmful. Who knows the truth? In most cases, moderation and good judgment are best.
Give yourself and your family a break: Your family life is meant to be your own creation, an ever-changing dance between you, your children, your spouse, your family and friends, and the community at large. Do it your way. You only get one chance. So embrace the uncertainty, enjoy the new dance steps, and know that because you are trying hard and this dance has never been done quite this way before, you will sometimes feel awkward. That's the human condition.
Family time is as important as education, athletics, social activities, and other outside commitments. Our children are with us for a brief flicker of time before they head out into their own lives, busy with friends, college, jobs, and eventually their own families. So be unproductive! Families need time together with nothing that needs to be accomplished -- shooting hoops, taking walks, playing games, sitting and talking, reading, or watching a movie or TV show. The fact that you, the parent, enjoy spending time with your child with no apparent goal lets her know you find her more interesting than just about anything else in the world. Nothing will bolster a child’s self-esteem more effectively!
Remember that childhood is a preparation, not a performance. Kids shouldn’t be judged on every aspect of their performance in life - it puts too much pressure on them, and too much pressure on you. Resist the pressure from coaches, and the media, that tells you how to push your child to excel early.
And most importantly, learn to trust yourself! When it comes to your family, you are the expert. One thing I can guarantee you for sure: You are the best parent your child will ever have. In the words of the good Dr. Benjamin Spock, who said it first and said it best, "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do."
As a culture, we have gone from being adult to being child centered, which is mainly for the good. But in doing so we also have given kids a sense that the world revolves around them – starting with his majesty the fetus. That robs 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 us primarily 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?
Children need Canadian ice hockey and Romanian gymnastic coaches far less than they need Mom and Dad! Being with parents who enjoy spending time with them with no apparent goal stimulates their deep, inner conviction that they don’t have to perform for us to love them. That used to be called unconditional love. Billy Joel captured it: “No need for clever conversation… I love you just the way you are.” Who among us is not looking for that?
We desperately need to regain balance as families. Even in this age of anxiety, we wake up in wonderful, safe neighborhoods, have food, shelter, a superb educational system – particularly if you are fortunate enough to go to St. Luke’s -- 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.