Many studies have concluded that the idyllic American childhood — wherever it existed in middle- and upper-class homes, or in our literature and imagination — is a thing of the past.
The kind of carefree childhood in which kids mostly minded their manners and their parents, read books without being assigned to, and whiled away their many free hours playing stickball in the street, fishing down at the creek, and fretting about not much at all except whom to ask to the senior prom.
My own childhood was a bit like that. I assembled and played with model trains, pretended I was a baseball star while chasing a ball thrown against the back steps, and spent many an hour lying in fields, sucking on a ragweed stem and thinking about clouds and girls and the Cleveland Browns football team.
Childhood involved lots of dreams and skinned knees, not nervous breakdowns.
Then something changed in America. Something sucked the fun out of childhood.
In 1981, Tufts University psychologist David Elkind published a book that got Americans talking and worrying. The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast was a scathing indictment of American parenting. It described a condition in which moms and dads overscheduled their children and prodded them unceasingly to achieve in academics and sports.
The result was soon labeled the “hurried child syndrome.” And the nation hadn’t seen anything yet.
Millions of stressed-out children are now medicated. Six million, according to a study done for the Frontline public affairs documentary series on U.S. public television. Medicated not on cough drops, but on antidepressants.
The rates of child suicide and homicide have tripled since Elkind wrote The Hurried Child. Teen pregnancy rates are the highest of any Western society. Obesity is pervasive among American kids. In part, experts say, because they are spending so much time hunkered in front of computers that do much of their thinking for them.
In one of the telltale examples of what some call “kids growing older younger,” there’s hard evidence that little children, rushed to become sophisticated and even sexy, are abandoning toys at younger and younger ages.
John Taylor, a founder of Arcadia Investments in Portland, Oregon, follows the toy industry. He told me he calls it “age compression.”
It used to be that the toy industry had products which were of interest to children all the way up until they were about 12 years old. Now many segments of the toy business start to lose customers somewhere around age 6. And each year on average has about 4 million kids in it. So you’ve lost an audience that’s potentially as large as 15 million kids, who now have moved on to video games or moved on to music, or, in the case of girls, moved on to makeup and clothes.
A telling example: Mattel, maker of the classic line of “Barbie dolls” produces even better-selling “Bratz” dolls that look like sexy music-video starlets. Bratz — which sounds like “brats,” in case you didn’t notice — are a line of dolls with skinny bodies, lush lips, lots of makeup, and sleek clothes that soon outpaced sales of Barbie worldwide. It wasn’t long before the American Psychological Association was condemning the dolls for sexualizing childhood.
Maria Weiskott, a “ghost blogger” — the blogging equivalent of a ghostwriter — is a former editor of Playthings magazine, which has followed the toy industry for more than a century. She once pointed out the obvious to me — that firms are promoting sophisticated electronic games to younger and younger children.
For instance, a product called the “Growing Smart Learning Laptop” computer that teaches shapes and numbers and colors to techno-savvy preschoolers.
Yes, “kids are learning more,” Weiskott points out. But . . .
They’re being pushed at an earlier age by their own parents. They are very impressionable as to industry icons — the ‘boy bands’ and the young women that they aspire to be like. They’re very influenced by the entertainment industry. And the market has adapted to this new, mature child.
To which most parents of young American children whom I know would reply, “No kidding.”
So a great deal inside and outside the home is conspiring to demand that children grow up early.
But at what cost? Many educators argue it’s at the expense of unstructured family and play time when curiosity and imagination flourish. Without such moments, what becomes of childhood innocence and the notion that kids should be kids, and that there’s virtue in “doing nothing.”
Isn’t it in unstructured moments that imagination is born?
A decade or so ago, Joi Lasnick, a Florida stay-at-home mother of a 7-year-old, started a Web site called MyParent.com, devoted to helping other parents cope with the go-go, competitive rat race that was building in the country.
“Kids are so stressed,” she told me.
They just need to grow up at their own rate. Not every child can go-go-go, do-do-do, achieve-achieve-achieve all the time. They’ll be discouraged if they see, “Oh, this kid is able to do that, but I can’t. I’m a failure.” That’s how even little kids get depressed.
Just this year, Gail Gross, a nationally recognized author and lecturer on juvenile behavior and development, wrote that “in an era of technological and media advances, children are often portrayed as ‘little adults.’”
And with it come the tensions and ailments of adulthood.
Consequently, psychiatric units are filled with a new breed of troubled youngster. Pediatricians are finding more children with stress-related diseases such as ulcers by the age of 7, as well as sleep disorders and bedwetting. Suicide and depression . . . have found their way into the child’s community. And children have anxiety-promoted memory lapses and an exaggerated fear of failure.
So it’s not much fun to be a “super kid” — a miniature adult.
What’s the value in stressing kids, in deliberately placing them in one competitive situation after another? Not just on the soccer field or skating rink, but also in beauty pageants, tryouts for photo shoots and TV commercials, and “advanced” and “honors” academic programs that, once a child makes it in, only magnify the pressure to achieve.
Achieve for whom? Themselves or someone they’re trying to please?
David Boers, a former schoolteacher and high-school principal who’s an education professor at Marian College in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, says American adults rush children to somehow gratify their own yearning for success. The hurried-child syndrome — or should we call it the “pressured-child syndrome”? — so concerned Boers that he developed an entire course on the subject.
“We live in a very, very competitive society,” he says, stating what has become obvious.
Winners count, and the losers don’t. And so when adults start looking at their kids as sort of badges of merit, then what the kids accomplish serves the parents’ needs. We are pushing kids to achieve things in school that they are simply not ready to achieve — two or three hours of homework a night to score astronomically on standardized tests that are made up by adults who want to clearly show the world that they are succeeding.
Boers is one who believes many Americans have become dependent on their children for their own sense of worth because they have unfulfilled needs themselves.
You go to any town across America, and you will see examples of adults pressuring kids to excel in sports. And what that comes down to in a lot of communities is that those kids who have some physical development early get all the attention, and the rest who need time to develop get left behind.
David Boers points out that poor urban and rural American kids — like many children around the world who live in poverty, lack strong parenting, and attend substandard schools — are hurried to grow up in other ways. He says he remembers working with five- and six-year-old inner-city kids whose caretakers were not much older than they. These tykes were actually outfitted in bulletproof vests, he says, because it was too unsafe to walk to school.
In this environment, the idea of an idyllic childhood is laughable.
Children in stable, affluent homes with every imaginable teaching tool and electronic entertainment gadget, may not need flak jackets and security fencing. But many are under relentless pressure to succeed in every course, every game, every competition for a few open slots at a prestige school.
“Loving, caring, well-intentioned parents who really ‘want the best for their kids’ are manipulating the kids’ environments to such a degree that the kids are shutting down,” Boers told me.
“They have no natural curiosity.”
Say that again out loud: “They have no natural curiosity.”
Could anything be sadder?
The biggest hope that many observers see for slowing the hurried child syndrome lies in schoolrooms. There, teachers — who see the harmful effects of the rush to premature adulthood every day — can allow children to relax, play without adult-imposed structure, and grow at their own pace.
But skeptics consider this an unlikely fantasy. They point to the increasing pressure placed on teachers by pushy parents, by principals wanting their schools to shine on standardized tests, and by coaches hoping to make superstars of small children.
And thus, a name for themselves as well.
The problem is not just kids growing older younger.
It’s a mad dash into competitive adulthood that appears to have consumed the entire society.
In fairness, I should point out that there is a contrary point of view. In 2008, a group of University of Maryland researchers analyzed data collected in a previous survey of elementary-school-aged children and their parents, conducted in the American Midwest.
The results did not square with the idea that “we’re raising a generation of young children stressed out by overscheduled lives,” wrote principal investigator Sandra Hofferth.
“Even a high level of structured activities does not appear to be emotionally stressful for children,” Hofferth added. “Contrary to popular belief, children who are most at risk of being depressed, anxious, alienated, and fearful are those with no activities.”
Perhaps we could set up a contest between dueling experts on this matter. (More competition!) My own four kids are too far out of childhood to serve as useful test subjects, and even their children have reached their teen years.
But as I look around me and talk with the harried parents of busy children, and as I listen to them describe their children’s routines, I don’t sense much satisfaction, much joy, much confidence that their offspring are enjoying a childhood in which striving is balanced by unstructured wonder.
“Blessed be childhood, which brings down something of heaven into the midst of our rough earthliness,” wrote Henri Frédéric Amiel. Of course, he was Swiss, writing almost two centuries ago.
What might he say about the “rough earthliness” of American childhood today?
FYI, dear readers: For the next two weeks, I’ll be away on a jam-packed “circle tour” of the American East and Midwest, ranging from West Virginia to Minnesota to Texas and back. So I don’t think I’ll have a chance to post during that time. But you never know!
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Fret. To worry, sometimes to the point of great anxiety.
Goody-two-shoes. In the noun form, this refers to a “do-gooder,” a virtuous person. The term comes from an 1888 British children’s story by that name in which a well-behaved orphan girl is given a pair of shoes by a wealthy man, lives a stellar life in which she becomes a teacher, and is rewarded with wealth of her own. The term is now often used mockingly, as if “do-gooder” behavior is naïve and foolish.
Hunkered. An old Scottish term referring to a crouched position. Sometimes the redundant term “hunkered down” is used.
Senior prom. A formal dance, or promenade, for students about to graduate from high school. Typically they are dressed in their finest — tuxedos and “prom dresses” — sometimes for the first time in their lives.