The Hurried, Harried Child

Posted October 5th, 2012 at 5:55 pm (UTC-4)
6 comments

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.

Young Ted. I don't look stressed here, do I?  I wasn't.

Young Ted. I don’t look stressed here, do I? I wasn’t.

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.

Things can pile up quickly for, and on, kids today.  (qwrrty, Flickr Creative Commons)

Things can pile up quickly for, and on, kids today. (qwrrty, Flickr Creative Commons)

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.

The Bratz "Genie Magic" doll.  (puuikibeach, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Bratz “Genie Magic” doll. (puuikibeach, Flickr Creative Commons)

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 . . .

Kids and computers.  Sometimes a creative mix.  Sometimes not.  (whiteafrican, Flickr Creative Commons)

Kids and computers. Sometimes a creative mix. Sometimes not. (whiteafrican, Flickr Creative Commons)

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.

Kids sometimes talk about the fun they're having.  But it is unstructured fun that allows their minds to wander, and wonder?  (ijustwanttobeperceivedthewayiam, Flickr Creative Commons)

Kids sometimes talk about the fun they’re having. But it is unstructured fun that allows their minds to wander, and wonder? (ijustwanttobeperceivedthewayiam, Flickr Creative Commons)

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.

"Pee-wee" football begins at age 7.  (jdanvers, Flickr Creative Commons)

“Pee-wee” football begins at age 7. (jdanvers, Flickr Creative Commons)

“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.

Surely this isn't the cover of a calculus workbook for little kids.  Or is it?  Not too many adults follow the exploits of Curious George.  (CMLorenz16, Flickr Creative Commons)

Surely this isn’t the cover of a calculus workbook for little kids. Or is it? Not too many adults follow the exploits of Curious George. (CMLorenz16, Flickr Creative Commons)

“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.

Growing up used to take a lot longer.  (*Ann Gordon, Flickr Creative Commons)

Growing up used to take a lot longer. (*Ann Gordon, Flickr Creative Commons)

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.

6 Responses to “The Hurried, Harried Child”

  1. Anastasia Lekatsas says:

    Hello Mr. Landphair,

    I Stumbled onto your website while searching for a Pan Am Honolulu Clipper poster.
    Not sure how that happened but it was a wonderful surprise and it enabled me to extend my avoidance of the house cleaning I was attempting to do. AVOIDANCE

    I work with high school students who don’t go to school and one cause, described simply, would be that they can’t get up in the morning having stayed up all night sending texts to their friends, playing video games, watching T.V. and surfing the internet.The relationship that these students have to their electronic devices, in my estimation, is similar to the powerful image of the user of opium in the opium den. The user is physically attached to the object of their addiction. This is why you see young people with mobile electronic devices in their hands. Portable oxygen you might say.

    This is only a description of the problem. The causes are exceedingly complex, the consequences devastating on an international level. On a daily personal level, for the families who have succumbed to electronic use, avoidance of this problem has proved tragic. The Japanese have gone out of their way to AVOID blaming their “shut-ins” problem on electronics preferring to blame over doting and absent fathers. Yes that is a part of the problem, when your doting involves the choice of buying the electronic device over doting in some other way. The Koreans admit to video game use for their problem.

    I was preaching to a student of mine about the bad effects of video game use when he said to me ” Miss, if video games were so bad for you the president wouldn’t allow them”. I was tempted to scoff at his foolishness when I considered that his argument was well founded. I too believe somewhere in my brain that if talking on my cell phone were really going to cause me a brain tumor the government would do something to prevent it. Caveat emptor.

  2. Anthony Makara says:

    Its is distressing is that children are having their Personal Space compressed and crushed by Social Networking, Twitter, Texting and other technology related activities. Friendships and Relationships no longer come and go as part of the ebb and flow of life but seem to be a permanence, children and teenagers are no longer able to break off or even take a break from contact with friends who are always a click or a text away. We know that personal space is important to evaluate situations and our relationships with other people, yet the young are denied that space because, in the internet world, to stand outside of Social Networking would be regarded as stepping outside of known life itself. Children and Teenagers have become hostage to technology and the market-led culture that demands ever more of their attention. One can only hope that today’s culture will in the future be regarded as passe by a future generation who may come to value personal space above the insecurity that drives the need to be connected.

  3. [...] The Hurried, Harried Child 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 … So … Read more on Voice of America (blog) [...]

  4. tland says:

    Dear Anthony,

    Your point is a little tough to follow, but I completely agree with the point that social media are compressing young people’s time and attention, to the detriment of relationships. Thanks for writing.

    Ted

  5. tland says:

    Dear Anastasia,

    Fascinating the way people stumble upon others’ work. How searching for a Pan Am Honolulu Clipper could have brought you to my piece about harried kids would be a fascinating thread to unravel.

    Interesting point likening addition to social media to opium addiction. At first it sounds like a stretch, but they do have physical ramifications and tremendous degradation of interpersonal skills in common.

    A thought-provoking letter, for which I thank you.

    Ted

  6. [...] The Hurried, Harried Child Teen pregnancy rates are the highest of any Western society. Obesity is … Suicide and depression . . . have found their way into the child's community. And children have … Surely this isn't the cover of a calculus workbook for little kids. Or is it … Read more on Voice of America (blog) [...]

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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