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Hurried Children Have No Place to Go

Updated: Sep 12, 2021

From the beginning of time, we’ve tried to rush our kids…but to what end?

Photo by Oleg Larkin on Unsplash.

While we savor the last days of summer, many of us picture carefree childhoods that allowed us time to daydream, relax, explore, let our imaginations run wild.

I remember story time at Mitchell Park, running through sprinklers, churning homemade ice cream in my best friend’s backyard, and foggy afternoons at Half Moon Bay on a plaid blanket with hot dogs tucked into a Thermos. There was a disastrous week at Girl Scout Camp when I was nine, where my Canadian mother sent me with a 3-foot-long wave rider instead of a blow-up mattress. The highlight of that camp experience was waking to a fellow camper screaming because there was a banana slug on her sleeping bag.

But that isn’t the summer most kids experience today. Instead, whether due to the demands of busy working parents or the pressure to make sure no “teachable moment” is wasted, most children and teens now spend their summers in highly-scheduled, adult-driven, supervised activities. Kids can attend coding camp, Game of Thrones camp, Hollywood Stunt camp, or Camp Rock to bring out their inner rock star. Teenagers can sign up for etiquette camp, Fornite camp, Camp Biz Smart for future entrepreneurs, or take classes on “adulting” to prepare them for the rigors of life after high school.

Alternatively, internships and summer jobs are now back “in” to help kids gain leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Motivated (or parent-motivated) teens can babysit, scoop ice cream, pet sit, tutor, or intern with a local business or nonprofit organization. I worked loading pear slices into metal cans on a conveyor belt at Libby’s Fruit Canning Factory the summer before college, but I don’t remember anyone thinking that it would evolve my leadership capabilities.

So how did we get here? This is not my beautiful life, as David Byrnes and the Talking Heads sang in their 1980s anthem, “Once in a Lifetime”:

And you may ask yourself, well How did I get here?
And you may tell yourself This is not my beautiful life!

In fact, hurrying children is not a new phenomenon. Our earliest educational experts emphasized the importance of adapting child-rearing and education to the needs of the developing child. Dr. Edith Dowley, founding director of Bing Nursery School, the famed laboratory preschool for Stanford’s Department of Psychology, observed, “For children to learn, we must recognize that they have the right to discover and explore their environments.” Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget, known as the father of developmental psychology, spoke clearly about the need for children to experience life on their own terms:

“Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves, and each time that we try to teach them too quickly, we keep them from reinventing it themselves.”

According to Dr. David Elkind, child psychologist and author of The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, “The irony is that no one believes in hurrying children. No parent, educator, or legislator I ever spoke to believes in pressuring children to do things well beyond what they are capable of doing.”

But, he says, there is always a but.

We know that children develop according to their own timetable, but wouldn’t some academic enrichment help get them ready for Kindergarten? The Kindergarten teacher knows that many five year olds are not ready for desk work, but the school has a new pre-reading curriculum. If the 3rd grade teacher is assigning homework, shouldn’t we prepare our 2nd graders with math facts worksheets? If I don’t put my daughter on the traveling soccer team, won’t she be left behind? School board members know that school stress is bad for kids, but parents are demanding more academic rigor. Parents hate the homework wars, but for every parent who protests, another is demanding more homework, not less.

And on it goes. There’s always a “but.”

I say we break the habit of rushing our kids towards an imaginary finish line drawn in shifting sand. Instead, let’s help our kids figure out who they are, what makes them tick, or as my friend Steve Smith, PhD, says, find their “fastball.” Every child is good at something, whether it is sports, baking holiday cookies with grandma, making new friends, or cuddling the family dog.

Let us listen to the experts who care about raising happy, healthy children and teens. There are many, and their advice is sound. But who is the ultimate expert? You are, the parent.

If your daughter hits a wall with homework, help her compose an email to her teacher. If your son can no longer stomach swim team, help him figure out a way to honor his commitment to the team while scaling back his participation. If your teen is struggling with AP French, talk about how you might adjust her schedule or drop a class. All of these things can make a big difference in reducing your child’s stress/anxiety and letting them know that you care.

So, listen to your kids. Ask open-ended questions and then listen…really listen. Let them know that you honor their interests, affinities, and the things that make them sparkle. Remember that 14 year olds are not so different from four year olds.

As Madeline Levine, PhD, psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege, advises, “If your child is not interested in any of the activities you present to them, get a bigger tray.”

. . . .

Written by Charlene Margot, M.A., Founder and CEO, The Parent Venture. Palo Alto native, mom of two young adults, lifelong advocate of kids, schools, and families.

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