The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap

Rosenfeld and Wise understand a central truth about contemporary parenting: we feel so hounded by our fears of letting our children down, we overdo the “to-do” of parenting at the expense of the how “to be” with our children. They have embraced the complexity of this widefelt tension with a wisdom and affection that leaves the reader feeling more relieved than guilty, and in love again with the child, not the parenting. A wonderfully informative and restorative read for all parents.

Review by: Kyle Pruett, M.D., Yale Child Study Center, National President, Zero to Three

Excerpt: Over-Scheduling Children and Hyper-Parenting:

The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap

Author: Alvin Rosenfeld M.D., Nicole Wise, Robert Coles, Alvin Rosenfeld ISBN 0-31226-339-2

As a generation, we are trying hard to be the best parents we possibly can. This daunting task is being made even more difficult because we Americans have unwittingly bought into the idea that an over-scheduled, frenetic, hyper-parenting child rearing style is the best way to raise children. Actually, rearing kids in this way has damaged our family lives and has harmed our children’s capacity to create and to be self-reliant. It also may also be contributing to the unusually large number of children diagnosed with ADD and depression, and adolescents who get involved with drugs, alcohol, and premature sex. I would be disingenuous to suggest a “just take it easy” philosophy to you. But as a hyper-parent in partial recovery — on some days — I think that our child rearing style often undermines the goals we cherish. It actually may be diminishing our children’s ability to reflect, introspect, and become thoughtful adults who feel that they are the authors of their own lives rather than frauds living a role in someone else’s script.

As terms, “over-scheduling” and “hyper-parenting” are imprecise. They refer to an anxious success program that asserts that childhood must be carefully crafted and managed. The right childhood activities, combined with regular practice, near fanatical devotion, and intense parental guidance will enable every “good, devoted” parent to raise a perfect kid, a winner who will get into Harvard, BC, Yale, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke, UVa, and Princeton. It is never too early to begin: Even expectant parents should be enriching their fetus’s environment because an opportunity foregone is a piece of the child’s potential sacrificed. Any parent who does not subscribe to these precepts is a “bad” parent whose child is doomed to be a loser.

College admission practices, advertising copy, and sales pitches – rather than objective evidence — support this parenting style: Precocity, something no one wants in a newborn, is made a virtue for children. Parents become convinced that development is linear: A child who learns to read early will ultimately score highest on the verbal SAT. Like Tiger Woods, every child whose motor skills are accelerated will star at sports later.

The belief is not true; development is jagged and the late speaker may end up being the best reader. It is hard to appreciate this because observations supporting the opposite conclusion are rejected: Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10; Mickey Mantle was a poor hitter as a boy. Furthermore, adversity challenges many people who end up excelling at what they once did poorly. James Earl Jones had a speech impediment he worked hard to overcome. Furthermore, many children who are pushed to achieve will end up rebelling against their pushy parents– and often the activity — in their teens.

We live among the human gods and goddesses. The media transforms champions into super humans who make mere mortals like you and I feel inadequate; the thirteen year old with a successful Internet company is another piece of evidence that we, and our 13-year-old son, have failed at life. Only when the star is ready for their predictable fall from grace, do official biographies include facts such as that Oxana Bayul drinks too much and had an out-of-wedlock child in her teens.

Parenting advice seems to presume that everything in childhood can, and should, be controlled. Unproductive time is wasted. Luck and chance are discounted; even the biological givens of normal child development – products of a million years of evolution and adaptation – are viewed as simply a rough outline that science, careful planning, and intense devotion can improve on dramatically, e.g. the Nanny. Like a crystal that retains the same shape as it grows larger, this anxious, frenetic mentality dominates parental thinking as their children mature.

Anxiety about being a good parent drives the process. We so sincerely and earnestly want to be good parents that we make parenting a sport far more competitive than golf! Children are scrutinized. Does Lee crawl earlier than his cousin, does Michelle babble early? Any delay – no matter how minor – might be serious. One five-year-old girl in a New York private school had a “pencil holding” deficiency, which the school considered a potentially ominous sign of more serious problems ahead. Tutoring was recommended. The parents ignored that sage advice and the girl, miraculously, learned to live with her disability. She started Princeton this past fall. She still holds her pencil oddly.

Perhaps some other examples of ways hyper-parenting and over-scheduling express themselves at different ages will clarify the process:

To provide further early enrichment in already wonderfully enriching homes, American parents get newborns ,000, fully equipped nurseries complete with black-and-white mobiles supposedly proven to build better brain cells. We buy “Baby Einstein” tapes to stimulate an infant’s intellect early. But Albert Einstein talked late and did poorly at school. Today his ruminations, the same ones that led to the theory of relativity, I suspect, might be seen as an impediment to learning. Likely, he would have a comprehensive evaluation for not listening to his fourth grade teacher and would end up on Ritalin so he could focus more fully on the complex demands of schoolwork.

This approach is not restricted to individuals. Governor Zell signed a bill to send every newborn in Georgia home with a Mozart CD. He was convinced by the latest “research” that purported to show that listening to Mozart in infancy, and Mozart specifically, enhanced later mathematical ability. If that were true, Governor Zell would have been forward thinking. But research on the supposed “Mozart effect was done on college students, and with them, the effect was short-lived. Has any systematic study shown that Mozart is better than, say, Mahler, Willy Nelson, or the Dixie Chicks? If good scientific research shows that more than any other music, Gangsta Rap is best at promoting brain development, should we make it national policy to broadcast it to hospital nurseries and living rooms all over suburban America?

Over-scheduling children and hyper-parenting have gotten 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 — enrolled in competitive leagues.

No child can be average in affluent communities! Our children can be either gifted or learning disabled.

Even though every psychiatrist will tell you that children whose parents are satisfied with one another do better emotionally, we parents sacrifice our marriages and the pleasure of time with our spouse for endless children’s activities. Thus, many adults are convinced that a ten-year-old’s ice hockey practice, scheduled for 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, should take precedence over, say, a candlelight dinner with our beloved spouse, not once, but every week.

One Massachusetts father, in a deranged moment, felt that his son’s success at hockey was important enough to warrant physical assault and unintended homicide.

Our entire sense of balance and how to achieve it has become skewed. Schools in some states feel that schoolwork is so crucial that they ought to give middle and high school students no recess. According to a University of Michigan study, the amount of homework has increased dramatically between 1981 and 1997, tripling among 6-8 year olds. All of my children have backpacks that will qualify them for Olympic weight lifting trials; I shudder to think about the long-term effects on their spinal columns.

This fanatical mentality has gotten high school students sleep-deprived as they busily rush from activity, to sports’ practices, to band, to endless homework, to tutors who help them excel at high school subjects, to volunteering at charities to shape their resumes so they fit what elite colleges supposedly are looking for.

If these examples sound vaguely familiar, I suspect you know what I am talking about.

How did we get to this point? The social trends that have promoted over-scheduling and hyper-parenting are complex; I have too little time – and probably too little intellect — to discuss them fully. But they reflect a profound change in our conception of what being a “family” means. For millennia, the family was a mutually co-operative, productive unit where every person, whatever their age, contributed to the family’s prosperity. In just the past 100 or so years, children have become economically useless. Rather than being a family’s greatest economic asset, children have become the parents’ greatest financial liability. What we routinely hear is, “Do you know how much it costs to raise a kid today?”

Today, family life is built on consumption, not production, combined with the emotional relationships that develop between family members. Unfortunately, while families need affection, mutual respect, participation, and compromise so everybody feels they are getting — and contributing — something, hyper-parenting has insinuated resentment into parenting, which is bad for everyone.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s we were concerned that Japan would soon outpace us economically. We connected this to the fact that Japanese schoolchildren – and those in many other countries — performed better on standardized tests. To improve our competitive position, we began to ape their methods. Although their economic lead has evaporated, we still want to measure learning by scores on standardized tests, which often means that children must not only master basic skills but must also parrot back large quantities of “canned” information and unimaginative ways of thinking. Schools end up rewarding conformity rather than stimulating the creativity and “thinking out of the box” that have fueled our economic success and have put us technologically and economically ahead of Japan, which I am told is now trying to figure out how to get their kids to be more creative, like ours.

Technology has also changed our thinking. Since it has revolutionized so many aspects of our lives and businesses, we believe it ought to improve child rearing as well. Like computer operations, the prescribed child-rearing enrichment should be carefully designed, scientifically derived, predictable “software” we can add to our children, the hardware, (though we all know what happens when we add too much software to our P.C.) Relationships take a back seat to technical methodologies. Supposedly helpful products may actually put distance between our child and us. (Small example of the rubber ducky thermometer.)

Another technological factor emerged from significant medical advances that improved pre-natal care dramatically, the Doppler stethoscope and ultrasounds. By allowing parents-to-be to see their fetuses sucking their tiny thumbs and kicking their little legs, they allow them to bond with “conceptuses”; who among us has not shown off our 12-week fetus’s sonogram photos?

Knowing exactly what is happening at what week in pregnancy can be fun. But inadvertently, this technology has relegated expectant women to subordinate positions. The kid is the talent, the parent the supporting cast. Rather than being special, in a vulnerable situation to be indulged with pickles and ice cream — maybe even Doritos once in a while — expectant mothers are asked, by books like What to Expect When Expecting, to be entirely selfless, putting aside all their personal interests – and perhaps their personality — so they can spend pregnancy being hyper-vigilant, watching every bite they eat, to protect pregnancy’s central player, his majesty the fetus!

That expectation of total self-denial and self-sacrifice sets the tone for family life. For millennia, parents felt obligated to feed, clothe, and educate their children. And until some time in the 20th Century, childhood ended between seven and 13, not at 26 or 34. [When is a Jewish fetus viable? When it finishes medical school.] We love our kids and will do whatever it takes to give them the best possible shot in life. But with no prior experience as parents, we worry that we just might not have inside ourselves the love and skills we need to raise children right. So we sign them up for activities with “experts”, who supposedly can do what we fear we cannot.

I get annoyed when our generation is maligned as shallow or self-centered. To be a good parent today you have to sacrifice a lot! Most parents I know are trying so hard and are sacrificing more than their fair share. But many of us feel we were under-parented. In our upbringings, children were simply appendages. Our parents would never cancel an adult activity to get us to a travel soccer game; many never showed up for our games or school plays, and as a consequence never witnessed our great triumphs or were there to comfort us in our on-the field humiliations.

We swore we would do it differently with our kids; we would be involved. And we are! A recent University of Michigan study even showed that we parents are now spending more time with our children. Unfortunately, careful analysis of the data shows that much of the additional time is being spent chauffeuring them from activity to activity.

Children’s accomplishments and achievements are the sign that we have done our job well. So we scrutinize them, anxiously judging how fast they grow and achieve milestones as infants, how early they learn to read, how good they are compared to their neighbors at tennis, ballet, or creative writing. What can our children gather from that? They get the subliminal message: “If I am as good as my parents tell me I am, why do I need constant self-improvement? I must not be very good at all.”

Think about it. How would you feel if you were scrutinized and graded on every action you took? What reaction would it evoke in you if your spouse did that?

What else does all this hurrying and over-scheduling tell our kids that we want them to be? Hyperactive, over-achieving, over-scheduled workaholics who win whatever the cost! Is that really the message we want to give? Would you buy into that lifestyle, or like a senior, first in his class in a prestigious NYC high school, would you start to ask why you are doing it and find yourself too depressed to get out of bed?

Our sacrifices also make our children feel guilty. Being good kids, they often try to repay us in the only way they can, with achievements — good grades, popularity, athletic accomplishment, etc. That’s sweet, but what they have to do to “win” and to get admitted to elite schools makes many kids feel like schemers. Most sixth graders know what they have to do to go Ivy; tenth graders have mastered it. By college, it makes them feel like frauds because getting in involves, 1) never saying what you really think to teachers and advisors because they write college recommendations, and 2) 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.

Some who win the brass ring and get to the Ivies break down in their first year. For years they had ignored the stress and left no time to relax or to really learn. They no longer know who they are or whose life are they living? Did they accomplish all this to please their parents or because they actually wanted to?

Others can’t excel in these ways. Some give up and drop out in the teen-aged years. As one adolescent told me, “In my family, it is Harvard, Yale, or nothing. And I just can’t measure up!”

From many parents’ points of view, hyper-parenting and over-scheduling are needed to get a child into the elite school. Ten year olds are already working on resumes that will appeal to Princeton. Do the elite schools deliver? Does their assumed – though never proven – successes justify a 2000% tuition increase in 40 years? The available data is poor. They do deliver on one thing: Assembling in one place a group of highly motivated students who have succeeded in the American hyper-parenting success program. But in reality, only 13% of corporate CEO are Ivy graduates, a relatively small percentage given the extreme selectivity. 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.
Furthermore, elite schools are usually research based and reward research not teaching so it is far less likely that the student will spend any time with professors; graduate students do the teaching. Which may be why one survey – which like other available data is flawed — reported that the students most satisfied with their educations and felt best prepared for life were those who went to the small, private, liberal arts colleges. Elite schools do get you a better first job. But later success seems to depend at personal performance at the job, not the college you graduated from.
School is not the only place we have abandoned our good sense, balance, and judgment. Contemporary kids’ athletics is another painful example of how the adult world has lost sight of essential truths; like that children are, by definition, immature and unfinished. Childhood is a preparation, not a full performance. Kids are not supposed to excel, or even be good, at anything. They are learning.
Hobbies and passions are great; I worry far more about kids who have none. Athletics and physical fitness can make important contributions to children’s health and self-esteem. They also give some children who are not such splendid students another arena in which to feel competent. But in subjecting everything our kids do to scrutiny, in giving a high or low score to their every move, we have diminished – and in some cases eliminated – sports’ benefits.

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. But who is listening?

Orthopedic surgeons report a worrisome increase in recreation-linked stress fractures, ligament tears, and tendonitis in 5-14 year olds. They argue about whether there were 2.2 million bone fractures, dislocations, and muscle injuries last year in kids 5-14, or 3.5 million. Should we accept this as simply the price of “going for the gold” and recommend that our kids do so?

Take elite gymnastics as an example: Should we be concerned that 90% of competitive female gymnasts we applauded in the Sydney Olympics get their first menstrual period a year or two later than their non-gymnast schoolmates? Tofler found disordered eating in 100% of elite female gymnasts and osteoporosis in more than half. Are they short because the sport selects for that or because of what it does to their development? No one knows for sure. How many are chronically on steroids at 35 because of the damage they did to their bodies? Are these girls we want our daughters to emulate?

In addition to being a pediatric and orthopedic nightmare, holding up the excellence, fanaticism, and near perfection that 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. Being balanced means little because anything less than #1 is being nothing at all. Many play, few win. Most of us have peak experiences in our lives… Maybe every decade or two! We tell kids to “just say no” to drugs and 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. That’s really being alive.

Empirical evidence does not support the notion that a great school gets you a great life. What does it show? A classic study of juvenile delinquency in the 1940’s was followed up 40 years later to assess what had made the lives of these delinquents good or bad. Despite using sophisticated statistics, the variable that that most predicted a good outcome was simple. It was neither the degree of poverty nor how severe the abuse the child had suffered had been. Rather, what made for a good life – and protected some of these very vulnerable children from a bad one – was one good relationship.

Most objective data is consistent with that finding. If that is true and we want a good life for our children, shouldn’t we be encouraging their relationships and decency rather than ruminating about their getting the lead in the school play or hitting the longest ball in Little League? What is “winning?” Is the famous corporate CEO a success even though he did not get invited to his daughter’s wedding?

It’s not that I’m laid back about ambitions and accomplishments. I have ambitions for my children and the expectation that they will make something worthwhile of their lives to pay something back our country, which has been so good to us. But in my clinical experience, parents who give their children a deep sense that the parent knows whom their child is and who has a visceral faith that the child will eventually find a good place in life for him or herself maximizes the odds of this happening. Parents who say, through actions, gestures, and anxiety that they are very nervous about their children’s futures – and therefore have to improve them incessantly — diminish the odds that they will do well. They may also create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Anxiety usually brings out the worst in everyone! And advocating phoniness and dissimulation seems ill–advised to me. If as a parent I say, “forget about struggling to find what suits you, go for Stanford, Rice, or Duke and become an investment banker” – I tell my kids to never be real individuals who come to their own conclusions about what in life really matters to them. I tell them they ought to follow a script I know is right for them rather than assuming the difficult responsibility for being the authors of their own lives. Can they really learn once they get into the elite colleges or must they then shape their resumes for elite graduate schools?

Racing to win has other flaws. Children and teenagers are so tightly scheduled that many never figure out how to spend free time. When they are not running from activity to activity, they have no idea of what to do and are bored; they have never invented a backyard game or had much time to just lollygag with friends.

Furthermore, constantly scheduling activities devalues inner life and imagination. (Tom Sawyer and how adults have stolen the child’s world.) Kids today also need free time, to think, to create a meaningful internal life of symbols, ideas, and beliefs, and to hear the soft murmurings of their inner voice, the one that makes them write that unusual story or draw this unique picture. They need to just veg out. They need time to grouse with friends, about us.
Teaching Character

More than enjoyment is being sacrificed in rushing around. In focusing so fully on activities, parents are abrogating their most fundamental responsibility: Teaching children character and how to lead a good life and be a good citizen.
Whether or not we have thought through our philosophy of life, our daily actions broadcast our core values to our children. By acting in a certain way, by saying we approve of this, applaud that, find this idea weird and that one reprehensible, by saying yes to this play date or activity and no to that one, we parents pass on our values and culture to our children. We all know from personal experience that no kid alive really listens to what their parent says. Children watch what their parents do and eventually come to their own conclusions, emulating or rejecting them based on how well — from the child’s perspective — that way of life seems to be working for us. Would you sign on for the frenetic life you are living if you were a kid?

Discipline comes from the word “disciple.” Christ’s disciples followed him because they wanted to emulate the way of life he personified. Our kids emulate our behavior in the same way. Do we give back the dollar of extra change the waitress mistakenly gave us, even if no one has noticed? Do we apologize for yelling at our child? Do we chide our own dad for yelling at our daughter, or do we ask her to forgive and forget, because right or wrong, we must respect our elders?

That’s not to suggest that life is a deadly serious business; if all we do is work constantly and act as though life is a serious business indeed, our children may not realize that we consider joy integral to a good life. 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. If we work non-stop, our kids will never believe that we see family time as a priority. If there is only one right way to succeed, where do cooperation, generosity, and kindness fit in?

As we parents race our families from activity to activity, are we providing children with a childhood that promotes emotional health and basic decency? Because to paraphrase what Anna Quindlen said, even if you do win the rat race, you are still a rat. In reality, we grown-ups often run fast so we don’t have to take a long, hard look in the mirror and wonder what we are doing with our own lives. Some of us parents even shrink from recognizing that our adult lives have become so empty that we look to their children to give meaning to our existence.

In my opinion, living vicariously through our kids is too heavy a load for them to bear.

To help our children become independent and successful, to give them the tools they need to go through life well, to teach them to think for themselves, we parents have to think for ourselves, to decide what life means for us. It is not an easy task. Nor is it one that everyone consciously chooses to take on. But consciously or by default, we perform that task 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.

The events of 911 underscored how badly we need to become adults again. We are the most educated generation ever; when we were younger, we spoke about politics, music, art, business, world events, and the like. So why do our children, who will eventually emulate us when it is their world, see us primarily discussing kid’s schedules and activities? Perhaps the new precariousness- and preciousness — of life will stimulate us to act like adults again, discussing the important issues.

To stimulate warm relationships with our children – the ones they and we both need — we need to spend time with our children with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of spending time together. Doing that convinces them in their guts, more than any activity we can sign them up for, that we cherish and value who they are more than any award they bring home. What our children really need is us. Toni Morrison said that every kid knows what their parents really feel about them by the look on the parent’s face when they enter the room. “No need for clever conversation. I love you just the way you are.” This truly bolsters a child’s self-esteem and 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.

Hyper-parenting and over-scheduling have taken our focus off what is crucial. Even in this time of stress, we have so much to be pleased about. We live in affluent times, 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 perhaps because of them, we ought to start appreciating our own, and our children’s, enormous good fortune and be grateful to be Americans.

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