Running our children ragged

At age 2 or 3, kids compete for admission to elite nursery schools. By age 10, they’re doing up to three hours of homework a night, and by 16, they’re in a frantic competition to get into a top college. Are American kids under too much pressure?

How busy are today’s children?
They’re busier than children have been since child labor was outlawed. Many high school juniors, for example, often rise before the sun and settle back in bed somewhere around midnight. In between, they spend seven hours at school; afternoons at extracurricular clubs, SAT tutoring, soccer practice, ballet and piano lessons; and finish off the day with as much as six hours of homework, including college-level chemistry, calculus, and other Advanced Placement courses. “To do well enough to get into a top college—it’s become like a job,” Anne Foster-Keddie, the student-body president at El Segundo High School, tells the Los Angeles Times. “Except the hours are longer than most jobs.”

When do these kids play?
Often when they’re scheduled to. Starting from an early age, even kids’ leisure time is planned out, and often purposeful. Instead of simply wandering outside to frolic freely, American kids are shuttled to prearranged, structured “play dates,” or driven off to organized leagues to play games kids used to enjoy on their own. And when the school year ends, many kids are sent off to goal-oriented summer camps, for training in computer skills, foreign languages, musical instruments, basketball, baseball, and figure skating. A recent University of Michigan study found that kids ages 3 to 12 today spend 16 percent less time playing indoors than they did 20 years ago, 23 percent less time watching television, and 27 percent more time participating in organized sports. The survey also found these kids were devoting 20 percent more time to studying.

Why the grueling pace?
Ours is a society devoted to competition, success, and the good life. Getting into a top college is considered a near guarantee of success, and many parents start worrying about preparing their kids for it when they are in diapers. (To give their offspring a head start, some parents play Mozart to infants, in the belief it will turn them into mathematical geniuses.) The concern over college competition is not without foundation: With 2.5 million high schoolers now battling for entry to college every year, the nation’s most selective schools turn down almost 90 percent of their applicants. Fearful of being left out, students routinely apply to eight colleges, twice the number of just a few years ago.

Isn’t this similar to Japan?
Yes, and it’s not coincidental. The drive toward higher educational standards shifted into a new gear back in 1983, after the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a report titled A Nation at Risk. At the time, Japan’s economy was booming, and Americans feared becoming a second-rate power. In the report, a panel of corporate executives, educators, and other experts warned that a “rising tide of mediocrity” was overtaking America’s schools, dooming an entire generation to boring jobs, lower incomes, and unsatisfying lives. The nation’s school systems responded by ratcheting up their expectations, and worried parents pressed their kids to stop “wasting time.”

So parents are partly to blame?
Absolutely. Baby boomers came of age believing in endless self-improvement, infinite perfectibility, and unfettered access to consumer goods and wealth. Boomers also want to save their offspring from making the mistakes they did—namely, blowing off school and experimenting with sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. There’s a great irony in this, says social observer David Brooks in The Atlantic Monthly. “We have devoted our prodigious energies to imposing a sort of order and responsibility on our kids’ lives that we never experienced ourselves.”

How does all this affect the children?
It’s making them sleepy, cranky, and anxious. Two years ago, a Brown University study found that teens were getting about two hours less sleep a night than they needed. Not surprisingly, more kids are suffering from depression, perfectionism, and other problems, and are seeking psychological counseling. Some researchers believe the constant pressure is at least partly to blame for the 114 percent jump in suicide rates among 15- to 19-year-olds since 1980.

How about the parents?
They suffer too. Hard-driving mommies and daddies now spend many of their “leisure” hours every night helping children with homework or shuttling them between organized activities. School officials say it’s become common for parents to plead with—or threaten—teachers not to give bad grades. It’s also expensive to worry so much about their kids’ success: parents now shell out $1.1 billion a year on tutors and schools who promise to help students get higher scores on the SAT and win admission to a good college.

Will there ever be a backlash?
It’s starting. As parents and kids reach the saturation point, school districts across the nation are actually beginning to cut back on homework. To alleviate cutthroat competition, some no longer even calculate class rankings. In San Marino, Calif., schools are offering special classes to teach parents to ease up on their kids. Several New Jersey communities have set aside one night a week when no homework is assigned, so that families can spend time together. It’s high time parents and schools let up a bit, says child psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, co-author of The Overscheduled Child. “Let’s not forget that Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a Harvard grad,’’ he says, and that many executives are now “playing golf behind bars. And that plenty of folks who went to City College or State U moved on to write best-sellers, head up corporations, or make their millions in other ways.”

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