Which is More Valuable: A Happy Childhood or a Spot in an Elite University?

Happy childhoods are to elite universities like water is to diamonds.  Huh?  Read on...

Whether they realize it or not, many parents act as though they believe that a spot in an elite university is more valuable than a happy childhood. As I have discussed in many Playborhood.com articles, they have granted children far less freedom to roam and time to play. Practically every child psychiatrist agrees that free play is a crucial building block of a happy childhood (see, for instance, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness), and yet most parents structure their children’s lives to make free play nearly impossible.

In addition, parents have imposed far more academic stress on their children than they had as children. They’re so focused on preparing their children for the best possible college education that they neglect the effect these efforts might have on their children’s happiness. In the meantime, depression among children has been increasing sharply for decades. Harvard Medical School Professor William Beardslee writes, “Depression in children has dramatically increased in recent years with approximately 3 to 5 percent of preteens and up to 15 percent of teenagers suffering from depression.” The fact that so many children are depressed is disturbing, but what’s even more disturbing is that psychiatrists say that children who are depressed are more likely to get depressed as adults.

There are no statistics on the number of children who are not depressed but are nonetheless unhappy (due to stress, lack of a sense of purpose, etc.), but this number is likely to be at least as high as the number of depressed children. In The Path to Purpose, William Damon was searching for a quality in children and young adults (ages 12-22) that is different from happiness, but related: a sense of purpose in life. Nearly a quarter of his research subjects expressed absolutely no purpose in life at all.

Children enter young adulthood with continuing serious emotional problems. Over 11% of young adults aged 18-24 in 2001-2002 were found to have have depressive disorders. What’s more, almost all experts say these problems are increasing. A 2008 survey of university psychological counseling center directors reports that 95.7% of them believe that psychological problems have been increasing among university students in recent years.

I do not believe that parents are willfully making their children unhappy. Instead, I believe they suffer from a fundamental misconception about the value of a happy childhood. A principle of economic theory called the “diamond-water paradox” provides a useful analogy to explain this misconception.1

Diamonds are extremely expensive, and water is extremely inexpensive. In fact, raw diamonds are on the order of at least 1 million times more expensive than municipal tap water, per unit volume. Which is more valuable, diamonds or water?

Be careful, you non-Econ majors. This is a trick question. The answer is, it depends on the quantity available. “Value” is not merely the cost of an item. Economists characterize “value” consumers get from a good as the price consumers are willing to pay at different quantities, so value depends on the quantity. The greater the quantity supplied, the lower the price people are willing to pay.

Since the earth has an enormous fixed supply of water and a relatively miniscule supply of diamonds, the price of water is miniscule compared to that of diamonds. Water, the plentiful resource, is taken for granted. In fact, people act as though its supply is unlimited and it has zero value. This notion about water has become so embedded into our culture that even when it is scarce, as in a drought, people have a hard time putting a value on it and conserving it.

So, what does all this have to do with happy childhoods and spots in elite universities? Today’s parents are treating the latter like diamonds and the former like water. So, they’re taking happy childhoods for granted, in effect placing no value on them. True, decades ago during the “Golden Age” of childhood, all childhoods were practically certain to be happy. However, as the statistics quoted in the beginning of this section indicate, this has changed dramatically. We’re in a “drought” of happy childhoods these days. Parents need to recognize this and start valuing happiness more.

Bookmark the permalink of this post.

5 Responses to Which is More Valuable: A Happy Childhood or a Spot in an Elite University?

  1. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — you say, “I do not believe that parents are willfully making their children unhappy.”

    I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I think many parents do understand that the pressures that they put on their kids mean that their children will forego a certain amount of happiness during their childhoods. But the calculation they make is that the potential gains that their children will reap as adults (in terms of better financial security, higher social esteem etc.) from a less happy children are so great that the loving thing to do is to require them to knuckle down now in the name of future comfort.

    Furthermore, the logic goes, when these children reach adulthood, they will thank their parents for being so demanding. And I think in some cases it works out that way — thus reinforcing what for many becomes a family or cultural norm.

    And it’s a powerful argument — especially for families that have known economic hardship or instability, whether in the US or in other countries in the case of fairly recent immigrant families.

    So is childhood happiness a luxury? I think to some degree it always has been — but that’s not to say that it isn’t something to which we should all aspire.

    And that’s not to say we can’t convince parents who are pushing their children to the point of unhappiness for the sake of future stability to do otherwise. But I think to do that, we need first to recognize that happiness in childhood is not the priority of all parents. For them to make it one, I’d say we need to do two things:

    One we need to make the case (as I know you have before) that children raised in communities that value free play (as well as academics) can enjoy successful adulthoods, too.

    But we also need to work together – with the over-scheduling parents and everyone else — to create a society that is free of the terrible fluxes in stability that make parents decide that the happiness of their children is a luxury that they can’t afford.

  2. jcmilner says:

    I think we do over-schedule our kids – if our kids have to shove dinner into their mouths in less than 30 minutes more than one night per week… it’s too much. If we’re driving thru the fast food so that we can be on time… that’s too much. If we’re going to swim team and to basketball practice in one night and expecting to accomplish homework, showers & reading… it’s too much. Add two or three kids into that scenario and we have quite the issue.
    Also, when did the needs of the parents go completely out the window? Parents aren’t allowing themselves to try something new or master something they love… there’s a lot of pressure on kids to perform because the parents are sacrificing right and left. This is a very stressful situation for kids.

  3. Christopher'sDad says:

    My son now needs about 1-2 hours per night to complete his homework and he is only in first grade and in the normal “track”, so to speak. While I believe in a disciplined routine and challening his little mind, I have noticed that the homework is generally spent on route memorization of spelling words and on arithmetic. Spending from 8-3pm in school and then until dinner time on homework with little time to play makes him upset often. I can see that this causes him stress and he truly loves free play time and maximizing it is clearly his goal. I think that if you want to raise a creative, independent thinker, you need to give them free time to explore what interests them, as mundane as it may possibly seem as a parent. Furthermore, their minds need to be stimulated by novel experience, not routine memorization. Sorry for rambling but bottom line; freedom of expression is essential for happiness in all people (including kids) and children must learn how to be happy and experience pleasure as young children if they are going to have the capacity to be happy and wel balanced adults.

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    This is a particularly important issue for me because I grew up in a household with a severely depressed mother and older sister. I learned from a very young age that nothing, nothing is more important than happiness.

    So, I somehow escaped the depression of my family, had a happy childhood, and got into Stanford. How did I do it? Well, genetics doesn’t explain that much of my academic achievement. Neither of my parents is particularly bright or accomplished. Instead, I would say I “found myself” early on. I decided to choose happiness and fell in love with learning on my own.

    Because I found this path myself from an early age, I created a solid foundation that will last my entire life. Many children of today who are browbeaten by their parents never find their own way, so when they go on to college, they’re lost.

    I can’t say everyone should grow up exactly like me, but I am one example of someone who became a happy, accomplished person because I chose an independent path.

  5. KateinNJ says:

    I really agree. Those connections made through play
    are so important.