Do Stressed-Out Childhoods = Bright Futures?

Numerous studies show that being a parent makes people unhappy. Their kids are unhappy, too – youth and teenage depression has increased significantly in recent decades. In addition, parents are spending more time than ever with their kids, even though they’re also working more than ever.

What the heck is going on? How is all this connected? The root, many experts believe, is the highly stressful, busy lifestyle that parents are forcing on their children. In their paper, The Rug Rat Race, Garey and Valerie Ramey claim that the increase is largely due to parents’ quest to get their children into good colleges.

You know. Scheduled to the max with activities. Lots of homework. Parents bearing down on their kids to work as hard as they can toward getting into a good college. Lots of yelling. Not much sleep. I saw glimpses of this lifestyle shortly before my wife and I had kids, and I decided that I wanted no part of it. You see, my mother was very depressed when I was growing up, so I’m more sensitive than most to the need for happiness in life.

However, to say that I prefer happiness to accomplishment for my children would be inaccurate because I flatly reject this dichotomy. I firmly believe that we can be happy and accomplish a lot in life at the same time. In fact, happy people often accomplish more in their lives.

So, my wife and I are emphasizing fun and happiness for our kids (lots of play, very few scheduled activities, no strong push to learn), at least at their young ages of 6, 2-1/2, and 1. Meanwhile, we expect that they will accomplish a lot in their lives. We expect them to do well in schools growing up, to go to good colleges, and to have great careers.

Are we kidding ourselves? Economist Bryan Caplan doesn’t think so. He thinks that parents are wasting a great deal of time and emotional energy pushing their children to achieve. In a preview of his upcoming book entitled, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” Caplan writes about studies of twins. These studies indicate that the differences between parenting styles experienced by twins separated early in life make little, if any, difference. Genetics rules, provided that kids’ basic needs (adequate food, shelter, emotional sustenance, schooling) are met.

Caplan writes:

Parents . . . strive to turn their children into smart and happy adults, but behavioral geneticists find little or no evidence that their effort pays off. In research including hundreds of twins who were raised apart, identical twins turn out to be much more alike in intelligence and happiness than fraternal twins, but twins raised together are barely more alike than twins raised apart.

Boy, that’s refreshing. Caplan continues, “If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job.”

His advice to parents is, essentially, stop worrying so much about parenting and enjoy it more. “Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.”

Boyyyy, that sounds good to me. We have fun in our Playborhood pretty much every day. Many weekend mornings, we wake up with nary a plan for the entire day. And about once a month or so, we have amazingly fun kid parties here.

Still, my wife and I dream that our kids will grow up to be very accomplished adults. We’ve had some pretty good accomplishments in our lives, so we believe our kids probably will. In the meantime, we’re going to enjoy their childhoods. I’m pretty sure they’re enjoying it, too…

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2 Responses to Do Stressed-Out Childhoods = Bright Futures?

  1. David says:

    Great essay Mike! Brilliant.

    David Hogg
    My Little Nomads

  2. Tony Williams says:

    Those were truly the “good ol days!” Growing up in Scott Twp. was great, especially in the late 60’s around my “playborhood” of Foxcroft and Roseleaf Roads. There were always kids outside waiting to join a game of kickball or baseball or tag, etc. If you could’nt see another kid within a minute of leaving your house, you simply knocked on a door and said, “Play with ya?!”