My Kid Wants This Crazy Life, So What Can I Do?

'Race to Nowhere' is a documentary that depicts the madness of teens' highly stressful, busy lives.  To avoid this, parents must start early, encouraging their young children to think independently.

My old friend Danny said this to me last weekend, and I’ve heard similar comments many times from other parents of tweens and teens. Their kids are overscheduled. They’re playing the college admissions game to the max, participating in far too many activities, getting tutored for their SATs and academic subjects, and doing multiple hours of homework every night until midnight or beyond.

And no one’s enjoying it. The kids are stressed and unhappy. The parents are stressed for their kids, and they feel like slaves to their kids’ schedules. This unhappy situation is depicted poignantly in the current documentary film, Race to Nowhere.

These parents facilitate this lifestyle for their children, even if they agree with Race to Nowhere that this is total madness. Many, like Danny, claim that their kids are demanding that their lives be jam-packed and stressful. “My kids are pushing for all of this,” he says. “If your child’s passion is to be a great basketball player or a great actress or to go to a great university, you want to do whatever you can to help them fulfill their dreams, don’t you?”

It’s difficult to argue with Danny’s statement, as he stated it. However, I believe that the time to stop the madness of the tween and teen years is when they’re much younger.

The seeds for the joiner, adult-dependence mentality are sowed in the toddler and early elementary school years. Most parents make decisions about their young children’s free time that give them very little autonomy. It’s no wonder that kids who were enrolled in multiple activities like youth soccer and piano lessons and dance lessons at age 5 or 6 end up opting for stressful, overscheduled lives ten years later.In other words, unless parents give their kids ample room to think for themselves in their early years, they shouldn’t expect those kids to grow up escaping the horrible stress and madness that most middle- and upper-middle-class American tweens and teens experience.

Unfortunately, many parents have little interest in allowing their children to think independently. According to their line of thinking, childhood is a training period for adulthood, so children who embrace adult institutions and ways of thinking sooner have a head start on the race to become adults.

However, many developmental psychologists turn this logic on its head. They point out that children’s minds actually have advantages over those of adults, for instance in terms of creativity, and that parents and society at large should aim to minimize the loss of these advantages as children grow up. This is one of the central messages of Allison Gopnik’s wonderful book, The Philosophical Baby.

By pushing young children to join numerous adult activities before they’ve developed the self-reliance skills to make their own choices, parents insure that their children will slavishly embrace adult-led institutions in their teen and young adult years. In The Organization Kid, David Brooks writes poignantly of Princeton University undergraduates who work their butts off while rarely, if ever, thinking about why they’re doing what they’re doing. As a result, they’re not very creative or self-reliant. Many psychologists believe that this lack of self-reliance (or “self-efficacy”) is responsible for the current epidemic of depression and suicide among teens and young adults.

To avoid this unhappy outcome, parents must give their young children the mental space to learn how think for themselves. That means they should grant their children free time to play. Moreover, because most other children do not play freely, and because play after the toddler years is inherently social, parents can help their children greatly by facilitating their young children’s play lives through the many recommendations described elsewhere on Otherwise, these children will pass their free time by planting themselves in front of screens everyday.

Parents of young children think they need to invest time and effort into getting their kids to embrace adult-led activities, but because these activities are the cultural norm for children today, the opposite is true. Opportunities to conform to the adult world are too many, and opportunities to develop one’s own self-reliance skills are too few. They should redress this imbalance by encouraging, not restricting, their children’s independence.

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4 Responses to My Kid Wants This Crazy Life, So What Can I Do?

  1. Jason K. says:

    I saw “Race To Nowhere” and agree with you that ensuring kids grow up with time for free play and room to think for themselves are extremely important.

    But it seems to me that what’s also key is recognizing that we have this warped sense of achievement and success, which is collectively echoed by parents, schools, and society alike.

    Do well in school and get into a good college, as if that will set you for life.

    I’m worried. I’m worried that our school system is broken and our kids will become broken as well going through it.

  2. lr_khaimovich says:

    Mike, your post seems to state that playing somehow will reduce the competitive pressure the documentary is exposing. Probably the connection needs to be clarified, because the film is focusing on our (parents, teachers, politicians) emphasis on competition, and the relevance of play with peers is not obvious. I can see at least two ways how unsupervised play with peers and existence of society of children, which is in a large degree independent from adults, should help with preparing children to deal with actual pressure and reduce the perception of it.

    First, having an alternative (and hopefully healthy) source of influence and support from peers should help with reducing an unhealthy disproportional focus on satisfying imposed by schools and parents requirements to get ahead on the path to becoming the shiniest cog around, who is worthy of occupying the better lubricated part of the market machinery.

    Second, dealing with so-to-say unrefined, unenlightened, not always immediately helpful peers, who often are outright brutal from adults’ viewpoint, children will have a better chance to form a more robust personality capable of encountering hardship and dealing with disappointments.

    Participating in the discussion organized after the film’s screening at Rio Theater in Santa Cruz, I could see that it might have made parents want to protect (read “control”) their children even more by becoming “super involved” using one of the mom’s words. This mom was talking how she was going to closely monitor what her children did and how they felt, and was going to participate in their school’s Parent Teacher Association, etc.

    Yet instead of becoming “super-involved” imposing on far from perfect educational process our uneducated lay opinions about what is right and what is wrong, it may be more productive just to focus on keeping away from your children the crowds of “helpers” and caretakers including ourselves. The documentary forcefully brings it home that we—parents—are part of the problem. Simply stepping back and re-directing our energy at keeping away paid peddlers of knowledge and happiness, who will immediately try to fill the void, may be the most beneficial for our children. This way our children will have a chance to live at their rather than our pace and scale becoming more mentally stable and also obtaining a chance to see that there is something else (world of peers) in addition to the rat race on the conveyor belts of market economy in which most of us have to participate as adults.

    Finally, I would like to say a couple of words defending homework. I see the current almost universal agreement among “enlightened” parents that it has to be eliminated or considerably reduced as another proof that we—parents—are apt to fall into extremes advocating for too general and sweeping changes. I would say that instead of trying to eliminate homework we need to become better in using homework as a very important didactic activity allowing students a chance to study at their own pace and without an immediate feedback from teachers. Sure, for homework to become more useful teachers have to take it as an opportunity for providing a detailed feedback rather than just grading it.

  3. Aran says:

    Mike, I think one of the best illustrations of what you are talking about is the Kids Love Soccer classes, which are so popular here in Menlo Park.

    People pay money so that once a week a child gets to play soccer drills for an hour with a bunch of other kids. The classes take place on a giant athletic field, which is mostly empty. Instead of paying for a class, the parents could just as easily take their kids to the part of the field 10 feet to the left of the Kids Love Soccer class, and let them all run amok playing soccer with each other.

    I see the kids after lessons are over at the playground. Most of them are still in their soccer gear, but for some unknown reason are forced to play on slides and swings, when I have a strong feeling most would still rather be playing soccer, which they could still be doing if their parents hadn’t so quickly shepherded them off the field after the “class” was over.

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    @Aran – I really, really don’t get the appeal of organized sports for little kids. I’ve looked on at a couple of their games, and I didn’t hear any of the spontaneous laughter and screaming I’m used to at my yard. They didn’t seem to be having any fun at all. It was all so tense and totally choreographed by dads.