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 Playborhood.com. 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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