By: Rae Pica
Like the childhood obesity problem, the subject of "superkids" gets plenty of press these days. Time devoted the better part of an issue to it. Newsweek featured an article titled "Busy Around the Clock." Articles with titles like "Whatever Happened to Play?" "Pushing Children Too Hard," and "Are You Over-Scheduling Your kids?" show up in print media and on the Internet. Books with titles like Hyper-Parenting: Are Your Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard? are appearing on bookshelves.
What are superkids? Some call them overscheduled; others refer to them as pushed or hurried. Some speak of the practice of creating superkids as scheduled hyperactivity. Child development specialist David Elkind writes: "Parents are under more pressure than ever to overschedule their children and have them engage in organized sports and other activities that may be age-inappropriate." Most agree the practice is today's status symbol among families. In short, a superkid is a child pressured by parents and by society in general to do too much too soon. It's a phenomenon in our society in an escalating trend — with no end in sight. It's a frightening thought.
Writing in the magazine Child Care Information Exchange, Johann Christoph Arnold says: "The pressure to excel is undermining childhood as never before." He also asks: "Why are we so keen to mold [children] into successful adults, instead of treasuring their genuineness and carefree innocence?"
We have the best intentions, of course. We want our children to be happy; we equate happiness with success. And we fervently believe that success won't come unless we give our children a head start — a jump on the competition as it were.
But at what cost will all of this "success" come? If children don't learn to play as children, they aren't likely to discover its value as adults. And, oh, what a dreary, deadening existence daily life will become. Think about the following questions, really pondering each for a moment:
- If children begin living like adults in childhood, what will there be left to look forward to?
- What's to ensure they won't be burned out from all the pushing and pressure before they've even reached puberty?
- If we've caused them to miss the magic of childhood, how will they ever find the magic necessary to cope with the trials and tribulations of adulthood?
- What will become of the childlike nature adults call on when they need reminding of the delight found in simple things — when they need to bring out the playfulness that makes life worth living?
- What joy will our children find as adults if striving to "succeed" becomes life's sole purpose?
Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood! It is a separate, unique, and very special phase of life. And we're essentially wiping it out of existence in an effort to be sure our children get ahead. But when did we decide that life was one long race? When, exactly, did life become a competition?
Young children are not internally motivated to succeed; their only motivation comes from the value we place on success. And they don't want to let us down. As a result, stress is often a principal factor in the life of a superkid. Of course, into every life a little stress must fall. But when it becomes more than a person is capable of handling, it becomes unhealthy. Studies have shown that the brains of stressed preschoolers now look remarkably like the brains of stressed adults, which have excessive levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the chemicals responsible for the body's fight-or-flight reaction. Young children, who don't have the vocabulary or understanding to express what they're feeling, will often act out as a way of coping.
But there's more than stress involved in pushing children onto the fast track to success before they even understand the concept. For one thing, children aren't allowed to discover motivation on their own — and motivation is often more important to success than talent. Pushed children never have the opportunity to discover who they are. And they never learn to be at ease with themselves when alone, with time on their hands. Having experienced life "by the clock" — and almost constantly surrounded by others — these kids have never learned the joy of solitude, of having only oneself for company. Not only does this mean they're unable to practice self-reflection, but they're also unable to simply be.
Not long ago, in an attempt to help adults realize the folly of all work and no play, a saying began appearing on bumper stickers and in e-mails. It read: "No one ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I'd spent more time at the office.'" Whether or not the saying had the desired effect remains to be seen, as adults appear as determined as ever to fill up their time with accomplishments. But someone had the right idea, and evidently quite a few people agreed with the sentiment. Isn't it now time to consider the same sentiment as it relates to children? Is there anyone who would say, at the conclusion of childhood, "I wish I'd had less time to play"? Who, after all, wants to look back on life and regret passing up that one and only opportunity to just be a kid?
Rae Pica is a children's movement specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Visit Rae at http://www.movingandlearning.com/.