Tuesday, October 10, 2006


This one will be short, as there are workmen apparently drilling 1,000 tiny holes in the apartment floor above me, then hammering them for good measure, and I'm going to go crazy from the noise if I don't get out of here soon.

But anyway... Time magazine had a fascinating Po Bronson back page essay a few weeks ago pointing out that there are two schools of parenting. There's the Baby Einstein school, and the Barbie school. The Baby Einstein parents get written about a lot in books like Hothouse Kids and the Overachievers. They're the ones allegedly hovering over their precious kids, scheduling every minute, trying to make sure that not one single potential IQ point goes down the drain. But of course, Baby Einstein racked up $200 million in sales last year. Barbie? $3 billion. Barbie represents the vast majority of parents, for whom the question is not whether they're spending too much time with their kids, but whether they're spending enough with both parents working, or in single parent situations. The question is not whether school is too rigorous and the college application process too crazy, but whether school is preparing kids for college at all.

Given the split, why do Hothouse kid parents get all the press? The answer is that journalists who write about parenting issues and education tend to come from the Baby Einstein camp. So it makes sense to them that all parents are seeing their kids get caught up in the AP rat race, the college admission crunch, etc. We all suffer from a bit of myopia from time to time. Now it appears that pediatricians are falling for this line as well (makes sense; they're upper income and highly educated too, just like journalists). The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report the other day calling for more unstructured play time for kids. The message? We need not be super parents, dragging kids to karate, scouts, music lessons, etc. Just playing is fine.

Which is true. But I read the report after re-reading a book called "American Dream" by Jason DeParle about the recent welfare reform bill's effect on a few families. There were some successes. The moms landed reasonable jobs in nursing homes and worked full time, often two shifts to earn some extra cash. But that left the children with hours and hours of unstructured free time after school, the supposed gold standard that the pediatricians are pushing. Trust me, it didn't turn out so well for the children involved.

The truth is, the vast majority of children are not spending their afternoons in karate, scouts and tutoring. And even the ones who are often don't have the 'pushy parent' problem. I heard from one mom recently that her little girl (who's very gifted) was in five after school activities in part because school wasn't challenging her. If the AAP is worried about children's development, meaningful school reform would be a better report topic than the supposed epidemic of super parenting.


Quiltsrwarm said...

Down time is extremely important to gifted kids. Psychologists who specialize in giftedness all advocate a period of down time, in the safety of a loving supportive home environment (not day care). Gifted kids, especially, need this time in order to process new information, to do their deep thinking, to RELAX. Out-of-the-box thinking can not happen in route to the next activity on the schedule while scarfing a burger. Boredom can be a good thing sometimes.

If parents truly feel that their children are not getting the educational enrichment they need, rather than scheduling their kids for yet another after-school activity that takes away from the precious down-time gifted kids need, parents should work with the school districts to get that enrichment for their kids during school hours. If that doesn't work, there are other educational options -- such as homeschooling.

I find it interesting that my parent-friends who have all sorts of afternoon activities scheduled for their kids, are also the parents who send their kids to public school. My homeschool friends unanimously treasure the late afternoon and evening times as family times, full of unscheduled supervised play time rather than homework, busywork, or yet another class to rush the kids to.

Perhaps parents who feel the need to schedule their kids should examine why they do this to their families. If these parents schedule their kids to avoid closeness with their children, then something is wrong with this picture, perhaps with our society. And it isn't the fault of an out-of-touch school program - a parent only has to look in the mirror to find the person ultimately responsible for his or her child's education and happiness, and then act on that realization.

Tony Plank said...

I do not totally agree that the key is "unstructured".

If by that one means that it is not good to schedule your kids and fill them with activities that leave them exhausted, then I actually would agree. We have many friends who do exactly that and we see their kids constantly at the doctors with illness and generally looking spent when we see them.

But some kids need a little structure to be happy. Structure can mean nothing more than “this is reading time” or “this is DVD time” but for some kids this is essential for them to be happy. If you tell my gifted Son to go do whatever he wants, you’ll likely find him lying on the floor flopping around in a sensory deprived state. On the other hand, if you tell him to go and draw an invention that he has been working on or read a particular book he loves, that is liberating.

Like everything else, kids vary and so should our parenting.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with lots of unstructured time, and when I was young, I used it in many creative games. When I went through adolescence, all that unstructured time (and unsupervised) led to not-so-creative or productive experimentation.
With my kids, I consult them about making sure they are serious about committing to a new activity and what it'll mean in terms of sacrifice of free time. Because there are 4 of them and only one driver (me), they do have to choose. I want them to try new things to find their passions and for life-long physical fitness (I really think this needs to be programmed early). Sometimes we have to miss practices just for mom's sanity or because it conflicts with another kid's activity. Somehow we get home in time for dinner and they still have a couple hours for homework and "unstructured" time. As they get older I see them being pickier about what they get involved with, so that they still have plenty of time to hang out at home, ride bikes, play football, etc. I wish my parents had helped introduce me to some things when I was a kid, because as an adult I find my number one hobby is my kids. I think it would be healthier to have other passions as an example to my children.

Evan Adams said...

I think it depends a lot on the kid. Everyone needs some amount of unstructured time, but the amount varies by individual. You can't tell from looking at a kid's schedule whether they're being pushed to hard, helicopter parented, etc. The question is always whether it's the kid's desire to do all those things setting the pace, or parental anxiety about not "wasting" time, getting into a "good" college, bragging rights with other parents, etc.