The Child Worshipers, I: overscheduled children

Kids today!

“…a manufacter of stationery supplies saw nothing but sound business recently in bringing forth an appointment calendar designed exclusively for children. It came bound in pink for girls, blue (navy) for boys; bore, just after the frontispiece, a blank page for Telephone Numbers of My Friends; provided outsized space for the hours of every calendar day to accommodate third-grade penmanship, and at last report was, as the trade has it, moving nicely.

Of course it was; it filled a genuine need. How else is one to keep track of the after-school dates, the birthday parties, the bowling parties… And the club meetings? And the benumbing roster of appointments in pursuit of gracious living: the guitar, piano, and recorder lessons…the language lessons, the art lessons, the judo lessons, and, in season, the swimming, riding, skiing, and tennis lessons? When one recalls that this social lion must also fit in his pediatrician, his orthodontist, his allergist, and, alas, not too rarely, his psychiatrist, the wonder is that he ever got along without an address book at all.”

“It has been suggested that what this superbly organized child needs more than anything else is time — time to sit alone under the apple tree and simply muse. The question is: does he know how to sit alone and muse? And would he want to, even if he did? There still may be children around who putter in happy solitude with empty coffee cans or, in their livelier moments, crouch with the neighborhood aficionados over a smashing good game of marbles, but life’s heady pace has broken most tykes of such quaint preoccupations…”

Sounds pretty up-to-the-minute, right? It appeared in 1963, in Martha Weinman Lear’s book The Child Worshipers, which I feel quite privileged to have gotten for 50 cents at the Shakespeare’s Books moving sale last Saturday. I suppose one knows abstractly that despairing New York Times Magazine pieces about the plight of today’s upper-middle-class child don’t change that much from decade to decade — but it’s really quite startling to read passages written almost 45 years ago that also appear, more or less unchanged, in this year’s papers:

Though she considers herself well organized, Kathy Diamond, a mother of two in Huntington, acknowledges that her children’s after-school schedules have the potential to be daunting. Each week, her 12-year-old daughter, Alex, is taking drum and Hebrew lessons and five dance classes, and is also playing travel soccer, which includes a practice and away games. Seven-year-old Dylan has karate two days a week, drum lessons, soccer and baseball practices and games…

Many kids today “have almost a workaholic level of stress,” says Gloria Rothenberg, a school psychologist for Plainview-Old Bethpage School District who also has a private practice in Merrick. Children are overbooked with activities that can extend into what should be their bedtime, leaving them with little down time.

“Parents enroll their children in several activities for a lot of well-intentioned reasons,” says West Islip psychologist Wendi Fischer. You feel “you have to have every minute of your child’s life scheduled or you’re not doing right by them. Then there’s a sense of keeping up with their peers – both their own and their child’s.”

This zealous involvement has become a cultural phenomenon, says John Siefring, a psychologist in Northport. “It’s not just parents creating the need, but pressure from the top down, with honor societies to get into and Ivy League schools to compete for,” he says. “It’s not surprising that parents feel they’re doing their children a disservice by not having them involved in many things.”

But a pitfall of over-programmed time, Fischer says, is that children get so used to organized activities that they don’t know how to handle time on their own. “Ultimately, it’s not fair for kids to have the hectic pace we’ve adopted for ourselves.”

On the contrarian side, my college classmate John Cloud writes in Time that kids today aren’t overscheduled, and anyway, overscheduling is good for kids.

More Child Worshipers blogging to come.

2 thoughts on “The Child Worshipers, I: overscheduled children

  1. robbusmaximus says:

    My wife and I wrestle with the “time” issue…well, all the time. A friend shared with me a piece of brilliance that I can’t appropriately attribute, but I at least won’t pass it on as my own: At the turn of this past century, the currency of the day was “power.” As we neared the middle of the century — perhaps at about the time The Child Worshipers was published — the currency of the day turned to “money,” a concept which hit its peak somewhere around the mid-80s. Now, the currency of the day has become “time.” This currency is more difficult to manage, however, because there is a more finite “cap” and the goal is to try to cram in whatever you can into that small amount of time. I’ve got two great fears — that I will overextend my children, and that I won’t provide them with the abundant life experiences I can afford to give them.
    For now, I think I’ll just ask John Cloud to be my new best friend.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking parallel to the ’60s.

  2. […] Child Worshipers, II 09Jul07 More on The Child Worshipers. Lots of the fretting about upper-middle-class child rearing in this 1963 book is identical with the […]

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