Should Accomplishment Be What We Value in Childhood?

Way back in 2003, I wrote a book for parents in which, among other things, I warned against the “superkid” syndrome. It went out of print in a shorter amount of time than it took to write it, a situation I blame only partly on the stupid title the publisher gave it. I additionally attribute its failure to the fact that parents didn’t want to hear my message about pushing kids to accomplish too much – although I wasn’t alone in my attempts to spread it.

Back then, Time devoted the better part of an issue to it. Newsweek featured an article titled “Busy Around the Clock.” Articles with titles like “Pushing Children Too Hard,” and “Are You Over-Scheduling Your Kids?” showed up in print media and on the Internet. Books with titles like Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard? appeared in bookstores.

Evidently, parents didn’t want to hear the message from any of us — and 17 years later, they still don’t. Why would they, when they have so many other messages, contradictory to ours, fighting for their attention – all related to the “earlier is better” myth that has become ingrained in our society? Even David Elkind’s classic book, The Hurried Child, with more than 500,000 copies sold (!) hasn’t changed people’s minds. In fact, in his latest preface, Elkind admits many of the problems he described in previous editions have only gotten worse.

Back then, writing in Child Care Information Exchange, Johann Christoph Arnold asked: “Why are we so keen to mold [children] into successful adults instead of treasuring their genuineness and carefree innocence?”

Why, indeed? Why are we pushing three-year-olds to grasp a pencil properly? Why are we teaching three-year-olds words like hypothesis? Why, when we ask that question, does the answer come back: “Because we have to get them ready to be four”? Why are we pushing down the curriculum? Why do we so often exclaim over how fast they grow up – and then do everything in our power to make them grow up even faster?

In discussing what’s become of childhood, the authors of Keeping Your Kids Out Front Without Kicking Them from Behind, wrote:

In the process of trying to prepare our children for a rapidly evolving and fiercely competitive world, we too often professionalize and adultify our children by taking the fun out of childhood. We have turned summer camps into training camps where kids work hard to learn and improve useful skills. We have stolen lazy Saturday afternoons spent daydreaming under a tree and replaced them with adult-supervised, adult-organized activities and classes. We have taken our kids out of the neighborhood playgrounds and placed them in dance and music classes, in SAT preparation classes, and on organized athletic teams. There is no time that can be wasted on idle pastimes and on talent left unexplored or exploited.

Children are not small adults. They don’t come equipped with the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills that adults possess. Yet, more and more, adults – and it’s not just parents anymore – are behaving as though they do. They’re asking children to handle lifestyles – overscheduled and overwhelmed – that even they don’t have the skills to handle. And, because children want so much to please the important adults in their lives, they’re trying to comply. Because children want so much to please, when adults value accomplishment above all else – what the children are doing, rather than who they are – the pressure to accomplish is enormous.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with accomplishment per se. But is that really a word we want to be a dominant part of childhood? Isn’t there plenty of time to focus on accomplishment in later years – say, when it has meaning to the child herself? And what if the child isn’t up to the task at hand – either because it’s the wrong task or because she simply isn’t developmentally ready? The child fails. And research shows that, having failed once, a child is less likely to try a second time, even when it’s possible the second attempt might well result in success.

Fred Engh, author of Why Johnny Hates Sports, has some strong words about the unrealistic expectations adults impose on children. He calls it emotional abuse and says that when it’s

delivered during growth periods, the expectations and standards may haunt the children for a lifetime. These are the ones who are going to be chronically unhappy with their lives, always unsatisfied and unfulfilled because they never did quite enough. Failure will dominate their existence and devastate their spirits.

About a decade or so ago, in an attempt to help adults realize the folly of all work and no play, bumper stickers began appearing with the words: “No one ever said on his deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office.’” Along those lines, I wonder: Is there anyone who would say, looking back at 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 be a kid? Is that what we really want for our children?

The late, great Bev Bos often stated that we don’t have to get children ready to be anything other than what they are. Bev also used the phrase childhood amnesia, believing that if adults could actually remember childhood, they would not do to children what we’re currently doing to them. I agree. If adults could truly remember childhood, the early years would still be viewed as a unique period of development with play recognized as the accomplishment of childhood.


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