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Hurried Children: part 1

October 27th, 2003 · No Comments

On the advice of a friend, I read The Hurried Child by David Elkind, a professor at Tufts. This is the third edition, 2001, of a book originally published 20 years earlier: very updated with discussions on topics such as the Internet, “Lapware”, and Britney Spears’ appeal. It’s a book filled with many statistics, examples and quotations, all illustrating how hurried children are in our society today. I felt that the quotes below could be said about my current home, Bainbridge Island, or either the high school or college I attended:

“Growing up here you are handed everything on a platter, but something else is missing. The one thing parents don’t give is love, understanding and acceptance of you as a person.”

“Peoeple give their kids a lot materially, but expect a lot in return. No one sees his kids as average, and those who don’t perform are made to feel like failures.”

I think that my favorite chapter came early on, in The Dynamics of Hurrying Parents . I appreciated his analysis and perspective; it helped me see my own childhood and my parenting in new light. He writes how stressed we are as parents, and thereby we end up hurrying and hurting our children. Below I’ll weave together quotations from several pages:

People who are stressed, like those in ill health, are absorbed with themselves – the demands on them, their reactions and feelings, their hydra-headed anxieties. They are, in a word, egocentric, though not necessarily conceited or prideful. They have little opportunity to consider the needs and interests of others…..But the prevalence of self-centeredness puts us squarely in a dilemma in regard to raising children……

Specifically then, how do parental stress and the metaphor of child as raw material become transmuted into hurrying? ….People under stress tend to see other people in the shorthand of symbols, not the often hard-to-decipher longhand of personhood. Under stress, we see others as certain obvious, easily grasped stereotypes and abstractions…Thus with our children; it is as objects or symbols – not as full subjects – that we hurry them…..
…Parents under stress see their children as symbols because it is the least demanding way to deal with them. A student, a skater, a tennis player, a confidant are clear -cut symbols, easy guides for waht to think, to see, and how to behave…Symbols thus free the parent from the energy-consuming task of knowing the child as a totality; a whole person….Thus by treating children as symbols, parents conserve the energy needed for coping with stress and have ready-made screens for projecting some of the consequences of stress, fear, anxiety and frustration…..

…I would venture that there is a strong tie between job dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and a disproportionate concern with offspring’s success in sports, on the other….p.29

He then talks about The Child as Status Symbol For mothers who cleave to the housewife role, it is often tempting to invole the children – and their precocious academic accomplishments – as the justification for their not working. – and The Child as Therapist .

I have played many of these roles as a child, due to stressful family situations, and I see myself, at times of stress, tending to treat my own children as symbols. I find myself wanting my kids to behave in certain ways, to be my helpers, instead of interacting with them as individuals with needs, desires and emotions, as multi-faceted little people.

I also appreciated his chapter on Stressed Children , where Elkind discusses responsiblity and emotional overload. “This is really what distinguishes the hard-working children of today from the immigrant children of previous generations. In the newly arrived families there was usually a mother and a fatehr so that children did not have parental responsibilities. But in the one-parent home of today, children have to assume parental responsibilities….p171″

He has his own Stress Test for Children (p184)
What surprised me most was how stressful activities can be:

Start a new (or changes) an extra-curricular activity (music lessons, Brownies and so forth) scored at 36 points which is only slightly below Birth of a Sibling at 39, and MORE stress than moving to a new city (26). A birthday party ranks at 12! The scale is based on 100 = the death of a parent.

I liked this book a lot. It spoke to me about my own life as a child and as a mother, even explaining my heart. However, when I finished reading it, I was surprised to realize how little solution was offered specifically. Maybe one or two pages at the end of the book, and sentence or paragraph here and there. Perhaps this book was just evidence and thesis, extended eye-opening. But I think that the big problem Elkind faces is that what we need to do in order to stop hurrying children is to stop our society as it is today, and that requires a revolution. It seems huge but could be done home by home, family by family.

In part though, his solutions are offered in his critique, as he dissects and defines the problems. I feel that his perceptions about parenting are particulary powerful. We in the West are a society of stress. We are also a society where identity comes from doing. So no wonder we push our children early to be achievers, even when they are neither emotionally nor physiologically ready. We try to do a lot, and then we encourage our children to do a lot also, so they can be just like us, and so that they can have the same source of identity as we do. Also we don’t often have the time or energy to interact with – love – our children as they really are. Tired and exhausted, with the selfishness of the stressed, we want them to fit into an easy label, to make our life easier in every way. In our culture, we only have value if we are “smart” or a “skater” or “Little League player” or even being “wealthy”, “handy” or “stylish”. Rescuing our children from being hurried requires rewriting our cultural values, expectations and methods. We must change our lifestyles. This is the revolution we need, home by home, family by family, in pieces and parts, heart by heart.

This theme continued in my next posting: part 2……Home Grown Kids…..

Tags: books