As parents, you’ve probably witnessed the horrors and cringed—a baseball dad screaming at his child from the sidelines or the pushy stage mom who will do anything to help her child win pageants or find fame.
Edmond parent Chris Cwiklinski commented on the pressure he’s seen parents put on children. “I feel embarrassed for the kids whose parents are so insecure that they drive their children to unachievable perfection. I’ve seen everything from physical violence to verbal abuse.”
Many kids are being pressured to achieve adult-sized dreams, and the competition is fierce. A barrage of extracurricular activities has become the norm for children in American society today. Across the nation, overscheduled kids are being hurried from one activity to the next, often wolfing down fast food in their parents’ SUVs. For some families, dinner around the table is a distant memory. How does all that pressure affect the kids?
Is Your Family Under Pressure?
A study from the University of Michigan found a major decline of free time in children ages 3-12 from 1981 to 1997. Overall free time for children declined by 12 hours per week. Play time decreased by three hours per week—to 13 hours per week for the whole group and less than nine hours per week for older children. Unstructured outdoor activities, including camping, hiking, and walking, fell by 50%.
Is your family exhausted? Do you spend quality time with your kids? Does your family eat meals together? Your answers to these questions may indicate whether your child is overscheduled.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a hurried lifestyle is a source of stress and anxiety for children and could lead to depression. Increased pressure to achieve often leads to school avoidance and physical ailments. Headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea, vomiting, and bed wetting are commonly seen in stressed children.
Edmond parent Wendy Petersen believes that parents can hinder their children by adding unnecessary pressure. “Kids are separated from siblings and parents are separated from each other because everyone is going in different directions every day. You will never convince me that any extracurricular activity is better for a child than family time, play time, and a stress-free childhood. We need to stop being in such a hurry for our kids to grow up,” said Petersen.
Often, the hurry begins when children are still in the womb—a mother listens to French or reads literature out loud in hopes of producing the next child prodigy. After birth, it’s on to comparisons. Many parents mentally, if not verbally, compete with friends and acquaintances—whose child is in the highest percentile on the growth rate chart? Whose child is walking first? The list goes on. Competitive parenting may be one of America’s most popular adult sports.
What happened to the days when kids could be kids by playing a simple game of baseball, reading a book, or learning something new all in the name of fun? Or when a little girl put on make-up to play dress up instead of to win a beauty competition? A 2001 documentary entitled “Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen,” produced for HBO’s American Undercover Series, shows the lengths some parents will go to ensure their child will win pageants. Viewers were shocked by the use of hair-extensions on an 18-month-old baby and fake teeth to cover childish, imperfect smiles.
Edmond clinical psychologist Dr. Clint Lewis explained that competitive parenting can stem from parents’ unresolved issues. “Problems trace back to a parent who is having some difficulty getting their own needs met and are living vicariously through their child and putting excessive pressures on the child. There is so much emphasis in our society to succeed and win that we sometimes lose sight of the value of participation.”
Encouraging Your Child in a Healthy Manner
As long as pressure and competition don’t get out of hand, extracurricular activities can benefit children in numerous ways, from building social skills to boosting self-confidence. The key is to avoid burnout. Here are ways to provide healthy encouragement for your kids.
- Find balance. Dr. Lewis commented that parents shouldn’t allow children to focus on high achievement in a certain area. “Mental health and emotional well being is not necessarily defined by extreme achievement, but by a healthy balance,”he said.
- Allow children to lose. According to Dr. Lewis, society often labels a failure as someone who didn’t win first prize. “If we are looking at losing as failing, I think we have missed the mark. Any good parent would certainly allow their child to have their life experiences of learning and growing and hopefully be there to comfort and encourage the child when they are faced with challenging times.”
- Allow children to quit when appropriate. Many parents allow their children to quit only at the end of a time commitment. Others, when it becomes a stress factor. An anonymous parent from Norman said he allows his children to quit when they stop taking interest and dread going. “However, we insist they become involved in an alternate productive activity,” he explained.
- Make time for family time. Whether it’s game night or simply a shared meal, kids appreciate family time. A University of Michigan study found that eating more meals at home was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems. In fact, mealtime was more powerful than time spent in school or church, studying, participating in sports, or art activities.
- Allow downtime. Children who have little downtime are probably overscheduled. Playing, hanging out with friends, and relaxing are all important for kids. Everyone, regardless of age, needs ample time to recharge their batteries.
Kim Rogers is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two sons in Edmond. A journalism graduate of the University of Central Oklahoma, her work has appeared in Guideposts Sweet 16, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, and other publications.