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Interviews | February 28, 2014 0 comments
Siri Hustvedt's latest novel, The Blazing World, is aptly titled; it is a tour de force about a larger-than-life artist, Harriet "Harry" Burden,... Continue »
Under Pressureby Carl Honoré
"He stands out in the class," she gushed. "Your son is a gifted young artist."
And there it was, that six-letter word that gets the heart of every parent racing. Gifted. That night, I trawled Google, hunting down art courses and tutors to nurture my son's gift. Visions of raising the next Picasso swam through my mind until the next morning.
"Daddy, I don't want a tutor, I just want to draw," my son announced on the way to school. "Why do grown-ups always have to take over everything?" The question stung like a belt on the backside. My son loves to draw. He can spend hours hunched over a piece of paper, inventing alien life forms, designing intricate comic books, or sketching David Beckham taking a free kick. He draws well, and it makes him happy. But somehow that was not enough. Part of me wanted to harness that happiness, to hone and polish his talent, to turn his art into an achievement. My son was right: I was trying to take over.
I knew then that I needed to back off, but backing off is not as easy as it sounds. These days, parents feel under pressure to push, polish, and protect their children with superhuman zeal, to make sure they have the best of everything and are the best at everything. Whether you call this hyper-parenting, or helicopter parenting, or even, as the Scandinavians do, curling parenting (picture mom and dad frantically sweeping the ice in front of their child), the truth is that parents are only part of the equation. Everybody from the state to the advertising industry is trying to bend childhood to fit its own agenda. In Britain, a task force of parliamentarians recently warned that too many children dream of growing up to be fairy princesses or soccer stars. Their solution: career advice for five-year-olds.
The problem is that all this adult intervention is backfiring. Children need plenty of guidance and a firm push now and again, but when grown-ups call all the shots, when every moment is scheduled and supervised, there is a price to pay. Just look around. Cooped up indoors and ferried everywhere in the backseat of a car, children are growing fatter than ever before. At the same time, too much training is causing them to suffer ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears and other sports injuries once confined to adults. And where the body goes, the mind follows. Research around the world suggests that child depression and anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide that often go with it are now most common not in urban ghettos but in the smart downtown apartments and leafy suburbs where the go-getting middle classes project-manage their children.
Micromanaged kids can end up struggling to stand on their own two feet. More children than ever before now rely on medication to control their mood and behavior. And academic advisers tell of college students handing over cellphones in the middle of interviews and saying: "Why don't you sort this out with my mom?"
The bottom line is that children need time and space to explore the world on their own terms: that is how they learn to think, socialize, and take pleasure from things; it's how they work out who they are, rather than what we want them to be. When adults hijack childhood, kids miss out on the things that give texture, meaning, and joy to a human life the small adventures, the secret journeys, the setbacks and mishaps, the glorious anarchy, the moments of solitude and even of boredom. And when children become projects rather than people, parenthood becomes a drag too.
But enough of the bad news. The good news is that change is afoot. In my travels through Europe, Asia, and the Americas, I found that people everywhere are looking for ways to let children be children again.
Around the world, schools are cutting back on homework and exams and finding that when pupils have more time to relax, reflect, and take charge of their own learning, they learn better. To give over-scheduled children a breather, towns across the United States now hold special days when all extracurricular activities are cancelled. Many families are so relieved to go just one afternoon and evening without dashing off to karate or lacrosse that they prune their planners during the rest of the year.
To give youth sports back to the young, leagues are clamping down on parents screaming abuse from the sidelines and shifting the emphasis away from winning at all costs to learning and enjoying the game. One peewee hockey team in Toronto stopped tracking personal statistics and ensured that every child got the same ice-time, regardless of his ability. The result: the boys fell back in love with hockey, burnished their skills, and won nearly 20 tournaments in three years.
The modern penchant for wrapping children in cotton wool is also coming under siege. I visited a new preschool in Scotland where three- and four-year-olds spend the day in a forest negotiating harsh weather, open campfires, and poisonous fungi. Sure, they suffer the odd scratch or burn, but they grow stronger for it. The local kindergarten reports that the outdoor kids are happier, more confident, and less prone to illness than are their indoor peers. Another sign that a backlash is brewing against our stifling culture of overprotection is the success on both sides of the Atlantic of The Dangerous Book for Boys, a manual stuffed with tips on how to enjoy all kinds of high-risk pastimes from racing go-carts to making slingshots and catapults.
All of these changes imply parenting with a lighter touch, which begs the question: how do we know when we're parenting too hard? It's not always easy because the line between engaged parenting and hyper-parenting can be a fine one, but there are some telltale signs that a mother or father is overstepping the mark. These include doing your children's homework, shouting yourself hoarse at their sporting events, spying on their MySpace pages, letting them take fewer risks than you did at the same age, finding them falling asleep en route to their next extracurricular activity, or quoting verbatim from child-rearing manuals.
How do we ease off? The first step is simply to relax. Remember that parenting is not a skill that can be perfected, that there is no complete step-by-step recipe for child-rearing and that feeling unsure of yourself is a natural part of being a mother or father. Remember also that childhood is not a race that only alpha children can win. Look at the people you most like and admire: chances are they followed varied paths to adulthood, and that very few were ever classified as gifted. Many were probably late bloomers.
Another way to ease off is to pay less attention to what other parents are doing and more to your own instincts. Do what feels right for your child and family rather than what sounds impressive on the playground. Make sure your children have lots of adult-free time, preferably without the Playstation or the TV. And remember this: a child will make the most of any talent when he pursues it for himself rather than for mom and dad.
What about me? Well, I'm already on the road to recovery. On a recent visit to the local park, my son suddenly announced his plan to join the school sketching club. "That's great," I answered, suppressing the urge to punch the air or say "I told you so." This was his decision, and I wanted to keep it that way. Let's just hope I remember that lesson when it comes time to organize his first exhibition.
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After studying history and Italian at Edinburgh University, Carl Honoré worked with street children in Brazil. This inspired him to take up journalism. Since 1991, he has written from all over Europe and South America, spending three years in Buenos Aires along the way. His work has appeared in publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Economist, Observer, American Way, National Post, Globe and Mail, Houston Chronicle, and the Miami Herald. His first book, In Praise of Slowness, was an international bestseller.