Don't Rush Your Child, Warns Psychologist David Elkind, or They (and You) Will Pay the Price
"We should give childhood back to our children," proclaims David Elkind, a Tufts University psychologist who argues that what's basically the matter with kids today is that they are being turned into adults far too quickly. In his alarming 1981 book, The Hurried Child, Elkind, 53, described the traumas of kids forced prematurely into grown-up activities and roles. Now he is back with a second disturbing book, All Grown Up and No Place to Go (Addison-Wesley, $17.95), to be published in June, in which he examines the tragic consequences in adolescence of the "hurried-child syndrome": drug and alcohol abuse, sexual fears, stress-related illnesses, burnout and, increasingly, suicide. Elkind, who has met with hundreds of teenagers in private practice and in schools, hospitals and clinics around the country, spent most of his childhood in L.A. and received his B.A. and Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA. He has taught at the University of Rochester, N. Y., was headmaster of a school for troubled children in that city and since 1978 has been professor of child study at Tufts in Med ford, Mass. The father of three sons, 16, Wand 21, Elkind lives with second wife Nina in a Cambridge condo, where he talked with Gail Jennes about the psychic cost of hurrying children.
What are the most common disturbances you see in adolescents today?
Everywhere I go, kids feel neglected and unparented. They are mourning a lost childhood and are depressed because they missed something they can never regain. One 12-year-old told me that since he was 6, both his parents have worked, and every morning he has made his own breakfast. He can do it perfectly, but he said—in the plaintive tone I hear so often—"I just wish they would do it for me once in a while." It would be a sign that he can be a kid now and then, that he doesn't have to be a grown-up all the time.
How does this "unparented" feeling show up?
In school we see a lot of the "in-house truant" who simply gives up, who doesn't want to deal with adults. It's really burnout; the kid's had it. I'm also seeing more and more depression in school-age children. Teachers around the country tell me about kids who are apathetic, self-deprecatory and unmotivated.
Then children suffer from stress in the same way adults do?
Yes. Pediatricians are seeing an increasing number of headaches, bellyaches, sleeplessness and eating disorders. These are chronic symptoms representing stress.
Do such children feel over the hill?
Some who are overspecialized actually go through what looks like a midlife crisis in their teens. Kids who have been trained to be tennis stars, skating stars or pianists, and who haven't been allowed to express other parts of themselves, may feel empty in adolescence—just as a businessman who succeeds in the outside world, to the neglect of his inside world, starts to feel empty.
What are the most serious consequences to the hurried child?
Alcohol and drug abuse by adolescents, teenage pregnancy, in-school crime and suicide are following a sharply upward curve. In the '60s, 10 percent of teenage girls were sexually active. The most recent statistics suggest that 70 percent of teenage girls will not be virgins by the time they leave their teens—and 40 percent of those sexually active will get pregnant. Drug and alcohol abuse is now considered a leading cause of death among teenagers, but suicide is increasing rapidly. Five thousand teenagers commit suicide each year, and for every one who succeeds, dozens attempt it.
How does hurrying children cause these problems?
Adolescence is when children pay us back for all the sins, real and imagined, we committed against them when they were children. In low-income families, kids have always been forced to grow up early—for economic and social reasons. So there is early sexual activity and drug abuse and the rest. Now that kids in middle-class families also have single parents and step-families and are also growing up quickly, we find these children doing all the things lower-income kids did.
Whom do these children blame?
Middle-class ones blame their parents, who they feel are trying to satisfy their own psychic needs. Low-income kids blame society, not their parents. Kids understand you have to work to get food, but they can't understand that you have to work to realize your potential. They know the difference between parents who don't have time for them and parents who don't give them time because they are pursuing some interest of their own.
Are parents rushing their children even more than a few years ago?
Yes. The problem is snowballing. People are even trying to condition their babies in the womb now. At the infant level, there's the "superbaby" phenomenon with flash cards at 3 months. An infant who can recognize flash cards is a monstrosity—it is a performance to please the parents and reflects the parents' need, not the child's. Then there's early reading, early math, early computers, early sports, early beauty contests. I met a 4-year-old in Texas who had already been in 20 beauty contests. And there are some parents who put tremendous pressure on kids to get into the right nursery school—as soon as the woman gets pregnant, the name goes on the list. Parents have always had high hopes for their kids, but what's new is visiting on preschoolers the expectations and anxieties normally reserved for high school seniors. The whole Head Start idea, which was meant for the disadvantaged, has become a disaster because the middle class has taken it over.
Why are parents doing these things?
The "right" nursery school isn't important in itself. It is an emotional lightning rod that parents focus on when they can't cope with their own anxieties. When parents are as stressed as they are today, they put stress on their children. In single-parent households, the child often becomes a sort of confidant. Parents push kids by using them as a conscience, decision maker, partner, surrogate, status symbol and therapist. The kids try hard. They want to rise to the occasion, but they just don't have the wisdom. One 6-year-old girl told me her mother always asks her to pass judgment on her boyfriends. She said, "I just wish she wouldn't ask me." I hear that a lot from children.
What happens when both parents work?
Often, the temptation is to ask kids to be too responsible, to do too much, to baby-sit for the younger kids all the time, to clean the whole house. But when they become adolescents, they see they were hurried and misused and they begin to punish their parents. A kid who was exemplary before suddenly becomes a monster at 12.
Are parents forgetting that these are just kids?
I think so. One boy asked his father what "sex" meant, and the father gave a long explanation. The boy just wanted to know which to check—"M" or "F"—on a form he had to fill out.
But kids seem more mature these days.
It's pseudosophistication. They may have great verbal acumen and many skills, but they're not prepared for real conflicts. A girl may dress and talk seductively, but if a guy makes a move, she'll panic. She's been imitating adult behavior but she doesn't have the underlying emotional maturity.
What is society as a whole doing to hurry kids?
As parents have given up their protective orientation toward their children, industry and the media have moved in to exploit kids. TV, movies and the music business feel they have carte blanche: There's now soft porn for teenagers. There are companies which sell elaborate cosmetics—lipstick, rouge, eyeliners—for 4-to 9-year-olds. Some of these kids now feel they can't go outside without their makeup. In commercials, young girls and boys wear designer jeans and sexy hairdos and stand in sexy positions. Children need markers, such as kids' clothes, to give them a sense of where they are and what's appropriate.
Won't hurrying children at least make them more successful as adults?
No. The irony is that intellectual achievement is not going to make kids successful today. In a service economy, it's interpersonal skills that are most needed. But today there's much more concern with children's intellectual development than with their emotional and social development.
What do you advise parents?
The trouble with good parenting is that it takes time. Yet there are books out for parents called The One Minute Mother and The One Minute Father. Talk about hurrying! Parents need to be adults to children and exercise parental authority, and they need to remember that kids aren't as sophisticated as they sound. I'm not advocating a hothouse child. I'm suggesting that parents be aware of the limitations on what children can do at certain ages.
Won't children tell us their limitations?
If we're listening.
What are your specific suggestions for parents?
Even though kids want it, don't have alcohol at parties. I'm appalled and frightened that no matter where I travel in this country, alcohol is available for 12-and 13-year-olds at parties. The parents provide it! And don't let your 13-year-old daughter go out overnight with boys. One of the most important things is for parents to say "no" to things they feel are too advanced. Saying "no" gives kids a sense that their parents care about them enough to take the risk of confrontation.
What will be the long-range results of hurrying our children?
If we continue doing what we've been doing—making childhood and adolescence such a hellish time—we will have many more adults who need social support and fewer productive human beings. Kids who've been forced to grow up before their time, who are anxious and confused, do not make the best adults. Secure, happy children do.
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