The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that today's overscheduled lifestyle is robbing children of the developmental benefits of play. It also cites pressures created by the high-anxiety college admissions process.
The academy discusses this in a new book, Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond. USA TODAY's Mary Beth Marklein spoke with co-authors Marilee Jones, admissions dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg.
Q: Why the extra focus on college admissions?
Jones: It can be a big driver. Many of us in college admissions have set standards that are so high, and we've been sending the message that kids need to be perfect. We get rewarded by U.S. News rankings for admitting those kids, and as a result we're caught up in it. The other piece is that we have a tendency to want kids to look alike. We want them to take so many AP classes, we fixate on the scores, and oh, by the way, they should have so many activities and they should also be leaders. They get headaches, or migraines, or stomach problems — all the classic signs of stress — because the adults in their world are holding them to such a high standard. There's no room to fail.
Ginsburg: College admissions is just one of the factors that is pushing kids too fast too soon to grow up but, unlike, say, poverty, it's one of the forces we can address easily.
Q: Where do parents fit into all of this?
Jones: Parents are a big problem, covertly and overtly. There are some parents who want their kids to win no matter what. And that means getting into a top-tier school. The majority of parents, though, want to do the right thing for their kids. But they look at neighbors and at other parents, and they worry that if they just let their child grow whatever way their child happens to grow, that somehow they'll be failing their child. They don't know how to behave, and that's why Ken and I wrote this book.
Ginsburg: It's also important to note that there are no villains here. Most parents absolutely have the best intention of helping their child succeed. We're trying to help them step back, get off the treadmill, and think, what is success? Success is not about getting your kid into the top school. Success is about developing a happy, resilient, thoughtful, generous, compassionate kid. When parents understand that, they'll also see that the current definition of success is hurting their child.
Q: Are parents who need this most going to recognize themselves?
Ginsburg: I don't know, but it's why we're trying to start a conversation. In the book we suggest talking with neighbors, so you realize you're not alone. Our book may not change the minds of every parent, but their community might be changed.
Jones: We're hoping people get it for their book club.
Q: Beyond concerns about personal health and happiness, are there other consequences?
Jones: From my perspective at MIT, I have deep fears about the future of innovation. I don't see as much individual creativity anymore among applicants. They're so busy, they don't have a chance to daydream. They're just moving from activity to activity to activity to try to satisfy the needs of all the adults in their lives. The Thomas Edisons of the nation, the individuals who will change the world, I don't see that. And that has dire consequences for our nation's ability to compete.
Ginsburg: Every great innovation was preceded by many failures. It has to be OK to not do well in your first 30 attempts.
Q: You mention MIT. Is this really a widespread problem? Or is it really just about the talented few who aspire to highly selective, prestigious schools like MIT?
Jones: It's much bigger. In this country's system of education, there is this kind of weird drive to try to mold kids a certain way and not really value who they are. It's not just the rich kids. It hits the kids at the low end, too. I believe that's the reason a lot of those kids drop out. They're not appreciated for who they are, they're not seen for who they are.
Steve - This article appeared in USA Today. It is a very important issue. Being a father of two young children myself, I am always torn by how far to push the envelope with them.