In some ways, our culture idolizes childhood, but in others, it utterly destroys it. Perhaps the two go hand-in-hand. The New York Times asked recently, “Is Your First Grader College Ready?” It details classes full of elementary students going on college visits and filling out mock applications. At some colleges, the wait list for elementary-school tours is so long, they offer virtual campus visits. But that’s not all. Oh, no, that is not all.
When her boys join the science club, volunteer at the food bank, even serve on the elementary school safety patrol, Ms. Meyer said, she can’t help but view it as a steppingstone to college. ‘You have to have this resume built or your kids will not even be looked at.’
Thousands of schools are buying software that shows kids the trajectory for which specific colleges they’ll be on for picking certain middle-school classes. A companion article shows kindergartners journaling their SAT “words of the week.” The number of eighth and ninth graders taking the PSAT (a sort of preliminary test that predicts SAT performance and can earn one scholarships) has increased by a factor of 10 since it was introduced in 2000.
The demand that high school now prepare every graduate for entrance into college with no remedial coursework is now a national requirement, thanks to Common Core, the “college- and career-ready pathway.” It is a dramatic increase in the expectations for high schools, or a dramatic decrease in the expectations for colleges, or both. But it’s not entirely Common Core’s fault the college frenzy has reached six-year-olds (or, rather, the parents and teachers of six-year-olds). It’s the culture of the people who produce and enforce Common Core and things like it. The Washington Post regularly publishes stories about the haggard, henpecked children of DC-area politicos, who forego sleep, internal dialogue, and all personal space to load their resumes with things like “lacrosse team captain” and “debate society president” while taking 27 Advanced Placement classes each semester. In seventh grade. While going on repeated service trips to third-world countries.
Creating Box-Checkers, Not Box Smashers
Parents like this are the forerunners of the lifestyle now reaching into the middle class: Register your child for the “best” “infant learning center” as soon as you know you’re pregnant, and plan to dump him in there as soon as you hit your sixth week of maternity leave. Concurrently check out the “best” “preschools” that are proven feeders for the “best” elementary schools that in turn feed the “best” middle and high school and colleges and jobs. Because if he doesn’t get into an Ivy he’ll never get into Goldman Sachs or the Justice Department or whatever is the raging parent status symbol of the day.
Notice this is a parent thing, not a child thing. We have no proof that a child herded into Goldman Sachs as he has been everywhere else will be happy there, or if he might have been happier developing his own interests, loves, and personality. The parents tell themselves they do all this for their child, but if they really cared about their child they’d have considered arranging their lives so they would spend more than 20 minutes a day face-to-face with him (checking email on their smartphones nearby doesn’t count). And they feel that guilt, unconsciously, so to compensate they prove they love their kid by buying him advantages instead of developing them, in person, over the years, together. It seems kind of like the table salads my garden-center-owning uncle says fly off the shelves to his yuppie clientele. He charges $20 for a cute little multi-lettuce arrangement that would have cost customers about $3 to make themselves. It rivals the cost of prewashed, precut lettuce from the store. Salad, just add water.
But kids are not a salad arrangement. You can’t just “add activities” or “burnish resumes.” They’re people. People need mentoring. They need relationships. They need discipleship. They need more than an endless cycle of paid caretakers. They need to be more than stimulation whores or bores. They are more than that. They can be more than that. But they need someone to show them how.
Do parents have no other goals for their children besides locking them into a career treadmill paved with cash? Perhaps they have no knowledge of finer milestones, a more meaningful way to approach life, so grasp at the only measurement of goodness they know. Remember, folks: The same greed turned King Midas’s daughter into a lifeless golden statue. Our country is populated with thousands of little statues like her.
Don’t Make Kids Live Like a Refugee
We have good and growing evidence that loading so much onto children’s lives and minds overwhelms them. So while having the nanny drag Johnny to every extracurricular known to man may reduce a mother’s guilt, making her feel like she’s doing right by her kids, it actually makes Johnny feel like a refugee. Not kidding:
Kim John Payne has traveled the world and spent time treating children in refugee camps. While running a private practice in England, he was shocked to see so many similarities between the children there and the refugee children. Over many years, it became increasingly clear that certain kids from affluent families – living perfectly safe, privileged lives – were behaving in a manner similar to children halfway around the globe near war zones.
The refugee children were living out the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. As Payne describes: ‘They were jumpy, nervous, and hypervigilant, wary of anything novel or new. Many had adopted elaborate little rituals around everyday tasks, such as very specific, complicated ways of navigating the maze of the camp, which they imagined would somehow keep them safe. They were distrustful of new relationships, whether with adults or their own peers, and quite a few had hair-trigger tempers.’
He says the main distinction between the two groups was that the privileged children in England were physically safe. But mentally, they too were living in a sort of war zone where they needed coping strategies to feel safe.
Payne cites a recent study about child sports. It found that participating in organized sports reduced a child’s creativity and initiative. But participating in unorganized sports—spontaneous, child-organized play—significantly improved a child’s creativity. In 2012, a researcher from the College of William and Mary found that American kids’ scores on a well-known creativity measure have dropped substantially since the 1980s. The particular test he used to measure seems to be “seems to be the best predictor of lifetime achievement that has yet been invented. It is a better predictor than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most,” says Boston College professor Peter Gray.
That should make status-anxious parents sit up. Not incidentally, top corporate recruiters say creativity is one of their priorities when headhunting. We’ve all heard about Google and Apple and other hot companies’ odd hiring tests, designed to measure this very thing because GPA and SAT scores don’t. How ironic—and tragic—that the same activities parents push on their children in an effort to get places like this actually handicaps them.