The pressure of childhood
Are we raising a generation of overprogrammed kids? Too much work and not enough play? To join the conversation, we invited Principals from two schools along with a group of working mums to share their thoughts on this shift in growing up, what’s driving this change and the impact on the kids at the centre of this emerging new world.
As a mum with a primary school aged child, it’s not much of a stretch to recognize the differences in our own childhoods with that of kids today. I’m sure it’s all relative, but most of us who grew up over the last few decades would concede that we had it pretty easy. In Australia, sadly the suicide rate for teenagers is the highest it’s been in the last 10 years. I read recently about a highly capable school captain who died on the last day of his year 12 exams. Popular, smart, ready to take on the world. No one saw it coming. Today in New Delhi, kindergarten children are being told that from here on in, every minute counts; unless they hit 99% in their school finals (over a decade away) they won’t have a place in college. At school pick-ups and P&C meeting rooms everywhere, we’re all talking about the workloads, pressure and scheduling that’s defining childhood today. If we don’t see what’s coming, then we simply aren’t looking.
No matter where we grew up, most parents today would probably say that our childhoods had a lot in common. Plenty of time outdoors with many afternoons spent in the company of friends, neighbours and cousins. Like all children, we’d make up games and songs, we’d fight with each other all the while learning gently how to grow up. I lived next door to a family of 4, the three oldest siblings were boys and I loved nothing more than pretending to drive their old broken down truck or playing cricket until the sun set. Sometimes it seems these precious hours of childhood are lost on our kids today. There is little time after school to while away the hour’s outdoors; instead, we are shuffling them from one activity to the next, enhancing their skills, building their abilities and encouraging them to reach their potential. Resham Jain, a mother of 7 years old twins in New Delhi says; “today kids are missing out on the most important thing in life; quality family time. They hardly have time to digest dinner, they’re in bed before their Dad’s get home to get a decent amount of sleep and after school is filled with coaching and tutorials. Even weekends which should be a time for playing outdoors has become scheduled around tutors and homework.” Resham speaks for many mothers as she says; “when we were kids we had time to play, be with family and still get our homework done, today there is so much pressure on kids.” Gauri Bhargava, middle school Head Mistress of an International School in New Delhi would prefer not to call it “pressure”, she says rather “let’s call it the challenges that face kids and families in the 21st century.” It is a different world than the one that we grew up in and the situations that face our children today perhaps require more of them.
Joanne Austin, a mum and Law Lecturer at an Australian University, says “during my time at school in the ’70’s and ’80’s, coaching was unheard of. Private coaching was not an industry and private tutors were only accessed if a child was struggling with the curriculum. Nowadays, children are being coached to keep up with other children who are being coached.” This is echoed in Gauri’s sentiments “when I was a young kid there was no list of top 10 schools in the city, top 10 universities of the country or best academies for sports that I had to get into. My parents sent me to places which were close to home where I could walk or ride my bike to. It was enough to say that I was learning how to paint, sing or dance, not that I was learning to dance from an academy in the top list or I was taught art from a particular artist, the applaud was more because I was learning or was talented not because my teacher was talented.” As Joanne says; “I know of children who have been coached since the age of 2 and 3 years old to get an “edge” on their peers. This results in many children being 18mths to 2 years ahead of the normal school curriculum. These children are further accelerated in extra literacy and numeracy classes at school because they have already completed much of the curriculum for their grade. Parents need to realise that being accelerated and being gifted are completely different things and, accordingly, their expectations for their child’s academic future may be unreasonable.”
Despite our carefree and happy childhoods, we seem to be intent on doing it differently than our parents did. Today, there is an endless stream of opportunities to expose our kids to; sports clubs, music lessons, art classes and a general push for academic superiority. Of course, these are also clever alternatives to engage what would have been the latchkey kids of years ago, for families where both parents are working. Kylie Lyneham, Deputy Principal of a large South Western Sydney primary school, says that our presence on social media has a role to play in the drive for kids to be superstars. As a mother and educator, she says that watching kids shine on Facebook in gymnastics, violin and athletics can make some parents feel like they’re just not doing enough. “A generation ago you couldn’t put your child in ‘School of Rock,’ cheerleading, yoga etc. The upshot? Little time for relaxation, creativity, daydreaming, bonding moments and these are the things that balance out the stresses in kids’ lives.”
Joanne says “There is a lot of parent-driven pressure on children. Parents generally have become overly ambitious and unaccepting of their child’s natural ability.” This is evidenced by the rise in private coaching and the number of children vying for places in selective schools. As Gauri says “when we were growing up, a decent mark would secure a place in a decent college but today kids are competing for places in the world’s best colleges internationally so kids as young as 3 are being prepped for an academic and extracurricular pathway towards success, both in school and beyond.” In a world, however, where only the tough survive, perhaps this heightened competition is simply setting kids up to cope. It’s an interesting question, on one hand, increased pressure on young kids may be preparing them for the world beyond school, on the other, it could be robbing them of a well-balanced childhood and ill-preparing them for the ups and downs of relationships, jobs and life in general.
Last year my son’s class had a poetry recital and to prepare, they had to choose a poem to learn and present. After searching the web, we couldn’t find anything just right so we wrote a poem together. He learnt it diligently and delivered it with all the animation and pizzazz that it called for. The week before the presentations I was scrolling Facebook and saw one of the gorgeous kids in his class standing proudly with a trophy in her hand having just taken out the State Poetry Recital Award for her age group. Well, I chuckled, perhaps we’re a bit old school. Why has it suddenly become so important to foster ambition to achieve the number one spot? Is it to create genius’ who can be proud of themselves, or is it status for us? We talk about the pressure on kids, but as a mum, I think this is putting pressure on us as parents too. Gauri echoes these thoughts “When parents are struggling to understand what is right or wrong, what is best or how can I make the best decision for my child the stress of being the perfect parents is on, as is the need to be validated by society for their successful parental plan. Little do they know that it leads to complicated schedules for kids and themselves, which creates the viewpoint that our childhoods were easy”.
As parents, we collectively feel that schools are giving our kids too much homework on top of a curriculum that is already leaps and bounds ahead of our time at school. Resham says that “kids in grade 3 are struggling to do what we did in grade 5 and still there is homework every weekend. Children should really only be given homework that connects them with what they’re doing at school that week, not using this time to stretch them beyond what they understand.” Joanne says; “I don’t remember getting much homework other than the odd project, some creative writing and a little bit of maths. Afternoons after school were usually spent playing outdoors, swimming and riding our bikes until we were called in for dinner. I participated in Little Athletics but there was no pressure to excel in it. Maybe it’s just that the times have changed and so we are responding to childhood differently. Kylie says; “with families generally having fewer children, parents have the resources to put the one or two children they have into a variety of activities as well as monitor their lives more closely. In times when people had 4+ children, this may not have been as possible.” She goes on to say that; “the nature of family life has changed dramatically particularly with the need for two parents to work. In a sprawling city like Sydney, the commute takes from family life also. Parents are time and energy poor. The attraction of structured activities, run and resourced by other people is very tempting.” Gauri also says; “I don’t blame parents; it’s just they are transit parents who have been brought up the simple and traditional way and now work in the globalized world bringing up global children. The new transit parents are just following what they’ve learnt reading books, Googling or being suggested from a mum’s WhatsApp group.”
But I’m curious, if we were raised in a world of fresh air and family time, why are we seemingly letting go of these values and replacing them with language schools, private tuition and concert eisteddfods? Maybe we just want our kids to have it all, believing that success and status is the right of everyone. I guess you either have to opt in or opt out. With increased homework and so many other outside interests to pick up, either you brace yourself for the extra running around, striving for the number one spot, or you relax a little and allow kids to find their own way. I remember when I read the book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother some years ago and followed the recounts of music lessons, weekends interstate to attend classes with an esteemed teacher or participate in competitions, I was thoroughly exhausted. As the story goes, in the end despite both of her daughters being taken on the same journey of musical accomplishment, the younger one chose a different path. Music simply wasn’t her great passion and despite the forced success driven by her mother, both her childhood and relationship were sacrificed. Ultimately, she would find her own way. I’m a big believer in that.
This is the world we live in, a world that will one day be created by the little beings we are nurturing today. It is competitive and fierce, fluid and changeable and somehow these kids will have to find their own way, just as we did. In some ways, I guess the path we are asking them to walk along has been put before them for a reason. When they walk on it alone, capable and resourceful, loved and prepared, we will know why and hopefully look back on their childhoods as the perfect grounding for their life to come. Let’s just not forget as we know now, that the innocent and loveliness of childhood passes all too quickly.