Children are now the target of more adult anxiety than ever before. Author Carl Honor asks: How do we rescue childhood from hyper-parenting?

Micro-managed and bubble-wrapped children

“Adults have hijacked childhood in a way we haven’t seen before in history,” says author Carl Honoré.

It’s happening all over the world: in middle class families in particular, parents are obsessed with micro-managing their children’s lives. While it’s natural to want the best for children, this instinct has been warped and distorted, argues Honoré in his book Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.

“Now, everything is supervised, scheduled, controlled, and there’s this strange unwillingness to let go or to be uncertain of about anything.  I think parents particularly want a single recipe for raising an alpha child, and there’s a lot of pressure,” he says.

“We’re so marinated in the culture of professionalizing everything doing everything as perfectly as possible that that ethos has affected our approach to raising children, too.”

Children are micromanaged and bubble-wrapped to the extent that they haven’t had a taste for how to handle risk. There are different names for hyper-parenting in different countries:

  • “Helicopter parents” hover over their children in North America.
  • “Curling parents” sweep the ice in front of their child in Scandanavian countries.
  • “Education mothers” guide their child through the school system in Japan.

There’s a cumulative effect of hyper-parenting.  It’s seen in competitive youth sports leagues and advertisements that hold a tremendous power over children. It’s also evident in school systems which focus on bench-marking. “Governments have changed school systems, and turned them into assembly lines where everybody’s being tested half-to-death,” says Honoré.

The age of the trophy child

Today, some families are so heavily focused on the children that they become the parent’s project.  Parents document each milestone or moment with various digital and video cameras posting their results immediately on social networking sites like Facebook.

“Childhood is too precious to be left to children and children are too precious to be left alone,” says Honoré.

Parents keep their kids in busy schedules dashing from activity to activity: piano, baseball, language lessons, basketball, soccer, tennis, swimming and karate. There are even academic programs developed to give children an advantage. In Shanghai, China, there’s an “early MBA” program for kids barely out of diapers. Families revolve around children and their schedules and even arrange holidays and weekends to please them.

“Even when we poke fun at overzealous parenting – the mother who corrects all the spelling in her daughter’s homework, the father who berates the soccer coach for not playing his son more – part of us wonders, What if they’re right? What if I’m letting my children down by not parenting harder?” asks Honoré. “Racked by guilt and terrified of doing the wrong thing, we end up copying the alpha parent in the playground.”

Why is this happening?

Enrolling kids in extracurricular activities and academic tutoring has become a barometer of parental performances, but today more children are more tightly scheduled than ever before. Here are some reasons why kids are over-programmed:

  • Dual income household. There’s more money available for extra activities.
  • Longer working hours. Parents are outsourcing extracurricular activities which are fun and handy childcare options.
  • Having children older means people come to parenting after many years in the workplace, and bring the office ethos with them into the home.  Some parents now bring in the experts, spend heavily, and put in long hours.  We professionalize parenting.
  • Cultural momentum. It’s just what you do.
  • Parents just don’t know how to play with their kids.
  • Perceived safety. A coach or instructor ensures your child is safe.
  • A busy alpha child is seen as a success and can compete in the competitive global economy.
  • The rise of the working mother. As women entered the workplace and the extended family dissolved, someone else had to pick up the slack on the child care front.
  • Smaller families mean more time to invest in each child.
  • Organized activities are also a good way to meet other parents.
  • Kids also want to be super busy.

What is the effect on our kids?

Honoré argues that the urge to upgrade our children has taken on a Frankenstein edge. “The tragedy is that all this micromanaging, all this pampering, hot-housing and medicating is failing to produce a new race of alpha children.”

  • Pupils cannot concentrate in school.
  • New recruits are less flexible, less able to work in teams, less hungry to learn in the workforce.
  • Students cannot handle themselves in the workforce.

In terms of children’s health, there are problems as well:

  • Cases of overweight children, heart disease, type 2 diabetes are on the rise.
  • Athletic kids are training too much ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears once found in college and professional athletes are now seen in 9 and 10 year olds.
  • Depression, self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety are more prevalent, leading to prescribing more drugs to treat the mental health issues.

Make childhood more about children

It’s the small details that make childhood interesting, and today children end up missing out on the things that give texture and meaning to human life.

Children learn very early, says Honoré. “What matters most is not finding your own way but putting the right trophy on the mantelpiece, ticking the box instead of thinking outside it. As a result, modern childhood seems strangely bland, packed with action, achievement and consumption, yet somehow empty and ersatz. The freedom to be oneself is missing – and kids know it.”

Parents should reconsider what it means to be a kid in the 21st century, and tame the anxiety surrounding children. Adults should back off and allow children to be themselves, says Honoré.

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