By Pam Kenney
“Please be proud of me even if I don’t get all the answers right…”
The publication in 1981 of David Elkind’s The Hurried Child focused national attention on a growing trend by educators and parents to push our children to grow up too soon. Schools taught kids to read, write, and add at earlier ages than ever before; parents prodded them to excel. The hours after school, on weekends, and even during summer breaks were filled by music lessons, sports practices, academic enrichment classes, and specialty camps. Elkind worried that our increasing tendency to push children to achieve success early would have a disastrous effect unless we changed our collective expectation.
Almost 30 years later we not only haven’t mitigated the pressure we place on our children, we are hurrying them more than ever. When I was an elementary school principal, I worked with children who were under so much stress from unrealistic parental expectations that their fingernails were bitten to the quick, they lied to their parents about assigned homework, they cried in school when they couldn’t grasp a new concept immediately, and they hid or threw away papers with even average grades on them long before they could reach a parent’s hand. Every teacher recognizes the panicked look on a child’s face when she realizes she didn’t do well on a test. “Mom’s/Dad’s going to kill me!” is a too common refrain.
Something’s got to give because:
-Although the overall suicide rate decreased slightly from the early 1990s through the early 2000s, the rate of teen suicide increased 6%. For children 10-14, the suicide rate increase during the same period was 100%. According to the CDC, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for young people from 10 to 14.
-Child psychologists report a staggering number of youngsters with chronic stress-related headaches, stomachaches, phobias, and free-floating anxiety.
-Girls as young as seven or eight are dieting to achieve an impossible standard of thinness.
-Serious sports-related injuries have increased several-hundred fold for elementary age children.
Experts offer a variety of suggestions for parents to begin to come to grips with the hurried-child syndrome. I’m certainly no expert, but my plea today is for parents to relax the expectations they have for their children. School is a place to learn, and learning is a process. No child understands everything the first time, and some children need weeks of patient instruction before they can grasp a concept. For some children, learning to read is a slow, painstaking process, but eventually they will read. Learning math facts is torture for other kids, but they’ll remember them at some point.
Please try hard to emphasize the positive when talking to your child about grades. If a mark is lower than you had hoped, find out what the trouble is. Look for progress during a school year and help her set realistic goals for improvement. Expecting your child to make straight A’s is almost always unrealistic and unreasonable. Above all, please don’t yell, spank, or restrict privileges when your son or daughter brings home a grade lower than an A or B. A raised voice and punishment not only don’t motivate your child to work to improve his grades, they dangerously undermine his self-confidence and sap his incentive to learn.
Children want desperately to please their parents, and they should be doing just that. They work hard and try their best day after day in school. I firmly believe that our children are gifts to us. As parents, one of our gifts to them must be to expect a lot less perfection, to remind ourselves every day that they are works in progress, and to let them know by word and deed that they are loved.