Family Happiness and the Overbooked Child
By ALINA TUGEND
I LIVE in an area where most parents would rather cut back on indulgences for themselves than stop paying for their children’s activities.
Music lessons, gymnastics, horseback riding, tutoring, summer-long residential camps, sports teams — the list goes on and on. Often, so do the costs.
And even if the money is not there, some parents find a way. I know people who have borrowed from family, used home equity accounts and run up their credit cards to pay for all the stuff they believe their children just cannot miss.
“The experiences we thought kids had to have before high school has moved down to junior high and now elementary,” said William Doherty, a professor of family studies and director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota. “Soon, we’ll be talking about leadership opportunities for toddlers.”
To come clean, my children through the years have taken ice skating, tennis, violin and yes, even tae kwon do (of which the only residue now seems to be lots of colored belts around the house). Some lessons lasted a few months, some for years.
And what is wrong with that? Maybe we know that some parents go overboard on extracurricular activities, but aren’t these important for their children’s future success?
Somehow, not offering our children every possible opportunity “feels like bad parenting,” said Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Blessing of a B Minus,” (Scribner, 2010).
But in an effort to give their children everything, some parents end up not just depleting financial resources, but also their own emotional energy.
“A lot of parents are exhausted by their own overparenting,” said Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University. “They make so many sacrifices and are so stressed out by driving around so much that they explode at kids for changing the radio station.”
But isn’t it worth it for the ultimate good of our children? Not necessarily. Some of the most interesting insights into this question come not from psychologists, but economists.
“It’s easy to take a look at the more successful kids and assume that all the activities are why they are more successful,” Professor Caplan said. But research doesn’t bear that out.
On a recent National Public Radio program, Steven D. Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, said he and another economist could find no evidence that that sort of parental choices could be correlated at all with academic success.
“And my guess is,” he went on, “that when it comes to the happiness of kids, that kind of cramming has got to be negatively correlated. Being rushed from one event to the other is just not the way most kids want to live their lives, at least not my kid.” Professor Levitt was also co-author of the New York Times blog Freakonomics.
All right, the economists are largely talking about academic success. But I would wager that most parents believe these experiences are not just for good grades, or are the key to the right college, but are also for the opportunities they give children.
Most parents know that an infinitesimal number of children will go on to be world class in any field. But maybe those pricey golf lessons will earn your son a place on the high school team. Or the acting classes will propel your daughter into the lead in the school play.
And what parent doesn’t dream that piano lessons will instill a lifelong love of playing, even if it is only in the living room?
The trouble is, many of us have bought into the idea that every child has a “hidden talent,” Professor Doherty said, and that we are failing our children if we don’t do everything possible to bring it to light.
There are certainly good reasons to offer our children some of these experiences, but there are more negative ones as well, if we rely on them to make us feel like good parents, or if we think that arming them with a myriad of skills can guarantee their later success in life.
The desire to offer every conceivable opportunity is a “displaced fear about the collapse of the future,” Dr. Mogel said.
The reality is that failing to give your child ballet lessons at age 6 probably has not deprived her of a career as a prima ballerina.
And even if a child is passionate about something, that doesn’t mean you have to go all out, “if it’s to the detriment of the parent’s sanity or a connected family life,” Professor Doherty said.
Or to one’s finances.
“Parents can say no to material things, but it’s very hard to do that for what we call opportunities,” said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, director of the John Templeton Center for Thrift and Generosity at the nonprofit Institute for American Values. “Enrichment seems sacred and inviolable, and mentally we put those ideas in a different part of the head.
“Kids have to understand there are limits to what a parent can do for them, but it’s very, very difficult to say, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t afford it,’ ” she added.
My friend Rachel decided to stop private music lessons for her son and daughter after about two years.
“At first I felt like I was cheating them,” she said. “I felt very strongly that music was a part of their education and it wasn’t offered deeply enough at school.”
But the price tag — around $1,000 a semester for each — was becoming too much of a burden. And her children were fine with it; they are continuing to play their instruments in school.
“I gave them the opportunity to get the music bug and they didn’t,” Rachel said. “I have to have the confidence that it’s the right thing to do. And I’m almost glad we have to make these decisions based on finances. Otherwise, if you can give your kids everything, they’re left swimming in a pool of activities without necessarily any effort or desire for them.”
That does not mean that some stimulating activities outside school are not important, but equally critical is a warm and well-connected family life, Professor Doherty said.
“Sometimes for the sake of child and family balance, you have to say no to intensive activity,” he said. That can mean that if your child likes soccer, she can play on the recreational soccer team but not on the more time-consuming travel team, he added.
And we have to move away from the idea that if we do not start children early, they will not reach their full potential. After all, we know the human brain doesn’t fully mature until around 25, Professor Doherty said.
So why the rush? In some cases, it’s hard for children to join sports teams at 12 if every other child has been playing since, say, age 5. But many of us will pick up skills and, yes, even passions, well into our adult years that never manifested themselves when we were younger.
The 24-year-old daughter of Dr. Mogel, the psychologist, is now a competitive roller derby skater and taking graduate studies in industrial labor relations.
“If you had said she’d be involved in either of those things when she was younger, I would never have believed it,” Dr. Mogel said. “We have this idea that we have to capture passion because it’s so fleeting.” But it’s not.
And if we do not cut back on all the intensive activity, we all may find ourselves seeking costly expertise in another area — the therapist’s office.