On their first day of high school, my son and his classmates heard a lot about the need to plan for college majors and careers. Yet when the time came to find classrooms and meet teachers, parents were there to accompany them.

This is the paradoxical soup in which young people now swim: pressure-cooked by high expectations for academic and athletic success, and simultaneously coddled by adults seeking to shelter them from life’s inevitable bruises.

Parents are doing far more for their children than any previous generation. When asked what chores they do, a local class of eighth graders was stumped – a number of students unsure what the word meant. Parents not only maintain the household and chauffeur 24/7; some complete their kids’ homework assignments and write their college essays.

“Today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence and academic potential of an entire generation,” writes teacher Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure” (published in August) and a writer for the New York Times and The Atlantic. “We teach our kids that they only need to worry about themselves, and risk pushing them over the line between ineffectual and incompetent right into lazy and narcissistic.”

Yet young people are simultaneously caught in an “achievement arms race,” former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims observes in “How to Raise an Adult” (also released this summer). Schools pile on homework and sports demands, while parents add relentless “enrichment” opportunities and monitor their children’s progress to the point of surveillance, aided by devices like online grade portals.

Undertaken with the best of intentions, these “frantic efforts to give our kids ‘an edge’ are harming rather than helping them,” notes clinical psychologist Madeline Levine, author of “Teach Your Children Well” and “The Price of Privilege.” “For many children in this culture, parents’ demands for achievement have all but crowded out kids’ internal push toward autonomy.”


Young people caught in this double-bind succumb to depression, self-mutilation and substance abuse (taking stimulants to cope with overwhelming demands or self-medicating to relieve their anxiety). In her clinical practice, Levine has witnessed an alarming number of teen patients who are high-achieving by external measures but empty and despairing.

Athletics, once a venue for burning off stress, is now another source of it. By the age of 8, many children have multiple team practices each week and long drives to away games. By adolescence, they’re expected to train like Olympic competitors. Our high school’s activity handbook offers this caution to the naive student who might have considered giving mountain biking a try: “New participants are always welcome, but they must be able to ride for 2½ hours a day.”

Cramming intense training schedules atop heavy homework loads leaves many students chronically overtired. Research confirms that adolescents need eight to 10 hours of sleep a night yet are averaging only six to seven. Closing out their second week of high school, some of my son’s classmates clambered aboard a bus Friday afternoon for a six-hour round-trip drive to an away game – not returning home until after 1 a.m.

The combination of excessive sports, sleep deprivation and academic stress represents, in Levine’s words, “a culturally normalized form of child abuse.” Early athletic specialization and overtraining can lead to “serious overuse injuries,” an American Academy of Pediatrics study found, among young athletes who spend more than twice as much time in organized sports as in free play. It also disrupts family time, and deprives students of the chance to sample new activities.

Childhood was once a time for liberating exploration – meandering outdoors, tinkering with tools, and noodling on guitars. Free time outdoors gave many of us a sense of belonging to a bigger-than-human world, helping us see the value in what each species brings to the larger whole. A strong grounding in place can cultivate an ethic of caring and strong roots. “In the long sticky hours of boredom, in the lonely, unsupervised, unstructured time, something blooms,” essayist Katie Roiphe writes. “It was in those margins that we became ourselves.”

Without that critical downtime, young people can fail to form a strong core. Stanford researchers Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles document the many ways in which students are, as the title of the trio’s new book suggests, “Overloaded and Underprepared:” “Our largely singular focus on academic achievement has resulted in a lack of attention to other components of a successful life – the ability to be independent, adaptable, ethical, and engaged critical thinkers.”


They suggest many ways that schools could promote these enduring life skills and minimize the academic arms race: instituting measures that reduce student stress and exhaustion (such as later school start times for teenagers and eliminating homework over vacations); and ones that foster more substantive learning (such as standards-based grading, experiential education and block schedules).

Institutions move slowly, but parents can begin by backing off and letting children explore and find their own strengths, many of which will lie far outside the dominant testing subjects and the sport du jour. To become capable and resilient, children need to experiment, encounter problems and learn to persist. “We have taught our kids to fear failure,” Lahey writes, “and in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success.”

While simultaneously giving children more freedom from academic pressure, parents need to encourage greater personal responsibility and autonomy – resolving, in Madeline Levine’s words, “not to do what your child can do for himself – or what he can almost do for himself.”

Transforming the culture of overparenting may depend, in part, on acknowledging one of its key drivers. It’s “a legitimate fear-response,” Jennifer Senior writes in “All Joy and No Fun,” “a reasonable and deeply internalized reaction to a shrinking economic pie.” With college costs rising to unprecedented levels, and housing and health care costs squeezing the dwindling middle class, parents are understandably anxious about the work prospects that await their grown children.

Facing that fear head on – as parents and educators – may help us recognize that there are constructive, collective responses we can take that will serve our children far better than pressure-cooking and coddling.

Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices.

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