This was a speech I gave at Toastmasters, the shortened version of a keynote address.
THE HURRIED CHILD by Jodie Randisi
The French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau wrote, “Childhood has its own way of seeing, thinking, and feeling, and nothing is more foolish than to try to substitute ours for theirs.”
The pressure on today’s children to grow up fast begins in early childhood, starting with their clothing. We dress our children in miniature adult costumes starting with Little League uniforms and then onto designer labels. Then we expose children to gratuitous sex and violence, and we expect them to cope with an increasing bewildering social environment – divorce, single parenthood, sexual preferences, etc.
The result is a hurried child. I know all of us can instantly recognize a spoil child, but can we identify a hurried child, which some might call a soiled child?
In the 40’s and 50’s, many parents were afraid of repressing their children and making them neurotic through too much discipline. As a result, children were free to indulge in their most primitive impulses and became “spoiled.” Unlike spoiled children who remain children too long, hurried children grow up too fast, pushed in their early years toward many types of achievement and exposed to experiences that tax their adaptive capacity.
Clinicians have to deal with hurried children in that many of them experience school failure, abuse drugs and alcohol, and commit suicide. They have chronic psychosomatic complaints such as headaches and stomachaches and depression, which are the symptoms recognized as stress related in adults. I find this alarming.
Children pushed to grow up fast suddenly find that many adults activities – which they assumed would be their privilege – such as smoking, drinking, driving and so on, are denied them until they reach a certain age. They feel betrayed by a society that tells them to grow up fast but also to remain a child. Growing up emotionally is complicated and difficult under any circumstance but may be especially so when children’s behavior and appearance speak “adult” while their feelings cry out “child.”
Adults tend to assume that children are much more like us in their thoughts than they are in their feelings. But in fact, just the reverse is true: CHILDREN ARE MOST LIKE US IN THEIR FEELINGS AND LEAST LIKE US IN THEIR THOUGHTS.
A working mother, for example, offers her child a rational explanation, “I have to work so we can eat, buy clothes and pay the electric bill.” Instead, she might say, “I’m really going to miss you today and wish you could be with me.” By responding to the child’s feelings, she lessens some of the stress of hurrying.
As a clinician who works with hurried children and their parents, I recommend working parents enjoy the time they spend with their children. I tell them don’t spoil it for them by worrying about the time you were not around or about the times you will be separated in the future. Children live in the present, and they know when we are with them physically but not mentally. By worrying about the past and future, we lose the present and our children don’t have us, even when we are around.
Here’s another important recommendation. USE PLAY AS THE ANTIDOTE to hurrying, and if you need a simple checklist, there is book called 201 Things to Do When Children Say I’M BORED! The Checklist and Journal for Busy Families. It was designed to be a simple reminder for adults who have good intentions but don’t have enough good ideas of what to do when it comes time to SPEND time with children.
Unfortunately, play has been transformed into work in our hurried society. What was once recreational – sports, summer camps, musical training – is now professionalized and competitive. Although there are still many camps that offer swimming, sailing, horseback riding, archery and campfires for fun, there are many more camps that offer specialized training in foreign languages, tennis, basketball, dance and computers, lacrosse, gymnastics, etc. Time at these camps is not to be frittered away by engaging in activities created merely for fun. These camps are all about perfecting skills and abilities.
The best evidence of the hurried child is the lack of opportunities for genuine unstructured play – the kind where children use their imaginations, make and break rules, and socialize with each other. In the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week, and eight of those lost hours were once spent in unstructured play and outdoor pastimes. And we’ll talk technology in a minute, but first let’s look at how the way we view play has changed over the years.
Philosopher Herbert Spencer regarded play as the means of reducing surplus energy – energy that is burned up in play that has no productive purpose. Biologist Karl Groos argued that pay was preparation for life. He observed young animals at play – a kitten stalks a ball of yarn like a tiger will eventually stalk its prey. Likewise, children play house in preparation for assuming adult roles later in life.
Finally, Italian educator Maria Montessori developed a simple formula that has since become a widely accepted cliche: Play is the child’s work. Sadly, there are far too many adults who feel that each spur-of-the-moment interest of a child is an opportunity for a lesson. Hurried children work more than they play, and perhaps this is the reason they are so stressed.
Now let’s talk about digital children. Harvard author and professor Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone explains fifty years of growing isolation as the product of mass penetration of TV sets into households followed by new technologies. We’ve become an age-segregated society wherein kids are with other kids in some kind of organized activity or they’re by themselves preoccupied with cell phones and their computers. Often parents don’t know who their kids are talking to or what they’re talking about. Grandparents are rarely in the picture. Older people live in retirement communities apart from families, which is why families don’t share moments let alone make memories with young people. When children have immediate access to friends through instant messaging and all day Facebook sessions, it no wonder the divide between children and their parents gets uncomfortably wider.
For all these reasons and more, it important parents reach out and connect with their children. Children very much want and need the love, support and guidance of their parents. Even hurried children and digital adolescents need to be hugged. May I encourage all of us to value childhood with its own special joys, sorrows, worries and rewards.
Valuing childhood doesn’t mean seeing it as a happy innocent period but rather as an important period of life to which children are entitled. I say we respect and celebrate childhood as much as we possible can.