That was my friend's description of one of his students when he was teaching in Asia while I was teaching in a small island country in Micronesia. On a visit to Micronesia on their vacation, he and his two other friends and I traded stories about our first year teaching overseas, mostly the ways we'd blindly navigated our first teaching experience with little or no experience in an entirely new culture.
The school where my friends taught was an English school that existed apart from the regular school day, one where students' parents specially enrolled them. One of the most significant challenges of teaching at this school, my friends explained, was exhausted, overstrained students as a result of their parents enrolling them in activities that began after the regular school day ended and continued until nine or ten o'clock at night.
When I think of hyper-parenting, I picture that kid finished with the regular school day but with a significant part of the day still remaining— tearing into the English class in which his parents enrolled him as an extracurricular activity to master another language as a seven or eight-year-old, visibly sweating through his karate uniform, awkwardly looking for a place to set his trumpet in his English class. Of course the intentions of overzealous parents are noble.
Trying to pair children with their gifts and talents is often a game of trial and error. Matching the coordinates of talent, passion, and accessibility with the right sport, instrument, or type of dance, for example, is easier when there are as many options as possible, right? And many parents begin to expose children to these activities before they know whether they actually will excel at or enjoy them, so that, if they excel to the level of prodigy, no time will be wasted.
Tiger Woods picked up a golf club by the age of two, of course; Picasso was drawing and painting by age seven; and most Olympic gymnasts are training in elite programs before middle school.
However, pushing kids into activities too hard or too early can most certainly backfi re. “I was done with the violin!” says Erin Patrick McGregor from Fort Wayne, IN. “I had wanted to quit for years! My mom finally let me in 8th grade. Once she backed off , I actually wanted to do it.” McGregor then went on to excel at violin and teach it privately for years. Of course, the path for extracurricular activities for some kids is guided completely by the parents need to fulfill an abandoned or unfulfilled dream of their own or to satisfy their own desires for their kids, which most oft en doesn't produce the desired results.
“My dad was obsessed with me learning to play the piano. He always wanted to have a child [who] played the piano,” said Caroline Zuschek from Richmond, VA. “I liked it at first...but when I was about eight, my teacher told me she could tell I never practiced (I didn't) and 'let me go.' My next teacher was of the Suzuki method, and she used a metronome, and it was in this tiny, hot room, and she yelled when I missed notes. I was so miserable...I think my sister had this same experience with soccer. She was the only person I ever knew to score twice for the other team. But my dad was her coach, and he loved coaching.”
A 2003 article in Psychology Today entitled, “Are We Pushing Our Kids Too Hard?” by David Elkins, asserts that “Millions of children across America feel overwhelmed and pressured.” These may seem like abstract assertions, but excessive expectations can actually take a physical toll on kids. Elkins reveals the effects of overscheduling on one child named Kevin, “His mother told me that, in addition to school, he was involved in three team sports, church activities, scouts, and had piano lessons twice a week. 'No matter what it takes, he's going to have a good childhood,' [his mother said]. But Kevin wasn't having a good childhood. He was overscheduled and on the brink of clinical depression.” Elkins emphasizes that children need “nothing time” to explore on their own, be creative, and develop self-awareness. “Unstructured play allows children to pursue their interests, express their personalities and learn how to structure their time,” cites Elkins. “Play is the natural mode of learning for young children, but when their lives are dominated by adultorganized activites, there may be little time left to just be kids.”
While “nothing time” may seem unproductive, it may be the most useful learning and exploring time for children. Children also need to build family relationships free of extracurricular activities and running from one practice to the next. If your child begins to dislike an activity or if they seem overwhelmed, replace scheduled activities with family time to reorient him or her. If the child returns to the activity, then your inclinations to direct them in that path will be affirmed. If they don't, simply enjoy the “nothing time” with them. Once they leave the nest, their scheduled lives apart from you will leave few precious, unhampered moments to give.
ANGIE MAZAKIS has been featured in numerous publications and recently received a 2010 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and second prize in the 2011 New Ohio Review Poetry Contest. She has an MA in English from Ohio University.