Three years ago, Neeti received a Facebook message from one of her distant friends. This friend had a 45 day-old baby and wanted to know, aware that Neeti had married an educator, if I could give her tips on raising a gifted and talented child. Neeti posed the question to me, sharing her friend’s message. I was irritated and a bit angry at the request. I told Neeti not to respond to the message. The question, unfortunately, is not an atypical one. Big companies, even industries, have been created or transformed to guarantee your child a competitive advantage over their peers. Kumon, Sylvan, educational software and toys by LeapFrog are just a handful of examples today that, frankly, prey on a parent’s fear for their child’s future. In big cities, even in Atlanta now, there are long waitlists at many of the city’s preschools. Families, including those who have yet to give birth, sign up with educational consultants who charge hundreds of dollars an hour to select the “best” preschool for their infant or toddler. Just like the application and acceptance rates at top colleges continue their perverse inverse relationship, preschools in New York City, for instance, have a waitlist spanning many years. The not-so-funny joke among many families is that a couple should send in their unborn child’s name as soon as they are engaged! The logic here suggests that parents put their child’s future at risk, not to mention it’s irresponsible parenting, if the parents don’t invest time and money in math lessons, music and gymnastics, some type of sport or athletic activity, and other extra-curriculars on a daily basis. Many children are severely over-scheduled from the time they wake up all the way to their bedtime. Instead of making choices for themselves, adults at home and at school are constantly making decisions for children, depriving them of key skills that build a creative mindset, self-reliance and resilience.
At a national conference around the same time, a well-known psychiatrist gave the strongest indictment of this mad race to some unknown destination that guarantees (not really) every child admission into the best preschool followed by an Ivy League prep school education, choice between Harvard and Stanford, a six-figure starting salary (not including bonuses, obviously) with McKinsey or Goldman Sachs upon graduation (or an athletic scholarship in college followed by the NFL or NBA draft). She shared with the educators in the room that her office, and her peers,’ sees a spike in referrals every fall. Freshmen, barely 18 or 19 years old, come to college excited by the freedom they have dreamed of, wide chunks of open time during the day and no curfews at home. There are no adults around anymore to make choices or decisions for them. Instead, these teenagers must rely on themselves and find, many for the first time, they are un- or ill-equipped for responsibility. The mistakes are costlier now and the support system not as robust. A mental or emotional breakdown ensues and lands the freshman in the psychiatrist’s or counseling office.
We are living in precarious times that rob our children of their childhood. Rather than free play and opportunities to deal with boredom on their own, parents fill those times with tutoring, coaching and lessons. Instead of stillness and silence in our lives, we have learned to shun those moments. Rather than connection and creativity, we are surrounded by disengaged souls bingeing on every possible activity or medium around us. There’s a lot to keep us interested but it hasn’t made us more interesting. We’d rather watch others play on TV or in stadiums but we ourselves have forgotten to play. As our children’s right to be children has come under assault, grown-ups in little bodies and children in big bodies have taken over our culture.
Neeti did respond to her friend’s message. I told her to say: Read to your child, as often as you can. Start early. It will build your connection with each other and the language – the richness of the words and the pictures – will impact his brain development. Stories, the foundation of what and how we have learned to be human, will foster his creativity, connection with others, and build resilience. I don’t know if this will help him get into your neighborhood magnet school, but I know it will make him an interesting person.