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Kids being rushed past childhood.

>Ready, Set, Relax! is one town’s effort to stop hyper-parenting, in this exclusive excerpt.

Apr 05, 2008 04:30 AM
Carl Honoré

Ridgewood is the sort of place that comes to mind when people talk about the American dream. Nestled in the woodlands of northern New Jersey, this quiet, verdant town of 25,000 souls breathes affluence and well-being. The locals work hard at high-powered jobs in Manhattan, but they enjoy the fruits of their labour. Large, handsome houses sit on spacious lots dotted with swing sets and trampolines. Luxury sedans and shiny SUVs glide along wide streets lined with oak, dogwood and maple trees.

Move in a little closer, though, and this happy portrait starts to fray round the edges. At the school gates, around the tables in the local diner, and in the supermarket parking lot, you hear the people of Ridgewood voicing the same complaint: we may live inside a 21st-century Garden of Eden, but we are too damn busy to enjoy it.

Many families here are scheduled up to the eyeballs. Caught between work and home, parents struggle to find time for friends, romance, or even a decent night’s sleep. Their children are in the same boat, filling the hours not already occupied by school work with organized extracurricular activities. Some 10-year-olds in Ridgewood are so busy they carry Palm Pilots to keep track of their appointments. Eating dinner or doing homework in the car while travelling to swimming or the riding club is common here. One local mother emails an updated family schedule to her husband and two sons every evening. Another keeps her timetable pinned to the front door and the underside of the sun visor in her people carrier. With so many schedules to mesh, with so much going on, even getting toddlers together for a playdate can be a logistical nightmare. One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons was penned with places like Ridgewood in mind. It depicts two little girls waiting for the school bus, each holding a personal planner. One tells the other, “Okay, I’ll move ballet back an hour, reschedule gymnastics, and cancel piano. … You shift your violin lessons to Thursday and skip soccer practice. … That gives us from 3:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. on Wednesday the 16th to play.”

Unlike other towns, though, Ridgewood has taken a stand against overstuffed schedules. What started with a few moms grumbling over coffee at the kitchen table has blossomed into a mini-movement. In 2002, Ridgewood pioneered an annual event called Ready, Set, Relax! The idea is that one day a year this alpha town takes a breather: teachers assign no homework, extracurricular activities are cancelled, and parents make a point of coming home early from the office. The aim is to cast off the tyranny of the timetable, to let children rest, play, or just daydream, and to give families time together that is not built around driving to the next volleyball practice or band rehearsal.

Hundreds of households put down their planners to take part in Ready, Set, Relax! and the event has inspired towns across North America, not all of them as well-heeled as Ridgewood, to follow suit. To help out frazzled families, the school board in Sidney, N.Y., a blue-collar hamlet 210 kilometres northwest of here, no longer schedules any extracurricular activities or meetings after 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. In 2007, Amos, a small forest and mining town in northwestern Quebec, held its first activity-free day based on the Ridgewood model. Marcia Marra, a mother of three who helped set up Ready, Set, Relax! in tandem with a local mental health agency, hopes the tide is turning. “People are starting to see that when their lives and their children’s lives are scheduled to the hilt, everyone suffers,” she says. “Structured activities can be great for kids, but things are just out of control now.”

This is not a new panic. Warnings about children being overscheduled, racing from one enriching activity to the next, first surfaced in the early 20th century. Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a popular novelist-cum-parenting guru, warned in 1914 that American parents were stripping childhood of its “blessed spontaneity” by placing “a constricting pressure upon the children to use even the chinks and fragments of their time to acquire accomplishments which seem to us profitable.” In 1931, Ruth Frankel, a pioneering cancer specialist in Canada, described how “the modern child, with his days set into a patterned program, goes docilely from one prescribed class to another, takes up art and music and French and dancing … until there is hardly a minute left.” Her fear was that overscheduled children would grow so jaded that they would turn “desperately to the corner movie in an effort to escape ennui.”

That same worry has reached fever pitch over the last generation. Books with titles like The Hurried Child and The Overscheduled Child have carved out shelf space in the library of modern parenting. Even the kids’ section has tackled the topic. In The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Pressure, the famous ursine family goes into stress meltdown because Sister and Brother Bear are enrolled in too many after-school activities.

Why are so many children so busy today? One reason is the rise of the working mother. When moms stayed home, it was easier just to let the kids play around the house. But as women entered the workplace and the extended family dissolved, someone else had to pick up the slack on the child-care front. Extracurricular activities fit the bill perfectly, promising not only supervision but also enrichment. Yet putting children on a tight schedule is not always a response to the child-care gap. Many stay-at-home moms also sign their children up for endless activities. Part of this is self-defence: when every other kid in the neighbourhood is booked solid, who is going to indulge in free play with your unscheduled child? In our atomized, bowling-alone society, organized activities are also a good way – sometimes the only way – to meet other parents. Nor does it help that many extracurricular activities are designed like a slippery slope: you sign up your 4-year-old daughter for a weekly dance lesson, and then, before you know it, she has a class every other night and is travelling across the country to compete. Rather than rock the boat, though, we persuade ourselves that lots of scheduled activities are just what children need and want, even when they tell us otherwise. The other day I watched a mother drag her 3-year-old daughter from a nursery school near our house. The child was weeping. “I don’t want to go to ballet,” she howled. “I want to go home and play.”

No one is saying that extracurricular activities are bad. On the contrary, they are an integral part of a rich and happy childhood. Many kids, particularly in lower-income families, would actually benefit from more structured activities. Plenty of children, especially teenagers, thrive on a busy schedule. But just as other trappings of modern childhood, from homework to technology, are subject to the law of diminishing returns, there is a danger of overscheduling the young. When it comes to extracurricular activities, many children are getting too much of a good thing.

Wayne Yankus, a pediatrician in Ridgewood since the early 1980s, reckons that 65 per cent of his patients are now victims of overscheduling. He says the symptoms include headaches, sleep disorders, gastric problems caused by stress or by eating too late at night, and fatigue. “Fifteen years ago it was unusual to see a tired 10-year-old,” says Yankus. “Now it’s common.” Recently he hired a therapist to spend one day a week in his office to talk to families about the need to prune their planners.

The extracurricular merry-go-round can also ensnare the family in a vicious cycle. Parents resent children for taking up so much time and costing so much money – Britons spend £12 billion a year on their children’s hobbies, half of which are abandoned within five weeks – while children resent their parents’ resentment. Activities overload also squeezes out time for the unscheduled, simple stuff that brings families together – relaxed conversation, cuddling, shared meals or just hanging out together in companionable silence. Yankus sees this disconnect in many Ridgewood households. “When the snow comes and the activities get cancelled, everyone is horrified because they’re suddenly stuck at home and have to deal with each other,” he says. “They don’t know how to get along without a schedule.”

Ridgewood does not shut down completely on Ready, Set, Relax! day. Some residents regard the event as silly or patronizing. Sporting matches arranged with neighbouring districts are not cancelled, and the homework ban is not always as strictly enforced as it could be, especially in high school. Yet the town does feel different on the big day. With fewer soccer moms running red lights, the traffic is less frantic. People are more likely to stop and chat than exchange a brief nod before pointing to their watch and rushing off to the next appointment. To many families, Ready, Set, Relax! has been an epiphany. More than a third of those who took part in 2006 trimmed their schedules afterward. Consider the Givens. The three children used to be enrolled in so many after-school activities that there was barely time to eat, sleep or talk. Even though she felt overwhelmed and often found herself jogging round the supermarket to save a few seconds, Jenny, the mother, somehow felt that it was her duty to keep the family maxed out on extracurricular pursuits. “Every activity that comes up you want your kids to try, and you fear that you are failing them if they are not busy every second,” she says. “You want the best for them, but always at the back of your mind, even if you don’t admit it, you have the fantasy that they might turn out to be brilliant at something, that by signing them up for an activity you might uncover some latent genius.”

In the Given household, that translated into an eye-watering barrage of art classes, Spanish lessons, soccer, lacrosse, softball, volleyball, basketball, baseball, tennis, scouts and book club. Every weekend, the parents would split up to ferry the children to their various activities. At home, time and tempers were short. Ready, Set, Relax! came as a wake-up call. On the first night, the Givens made Mexican food and chocolate chip cookies together. Then they got down Cadoo, a board game that had been sitting unopened on the shelf since Christmas. The evening rolled along in a riot of laughter and cuddles. “It was an amazing revelation for all of us,” says Jenny. “It was just such a relief not to be rushing off to the next thing on the to-do list.”

After the Ready, Set, Relax! night, the Givens cut back, keeping only activities the children are passionate about. Today Kathryn, 16, does an art class, Spanish lessons, and a book club. Chris, 14, plays on basketball and baseball teams while Rosie, 12, concentrates on soccer, tennis and lacrosse. The whole family is more relaxed, and the children are all doing better at school since the cutback. The spirit of Ready, Set, Relax! has rippled out into other initiatives in Ridgewood. Every Wednesday, weather permitting, about 80 children aged 4 to 7 are now let loose in the playground of the local primary school. This is Free Play Day and parents are confined to the sidelines. Left to their own devices, the children skip, play hide-and-seek and tag, make up stories, throw balls around, sing and wrestle. The noise is exhilarating, the child equivalent of a Wall of Sound. To many parents it is a revelation. “It never occurred to me to do this, to just let them play like this,” says one mother. “You always feel like you have to be organizing something for them, but actually you don’t.”

There is, of course, something absurd – even a little tragic – about having to schedule unscheduled time, yet given the world we live in, that is probably the first step for many families. And clearly the Ready, Set, Relax! movement reflects a wider rethink.

Harvard urges incoming freshmen to check their overscheduling ways at the door. Posted on the university website, an open letter by Harry Lewis, a former dean of the undergraduate school, warns students that they will get more out of college, and indeed life, if they do less and concentrate on the things that really fire their passion. Lewis also takes aim at the notion that everything young people do must have a measurable payoff or contribute toward crafting the perfect resumé. “You may balance your life better if you participate in some activities purely for fun, rather than to achieve a leadership role that you hope might be a distinctive credential for postgraduate employment. The human relationships you form in unstructured time with your roommates and friends may have a stronger influence on your later life than the content of some of the courses you are taking.”

Most families that ease the load end up spending more time eating together. In a hurry-up, hyper-scheduled culture, where dining al desko, in front of the TV or computer, in the street or in the car is commonplace, the family meal often falls by the wayside. One study found that a fifth of British families never eat together. The irony is that many of the benefits extracurricular activities, including homework, purport to deliver may actually by achieved through the simple act of breaking bread en famille. Studies in many countries show that children who have regular family meals are more likely to do well at school, enjoy good mental health, and eat nutritious food; they are also less likely to engage in underage sex or use drugs and alcohol.

A Harvard study concluded that family meals promote language development even more than does family story reading. Another survey found that the only common denominator among National Merit Scholars in the United States, regardless of race or social class, was having a regular family dinner. Of course, we’re talking here about meals where both parents and children ask questions, discuss ideas at length and tell anecdotes rather than just watch TV and grunt “pass the salt.”

Why does a proper family meal pay such handsome dividends? When it comes to diet, the answer is obvious. A 9-year-old boy is more likely to finish his greens, or to eat any vegetables at all, in front of his mom and dad than when he is dining alone at the computer in his bedroom. Sitting around the dinner table, taking part in conversation, also teaches children that they are loved and cherished for who they are, rather than for what they do. They learn to talk, listen, reason, and compromise – all those essential ingredients of a high EQ. Of course, no one is saying that family meals are always a bed of roses. Sometimes they are sheer hell. Gathering tired toddlers, sullen teenagers and stressed parents around the table can be a recipe for open warfare. But then, dealing with conflict is part of life, too.

Excerpted from Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting. Copyright 2008 Carl Honoré. Published by Knopf Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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