Once there was a children’s world, as in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, where kids could do what they wanted. Playing fields were part of this world, even for parents who loved sports. But raising kids has changed; parenting has become America’s most competitive adult sport, and playing fields have become places where adults congregate to see how their children measure up in the early phases of the race to the Ivy League. Today, everyone piles work on kids in order to give them a head start. School and homework have intensified and family time has been sacrificed. In the past 20 years, structured sports time has doubled, unstructured children’s activities have declined by 50 percent, household conversations have become far less frequent, family dinners have declined 33 percent, and family vacations have decreased by 28 percent. Kids participate in so many scheduled activities that many are sleep-deprived. Ambitious parents are certain that sports enrichment must begin early and be combined with intense devotion. For those who believe that winning is everything, coaches hold the keys to success and elite college admissions. Demanding, intense — even abusive — coaches who train “winners” are sought out. Marriages are put on hold. Parents who are serious about winning will forego a romantic Saturday night dinner for their 10-year-old’s ice hockey practice — every week if need be. What is also sacrificed when kids’ sports become this intense is the fun kids can have playing, the ease they can develop with their bodies, and the idea that everyone can get pleasure from athletics at any age, whether chosen first or last, whether in childhood, adulthood, or old age. Kids want to play. As Fred Engh points out in his wonderful Why Johnny Hates Sports, 78 percent of children would rather play on a losing team than warm the bench for one that wins. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents about the dangers of competing in demanding, competitive sports. They strongly advise that children play multiple sports and specialize in one, if they must, only after puberty.
Is anyone listening? Take elite gymnastics where my daughter excelled. Many youngsters are practicing five, seven, or nine times or more a week. Though few will ever make the Olympics and many — including those who do — will do lifelong damage to their joints and spinal columns, coaches tempt parents with stories about how two of their last level 10 gymnasts got into Brown. Should we be concerned that 90 percent of competitive female gymnasts get their first period a year or two late? A 1996 study reported disordered eating in 100 percent of elite female gymnasts and osteoporosis in more than half. Are they chosen for their short stature or does gymnastics impede height? What should I say to the elite gymnast who came up to me after a talk I gave, who had had both shoulders replaced, twice, in her 30s? Should we be concerned that orthopedic surgeons recently reported a worrisome increase in recreation-linked injuries among 5- to 14-year-olds? They debated whether these kids had 2.2 million bone fractures, dislocations, and muscle injuries last year — or 3.5 million. Should we really be teaching “heading” to 9-year-old soccer players when we suspect it can cause brain damage? And how is this pressure for kids? I asked a 14-year-old boy who was a very good athlete but only a mediocre student what it was like to excel at sports. He said that it was nice in some ways, but he would prefer just playing ball with his friends. "Why?" I asked. "I'm judged in school work,” he replied. "I'm judged when I play ball. I just want some place where I'm not judged!" If we put so much energy into organized kids’ sports, we end up devaluing true play, which needs no purpose beyond the pleasure of being. Today’s children are so tightly scheduled that many have never invented a backyard game or had time to just lollygag with friends. No one has ever rewarded his or her joy in discovering and examining. We act as if a child’s boredom is a dreaded enemy. Actually, in moderation boredom can stimulate creative thinking. America’s economic success is based on people like David Packard, Bill Gates, and Steven Spielberg, who daydreamed and tinkered with visions of their own. Kids need time to be alone, to rehearse in their minds, to relax and “veg out”, something that video games can actually provide. These may be their one “Zen” experience where they can get away from pressures and actually feel centered. If coaches and parents convey that a kid ought to work constantly to be excellent — with no downtime or fun for fun’s sake — our children may conclude that we don’t consider joy and family time important. Parents need to let kids be kids again, to give them back their lives. In standing around the athletic fields and making kids’ sports success the most important matter in parents’ lives, in becoming participants in the parenting Olympics and stealing their kids’ freedom and childhood, parents have done a further harm: They have given their children a sense that the whole world revolves around them, often robbing them of the chance to see adults being the intelligent adults they are. When today’s parents were younger, they were concerned with politics, music, art, sports, business, world events, and the like. So why do they give kids the sense that all they can discuss seriously are strollers, kids’ schedules and activities? Today’s parents need more than pressured athletics; they need time with each other as husband and wife, and time with their children with no goal in mind beyond the pleasure of being together — walking, shooting hoops, playing Monopoly, whatever! Many of us are insecure and doubt we have what it takes to raise our kids well ourselves. So we entrust them to “experts”, coaches and tutors. Yet what our children really need is us — quiet, unstructured, unpressured time with us. My fondest memories are of fishing with my Dad. The greatest gift we can give to our children is the deep, inner conviction that they don’t have to perform in order for us to love and cherish them.
ALVIN A. ROSENFELD, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, co-author with Bruno Bettelheim of "The Art of the Obvious," and with Nicole Wise of “The Over-Scheduled Child,” with private practices in Manhattan and Greenwich, CT.