Stressed out!

Preschool tutoring, music lessons, sports: enough is enough, say some parents. Let kids be kids again.

SUE FERGUSON November 22 2004

Stressed out!

Preschool tutoring, music lessons, sports: enough is enough, say some parents. Let kids be kids again.

SUE FERGUSON November 22 2004

A RADICAL MOVEMENT is afoot in Canadian neighbourhoods. Its adherents seem just like ordinary moms and dads, but they’re standing modern parenting culture on its head. Call them the new refuseniks. They refuse to drill their kids with flash cards, or to play Mozart sonatas before, during and after childbirth. They put family dinners before hockey practice, urge kids to jump in autumn leaves rather than practise piano, toss early learning workbooks in the trash, and walk by lamppost signs for tutoring without a second glance.

Most heretical of all, they’re letting their kids get bored from time to time.

It’s all part of a backlash against what American psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld calls “hyper-parenting.” Called into action by evidence of mounting stress levels among kids, the refuseniks are dedicated to bringing child’s play back to childhood. They cite experts who say unstructured time is critical to a child’s intellectual development. The wellspring of creativity and imagination, open-ended play also teaches kids how to co-operate and solve problems while providing an outlet for everyday stresses. A few luminaries, such as Olympic medallist Silken Laumann, with Silken’s Active Kids promoting physical activity and play, are lending the movement support. Meanwhile, folks at the Denmark-based International Play Association have even devised an official declaration, the gist of which has woven its way into a couple of clauses in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. And in the spring, Salt Lake City advertising executive and mother Muffy Mead-Ferro came out with the movement’s manifesto, the bestseller Confessions of a Slacker Mom. Taking on everything from educational toys and early reading to scrapbooking (creating albums of your kids’ lives) and anti-bacterial soap, Mead-Ferro advocates parenting by instinct. “I feel fine,” she writes, “about placing the onus on my kids to figure out something interesting to do.”

Yet, as every revolutionary vanguard discovers early on, the obstacles to realizing its goals can overwhelm the best intentions. Which raises the question: are we really capable of hands-off parenting?

Piano lessons, joining the basketball and gymnastics teams, and babysitting the neighbours’ kids—all great opportunities to live and learn. But those activities, combined with maintaining a straight-A average, started to overwhelm 12-year-old “Amy” from Winnipeg. She had trouble falling asleep and then would wake up in the middle of the night and ruminate about how she was going to fit everything in. During the day, she suffered nausea and butterflies in her stomach. Those are textbook signs of stress, says Steven Feldgaier, the psychologist at the anxiety disorders clinic of St. Boniface General Hospital who treated her, but Amy was initially reluctant to acknowledge it. Many kids “feel the need to present a strong face to parents,” he says. “They think if they can’t manage, it’s a sign ofweakness, of not measuring up.” And even if parents aren’t directly pressuring a child, he adds, “it’s a very competitive world.”

“James” was still in primary school when he first saw a school psychologist for anxiety. By the time he was 13, his symptoms included headaches, stomach aches and sleepless nights. The normally quiet Winnipeg teen maintained better-than-average grades, but had difficulty focusing in class. He also withdrew socially to the point where just walking down the corridor gave him the shakes. “He worried about everything,” says Michelle Diawol, the school psychologist who’s been counselling him for three years. “His grades, friends, whether he’d get sick.” We tend to notice symptoms of anxiety in adolescence when academic and social demands increase, she says, but the problem often “starts long before that.” And parents, especially if they’re professionals who expect their child will be as successful as they are, can play a role. James, says Diawol, “was always trying to reassure his folks by saying, Tm going to do fine. Don’t worry’ a telltale sign that he was feeling their pressure, imagined or real.

Psychiatrist Rosenfled knows all too well how tempting it is for contemporary parents to turn their children into ambitious projects. The co-author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, he tries to reassure the millions of North Americans who catch him on TV talk shows that parental pressure isn’t necessarily the gateway to genius. He throws out some little known facts to put it all in perspective: Leonard Bernstein didn’t start playing piano until he was 10, George Gershwin’s musical brilliance developed on the heels of a childhood spent roaming the streets, and Albert Einstein was a late talker and poor student.

Still, it’s difficult for adults to relax in the face of science. Some 25 years of research tells us not only that the key moments of brain development occur during the first six years of a child’s life, but we’ve also underestimated the learning potential of infants and toddlers. These revelations have led to a flurry of worthy initiatives in daycares and community centres across Canada, many designed to catch kids who don’t have exposure to books, music and creative play opportunities at home. And the findings helped spark the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report on early childhood education, which found Canada lagging behind other countries. But they’ve also helped fuel another trend: schools and even daycares have ratcheted up expectations, while teachers dish out grades, tests and homework to younger and younger kids. The term “school readiness,” once denoting a child’s ability to separate from her parents for a few hours without too much fuss and go to the bathroom by herself, now refers to her mastery of early numeracy and literacy skills. What’s more, well-meaning remarks about potential developmental delays, such as lisps or mispronunciations like “persghetti,” can send parents scurrying to find doctors and therapists to “fix” a “problem” that might otherwise disappear on its own over time.

Meanwhile, opportunities to prod kids on to high achievement levels seem endless. Private tutoring services and schools are at the ready, promising to jump-start children’s academic careers at ever younger ages. Then there’s the panoply of extracurricular options. Organizations like Boy Scouts and the Royal Conservatory of Music— not to mention activities at school—vie for our kids’ afternoons. And, according to Rosenfeld, in the past two decades the time kids spend in organized sports has doubled, while time devoted to hanging out, talking, eating dinner and vacationing with family members has dwindled. Even trips to the toy store have parents calculating if their newborn would benefit more from LeapFrog’s light-flashing LeapStart Gym (it says “hello” in five languages) or the brightly striped and starred Lamaze Pop and Drop Activity Gym.

It turns out, we adults may be our own worst enemy. More educated, older, and with fewer kids than previous generations, “parents today are a formidable cohort,” says Linda Quirke, a sociology doctoral student at McMaster University researching parenting culture. That’s led to an “expansion of parenting and a more intensive focus on the individual child.” At the same time, we’re bombarded with advice. Along with an explosion in parenting magazines in the 1990s, says Quirke, the proportion of howto-nurture-your-kid’s-brain articles in one Canadian women’s magazine has tripled since the 1970s. Nor does it help that many of us work in an increasingly competitive job market that makes us fear for our kids’ futures. Yes, children need to be stimulated. But are we falling prey to the fantasy that we can engineer the perfect child?

One thing is clear: many kids are faltering under school and parental expectations and the stresses of their busy lives. Anxiety is the most common cause of childhood psychological distress, affecting up to 20 per cent of North American youngsters. Child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Jane Garland says more than half the referrals to the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the B.C. Children’s Hospital in Vancouver are kids struggling with it. Heightened awareness is one reason, she says, but given all the opportunities open to children, there’s a “demand for the individual to be superduper.” And in households where parents either work three jobs to make ends meet or are constantly distracted by emails and phone calls, she adds, “everybody is on edge, including the five-year-old.”

Melanie Shapiro doesn’t see herself as part of a vanguard. But she does sense that her parenting style goes against the grain of certain cultural expectations—expectations she once shared. A few years after moving with her husband, James, to Edmonton from Bristol, England in 1993, she worried they were shortchanging their toddler’s intellectual development. Emma’s British cousins had started school at four, learning to count, recite their ABCs and read. “I was panicking,” says Shapiro. “What if we have to go back and she’s behind?” So she borrowed some workbooks from her sister-in-law and sat down with Emma to learn her letters.

But a conversation with a neighbour who questioned the value of the exercise put an end to the academic prepping. Sensing there were better ways to spend time with her daughter, Shapiro ditched the workbooks and said, “Fine. We’ll do art and playdough and music instead—or just fun stuff.” So, says Shapiro, when Emma, now 11, and her three younger siblings were in the early grades, they “may not have been as good as some others at capitals and punctuation. But the content of their writing was much richer.”

Granted, Shapiro is hardly an objective observer of her own children’s work. Yet her judgment deserves serious consideration: the things kids learn through open-ended play before they start formal schooling do enrich the reading, writing and numeracy skills they later acquire. A child learns to make sense of the world, insists Anna Kirova, an expert in early childhood education at the University of Alberta, by interacting with others and exploring their environment. “Young children have their own explanations about how the world works,” she says. They need to be given the opportunity to test these hypotheses, correct their misunderstandings and, with the help of more knowledgeable peers or adults, build on what they discover to be true. “This is very important in terms of the development of the brain.”

It’s also a critical step on the road to literacy and numeracy, says Kirova, laying the basis for mastery of more specific academic skills. Letters and numbers, she notes as an example, are symbols, representing sounds and quantities. Learning them presupposes a child already grasps the concept of representation, or matching—something they can’t pick up by letter-tracing exercises. They can, and do, however, internalize it through play and other social interactions. “If we ask a child to set the table and talk about it,” says Kirova, “one plate for each person, one fork for each person, how about another spoon to go with the fork—well, this is oneto-one correspondence. Or, they could be matching rocks to sticks, it doesn’t matter. The whole concept of matching is what stays with them.” And that’s what allows them, later on, to connect sounds to letters and quantities to numbers.

Yet pencil-and-paper learning is clearly enjoying a renaissance. Summer schools where, along with play-based curriculum, threeand four-year-olds are taught to count and write their names have taken off in the public system. But nowhere is the workbook revival more evident than in the runaway growth of the private tutoring industry. Quirke and other McMaster researchers charted a 60-per-cent growth in Ontario tutoring services since 1999. Offshoots of a few massive multinational firms, franchisebased tutoring agencies attract kids of varying needs, not just those at risk of failing. Enrolment in Canadian Kumon Math and Reading Centres (a Japanese company that uses worksheets with short, repetitive exercises, positive reinforcement and daily homework) has jumped by 40 per cent to 39,721 since 1997. Last year the company launched Junior Kumon, a more flexible program which promises to teach preschoolers the ABCs, basic phonics and addition, and how to write numbers and count beyond 200.

Monica Maione is convinced Kumon helped her two children. Samuel, 7, began classes a year and a half ago, in the final term of senior kindergarten. His teacher, says Maione, a Toronto dental hygienist, was “kind of lax” and didn’t give out any homework. “I just sensed that my son wasn’t at the level he should be” (a judgment his Grade One teacher confirmed). Weekly trips to the tutoring centre, and daily homework assignments have led to “a huge improvement,” she adds. “He’s finally at grade level, maybe a bit above.”

Literacy experts agree that kids learn to read in different ways and at different ages. And, according to a University of Saskatchewan study, early readers hold no long-term advantage over late starters. Fostering a delight in reading and books—not skill-building—is critical to literacy, educators insist. In fact, Scandinavian countries, where literacy rates hover around 99 per cent, wait until kids are seven before giving them formal training in reading. Still, early reading continues to be prized by many. And Maione attributes Samuel’s progress to his tutors—so much so that she enrolled her daughter, Mara, in Junior Kumon when she was 3. “I know some people think it might be a little early,” she says. “My son at that age couldn’t have sat at a desk” for a lesson. But Mara seemed ready and eager. A keen observer of her older brother, “she wanted to have homework,” explains Maione. “And I wanted her to have a head start” in school.

In the public system, the amount of homework varies widely from school to school. But for plenty of kids, says Ann Douglas, author of 18 parenting advice books, “it’s spiralling out of control.” In fact, after switching her seven-year-old from a public to a Montessori school, she was happy to discover his new teachers didn’t assign homework. They “believe children need time to play and develop,” she says, “and do other kinds of learning that happens after hours.” She’s not alone in turning to a private school for a break from the revved up demands of the public system. About 15 per cent of 45 nonelite secular private institutions Quirke studied took a relaxed pedagogical approach, which included forgoing grades, grouping kids of different ages, and/or keeping homework at bay until seventh grade.

Meanwhile, Peterborough, Ont.-based Douglas allows her four kids (aged 7 to 16) only one after-school activity each. “I won’t sacrifice the overall quality of family life for hockey practice,” she says. And dinnertime is sacred: “It’s when we reconnect,” she says, “even if it’s just to dole out bus fares.” It may also boost kids’ marks: a University of Michigan study found that eating together— because it involves sitting and talking with adults over a sustained period—was one of the strongest predictors of high achievement scores and fewer behaviour problems.

Toronto physician Anne Ryan, however, believes her two daughters’ various physical activities are well worth the time spent: not only do the girls have lots of fun, but they’re gaining physical self-confidence and learning to be happy about their bodies. The calendar hanging on the Ryans’ kitchen wall is awash in colour-coded markings: gold pen for Emma’s six hours a week of dance classes, swimming and Brownies, blue for Sarah’s seven hours of dance, swimming and Girl Guides, and green for other family events. Above it, to ensure she hasn’t forgotten any last-minute changes, Ryan has taped a printout of her Palm Pilot datebook.

“It’s hectic, but I draw the line at activities they’d have to practise, like piano,” she says. “I’ve no interest in nagging them.” While they may seem “over-structured,” she acknowledges, some of their friends spend almost 12 hours a week in after-school activities.

De-stressing kids’ lives takes some initiative—and now there’s an industry devoted to it. Lunch-hour parenting seminars tutor high-powered executives and lawyers on how to stop excessive parenting. For kids, a whole new crop of after-school, handle-yourstress programs competes with Boy Scouts and drum lessons—everything from angermanagement clinics to yoga classes. And many schools are teaching kids simple outdoor games, such as ball-against-the-wall and Chinese rope, from their parents’ youth.

But there’s a rich irony in our efforts to teach children how to play and relax. Instructing them in hopscotch, yoga and anti-bullying techniques may well do them some good. At the same time, our rush to find the cure for stress is indicative of just how hard it is for us to really lay off our kids. It’s as if we don’t quite trust them to come up with their own fun and games—assuming we’ve shut off the TV and the computer. And, what if they didn’t do anything? What if they got bored? Well, according to slacker-mom advocate Mead-Ferro, giving kids the opportunity to do nothing might be the biggest favour we could do them. She has no problem with her two kids taking up ballet or learning how to play an instrument, and “I would love it if [they] embraced the sport of skiing,” she writes. “But being able to entertain themselves and figure out what to do with their own time are skills that outrank any of those. My parents didn’t expect us to be superkids. They expected us to be independent. A kid probably can’t be both.”

“I think there’s a lot to be said for being bored,” agrees Edmonton’s Shapiro. She recalls an episode from her early days as a mom. Pregnant with her third child, she usually placed her then twoand four-year-old kids in front of a movie before stealing off to a nearby room to nap in the afternoon. But one day, when the video player broke, something beautiful happened. “Instead of hell breaking out, they actually played way more, and fought less,” she says. Not only did Shapiro get her nap, “the two-year-old’s language just blossomed.” A child thriving while mom sleeps—imagine that.