The Parent Trap: Raising Children Today Is like Competing in a Triathlon with No Finish Line in Sight. Days Are Filled with a Mad Scramble of Sports, Music Lessons, Prep Courses and Battles over Homework. We Only Want What's Best for Them, but Our Kids May Not Be Better Off

Newsweek, January 29, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Parent Trap: Raising Children Today Is like Competing in a Triathlon with No Finish Line in Sight. Days Are Filled with a Mad Scramble of Sports, Music Lessons, Prep Courses and Battles over Homework. We Only Want What's Best for Them, but Our Kids May Not Be Better Off


All Fall, Suzanne Upton of Ann Arbor, Mich., struggled to manage her children's demanding schedule: homework plus soccer and hockey for Sam, 9, and piano, soccer and ballet for Annie, 7. It wasn't easy, especially with Sam's required practices--three days a week for soccer and five days for hockey. The Christmas season, filled with school parties, threatened to be even more hectic. Then the snow started falling... and falling... and falling. Four housebound days later, the family had baked cookies and generally mellowed out. Those snow days, Upton says, "were God's way of telling us to slow down."

But that's not likely. These days, raising kids is like competing in a triathlon with no finish line in sight. Millions of parents around the country say their lives have become a daily frantic rush in the minivan from school to soccer to piano lessons and then hours of homework. But they're trapped, afraid to slow down because any blank space in the family calendar could mean their offspring won't have the resumes to earn thick letters from Harvard--and big bucks forever after. And a busy schedule at the office only adds to the pressure. Parents believe they have to do it all--or they're toast (and so are their kids). As a result, says psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, coauthor of "Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard?" middle-class parents are under "continuous pressure to plan, enrich and do this important job the one, precisely right way."

Although the current generation of parents is the richest and best educated in history, they are particularly apprehensive because they're raising their kids in an uncertain time. In a world where a high divorce rate and job hopping are the norm, "parents themselves are more insecurely placed in life," says Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies modern family life. Rapid technological change has contributed to that sense of instability, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington. She thinks today's middle-class parents are reacting to the aftershocks of the seismic shift to the digital economy, just as blacksmiths and farmers in the 1820s worried that their kids wouldn't make it through the Industrial Revolution. "Parents today are having a comparable anxiety crisis," says Coontz. "What do you do to protect your child and secure them a good future?" No one really knows the answer to that question. Thirty years ago a college degree was the key to the good life. Today's parents fear that a B.A. isn't good enough, but they're not sure what's better. So they try to give their kids a little of everything that's available.

Parents sacrifice their dwindling free time (and their own social lives) to make sure their kids are safe and want for nothing. It starts off innocently enough, with playdates for their toddlers set up weeks in advance. Then it snowballs to the point where everyone is overwhelmed-- and bragging about it. In elementary school, many youngsters attend activities every afternoon because their parents are afraid to let them ride bikes down the street. Workdays end with frenzied trips to pick up the kids; no one wants to leave a 6-year-old alone on a soccer field in the dark.

As the activities multiply, psychologists say, parents often forget that sports and music are supposed to be fun experiences for their children. They get overly involved in the minutiae of their kids' lives, stage-managing successes and robbing kids of the opportunity to learn from their failures. William Damon, director of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Adolescence, describes this as the phenomenon of "parents as agents." He says the overbearing parent of an earlier generation, the one who pushed his kid to be a doctor, for example, is now the standard model. Families are smaller, so all that intensity gets focused on fewer kids. …

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The Parent Trap: Raising Children Today Is like Competing in a Triathlon with No Finish Line in Sight. Days Are Filled with a Mad Scramble of Sports, Music Lessons, Prep Courses and Battles over Homework. We Only Want What's Best for Them, but Our Kids May Not Be Better Off
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