Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thoughts on “The Kindergarchy”

I was referred to the essay “The Kindergarchy: Every Child a Dauphin” written by Joseph Epstein, after reading this post at Mental Multivitamin "Dreary Boring Sadly Misguided". This nine page essay was better for me to print off and read in a quiet place and to ponder it rather than a quick skimming at the computer monitor. It is a great piece if you just take your time and read it. Then maybe read it again on another day with a fresh mind. I'll quote here and there from "The Kindergarchy" throughout this post.

As I began reading the piece my mind immediately went back to a memory: on the patio of my homeschool mom friend’s house where she, I and another homeschool mom sat talking. It was August 2007, and I had brought up the discussion of homeschooling, outside classes, over-scheduling, the pace of childhood today, the different ways that children are being raised today and the different role of the stay at home mother today compared to what the three of us experienced in our childhoods. I was looking for answers about why our society today is doing what is happening. One mom tried to say our experience was unique to Fairfield County and partially due to the wealth level of the residents here. I begged to differ and said I felt a shift had happened even with lower middle class families and that I had a feeling it was going on all over the country. This includes also the lives of the children and families who go to school and also in families with a mother who works outside the home for pay.

I talked about what I had been reading in “The Over-Scheduled Child” by Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D. and Nicole Wise, a book I love that I’ve blogged about before.

I left that discussion not feeling settled with the matter. I was not relating to what my friends were saying. Their basic outlook was that today’s children have more opportunities for development (music, sports, intellect) and that we have the disposable income to spend on enriching our children with these classes and events. Saying no to some of it just because the family is frantic or even because the sports are interfering with the family eating a healthy meal at home together is viewed as then being negligent to the child, because the choice to not further enrich the child’s body or mind with that activity would be depriving their optimal development.

They also felt that if a family could not afford the activities it would stop the whole thing from happening and that we are all victims of our own wealth, especially here in Fairfield County. I disagreed because I had a suspicion that many families were living above their means, relying on credit cards to finance their lifestyles and that this was happening across the country not just in this state or in this county. Also at issue was that some of these things for kids including lots of toys, expensive sports equipment, expensive vacation sand even big homes was often funded by the working mothers that say they need to work because ‘they need the money’ when really they just want a higher standard of living.

I had and still have a concern that all this doing of stuff by the children is actually bordering on if not solidly over-indulging our children. (An interesting opinion that flies in the face of many parents’ ideas is that Dr. Phil says that over-indulgence is a form of child abuse.) I had a suspicion that sometimes having so many material things leads children to not appreciate what they have and that doing all the activities leads them to not appreciate what they are doing. They are so busy that they don’t’ get to wind down from one activity before they are gearing up to drive to the next one. An example from my own life is that I take photos of things we do yet often don’t have time to even glance at the photos I took let alone think back on all the things to enjoy the memory of them. I know for a fact that some children in these circumstances turn out to be spoiled brats. I also question if all the enriching is truly helping them if their lifestyles are completely hectic, rushing from one thing to another all the time. I am reminded of the family that I went to the beach with on a hot August day last year who could not talk in the car with my son because they had to finish reading a fiction book for a boy’s book club discussion class that would be held that night. I worry about kids who never are bored because they have all their spare time filled with activities all about them. I worry that parents put their own lives on the back burner in order to make room for and to provide their children with all the classes and stuff.

I am always trying to strike a balance between what is good for my kids and what is too much. I want my kids to be enriched and to do great things that I never go to do. Yet I don’t want my kids to be robots moving from one activity to another like some kind of programmed clone whose life is being controlled by some master programmer. To be honest, I question the actual learning that goes on with some of the classes we’ve taken and realize some of it has been a waste of time and money. I have big questions about the value of gymnastics for preschoolers and for Little League baseball in kids under nine or ten years old. Do all these things really improve the child in the big picture? Will the children even remember all the scheduled and ‘outside classes’ they did when they were very young?

"With its full-court-press attention on children, the Kindergarchy is a radical departure from the ways parents and children viewed one another in earlier days."

I keep thinking of my own simple childhood and how boring and how un-enriching it was. I grew up in freedom with little parental oversight of what went on in my time at home, roaming the neighborhood with the neighbor kids. My summers were hot and lacked air conditioning. I rode my bike, went swimming in friend’s pools or the new indoor pool when that was built. I walked to stores to buy candy and soda and collectible trading cards with my allowance. My grandparents and parents took me and my brother out for ice cream, sometimes every night. I recall afternoons laying on a blanket on the lawn in the shade of a tree reading. I recall the cool basement children’s library and roaming the stacks of books to find ones to borrow. I recall the dark used book shop in the next town that I swapped books in and out of. I recall reading all the Bobbsey Twins and all the Nancy Drew books.

"Born into the middle class in the Middle West, growing up I did not know any married woman who worked."

I didn’t know any mothers who worked either. Well, actually when I was ten I met a girl whose mother worked the 11 p.m.-7 a.m. shift as a hospital nurse which was a grueling schedule and she did love her job but it was physically hard to pull it off, because she was an at-home mom all day long and was present in the children’s lives. Although I always wanted to be a stay at home mom so I could have a loving parent raise me in my own home like I had, I did have trouble leaving my career behind. After working in my field for eleven years, having moved up the ladder, and after getting a college degree to help me move up the corporate ladder even higher, I felt I was leaving a piece of me behind when I decided to stay at home for good. It was a hard adjustment at first. I no longer feel badly about that choice and mothering has been very rewarding for me. I do still feel judged by society and by the feminists for being an at home mom.

"Parents generally didn't feel under any obligation to put heavy pressure on their children. Nor, except in odd, neurotic cases, did they feel any need to micromanage their lives."

Most definitely my childhood was not micromanaged. I wonder if I would be so self-sufficient and independent minded if my mother and/or father had micromanaged my life! I severely doubt it and that would be a bad thing.

I wonder sometimes if today’s stay at home mother’s fill up their child’s lives and try to make their children super kids because to not try to give them everything would be seen as being negligent. Some brave friends of mine admit ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is one definite reason that they have their ids doing so much. In my generation shooting for and intentionally choosing second best is not seen as something to strive for. Some would even consider it child neglect or maybe even child abuse to not provide our children with everything financially possible. You see we were raised with self-help books all around us. We have been led to believe by American media and culture that we are all what we make of ourselves. And caring parents would only choose the best for their children’s welfare and development. No parent wants to be responsible for their child being unhappy or an emotional mess, for them being stupid common-sense or academically, un-physically fit or obese in childhood, nor do we want to see them living in poverty in their adult lives. We want our children to have an equal chance to succeed in life both financially, intellectually, emotionally and to be physically well.

"No other generations of kids have been so curried and cultivated, so pampered and primed, though primed for what exactly is a bit unclear."

"Where once childrearing was an activity conducted largely by instinct and common sense, today it takes its lead from self-appointed experts whose thinking is informed by pop psychology."

At times when I’m trying to do what I think is right and best I keep coming up against my friends and acquaintances who are doing more with and for their children. They make me feel inadequate or that I’m not being a good mom. It is not always that they say something but just by comparison. And some friends, when I vent about being too busy they just retort with their own schedules to show how much more busy THEY are than me. Or those who have more than two kids then get into the whole “I have three or four kids and look at what we do and how much busier we are”. I’m not impressed. It is at those times when I long to be around different people who get what I am trying to say.

"Under the Kindergarchy, all arrangements are centered on children: their schooling, their lessons, their predilections, their care and feeding and general high maintenance--children are the name of the game."

Sometimes I wonder if homeschooling is the ultimate expression of what Dr. Rosenfeld calls “hyper-parenting”. If that is true then one could view my life as having ‘sacrificed’ my career not just to be an at-home mom to raise my children but to take on the larger role of home education to further control my children’s experience and to possibly also homeschool to provide a better academic experience just because the public school system or the private schools are ‘not good enough’. Some may wiggle out of this by saying they will admit they would not use a public school for their child but being an at-home mother with no second income does not allow for multiple private school tuitions.

"In a rich country, a fair amount of this kind of sad vulgarity figures to go on. But what I have in mind is something more endemic--a phenomenon that affects large stretches of the middle class: the phenomenon, heightened under Kindergarchy, of simply paying more attention to the upbringing of children than can possibly be good for them."

Epstein talks a bit of preschool and I will not comment on that as I have too much to say that I won’t mix into this post. I have a lot of opinions on preschool in general, enough to write a book! I agree that too much emphasis is being placed on formal education in preschool and also there is an over-valuing of early education in the larger picture of a child’s life.

Epstein also talks about pressure on the kids to get into good colleges. I agree this is a problem.

"Every high school now has its battery of counselors: guidance, psychological, college. A larger and larger segment of the student population seems to bring its own psychological tics and jiggeroos to school with them: ADHD, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, various degrees of depression requiring regimens of pills and therapy sessions. Some of these defects and disabilities are the result of parents' having their children at a later age. Might others be that the children are so intensely watched over and tested that more and more defects and disabilities show up, some among them possibly imaginary?"

Too bad Epstein doesn’t know of his error in the above paragraph. Yes, high schools have those counselors. But in my town so do the middle schools and the elementary schools. The preschool programs based in elementary schools have them at their disposal too. So really children have these counselors pushed on them from age 3 and up.

I have blogged in the past about Generation Y, the 20-something’s who are now in the workplace and having a hard time with it. I had linked to a Wall Street Journal article about how the workplace having to change to meet the demands and expectations of this new generation who was raised on a lot of praise, even when they don’t deserve it.

I give my children a lot of love. I talk about my emotions. I give them lots of hugs and kisses. This is all different than how I myself was raised. I don’t do a lot of praise with my kids as to me most of the time it is fake or undeserved. When my kids do a good job at something it is evident to them and I sometimes will make a positive comment. When they do something poorly they know it and I don’t praise them when it is not due (unlike other parents I know).

I am trying to raise well-behaved kids with manners and humbleness. I don’t want a braggy kid, or a child who thinks they are better than they really are. I don’t want a little Mozart just to prove that I can turn out a product that is superior to someone else’s kid. I don’t brag to my friends about various things that happen. My kids do a lot of things and even have won awards that I have never even mentioned on this blog let alone told some of my friends about!
What interested me most about “The Kindergarchy” is that the perspective is that of a now-retired college professor who sees the outcome of this much praised generation who has huge egos and high self-esteem. He notes that the students think they know more academically than they do. He notes that they cannot write well. They do not know the academic content that other students in past years knew. They also seem unable to accept that they lack information or writing ability. They seem to think it is ‘all about them’.

Please refer to the end of the essay where Epstein talks about the college students and their parent’s involvement in their children’s education. I have no experience with any of this yet as my kids are only eight and ten years old right now. However we should all heed his warnings about what the long term effects of The Kindergarchy are. This paragraph made me laugh out loud:

"So often in my literature classes students told me what they "felt" about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one's feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to--but did not--write: "D-, Too much love in the home." I knew where they came by their sense of their own deep significance and that this sense was utterly false to any conceivable reality. Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement. Besides, one of the first things that people who really are significant seem to know is that, in the grander scheme, they are themselves really quite insignificant."

I laughed because I have seen this behavior in classes and events that I have witnessed with other children. I see some of this in Cub Scouting, even, and with children in elementary grades.

"Growing up with only minimal attention sharpened this sense of one's insignificance."

I had never put two and two together but the above statement reflects my own childhood experience too. I felt insignificant then and I still feel pretty insignificant now. I worry that so many children and young people today seem to think they are so great when really they are nothing special and in fact are in need of a lot of fixing. The sometimes wrong-placed sense of entitlement that some young people have is staggering and sometimes is based on wrong facts. Last month our family was driving slowly down the center of a town’s Main Street after the street light turned green. Two women about 20 years old suddenly walked right out into traffic and went right in front of our car. My husband jammed the brake to avoid hitting them. They immediately screamed at us “It is the law to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk! ” as they have us The Finger. While that is true about the law, the issue at hand was they were not in a crosswalk, they were in a middle of a block and were walking diagonally across moving lanes of traffic. The arrogance and entitlement of those two was just amazing! My husband couldn’t resist shouting back “Yeah, but you are not IN a crosswalk!”

I don’t know where we’re headed as a society. I’m just trying to do right by my kids and to not wreck our family’s lives in the process. After reading Epstein’s article I felt that I am not on the wrong track. It is right to question ‘doing it all’. It is good to think that the pace of the whole family should not be entirely centered around doing everything for the kids and nothing for the adults. The children’s activities also should not obstruct interaction with extended relatives. I should not feel badly about passing up Little League so that we may eat a home cooked meal together as a family at a normal dinnertime. I should not feel guilty for missing certain classes or events because we’re spending time with grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles. Take a look at the sidelines of the kids’ sports activities and you will see a lot of overweight and unhappy looking parents. That should tell you something. In my house I’ve been kicking the kids outside to play and ride bikes while I do what has to be done inside. And I will not let myself feel guilty for going to the gym to exercise whose monthly cost is ¼ the price of one child’s Tae Kwon Do month’s lessons. If my children’s lack of martial arts training hinders my children in the long term, they’d better start getting over it now.

One more book which I read very recently was “Ships Without a Shore: America’s Undernurtured Children” in this book Anne Pierce PhD also discusses what she feels drives today’s parents to have their children doing so much. You can read my book review of that here. The book covers a lot of topics that I could not address all of them in my review. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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Carletta said...

Great article! I loved the author's comment "D- Too much love in the home." :)

I read the book Hyper Parenting (The Over Schedule Child) a few years ago and recommended it to friends who were new parents. They didn't heed the warnings, of course. There is just so much noise out there about what it takes to raise a happy healthy child that few can hear the words, "Relax, your child will likely be just fine."

We try to keep our home family centered, not child centered, but at times I still question myself.

Last night was my son's last baseball game and he was disappointed that he never got to play infield. I said, "Son, did you practice throwing and catching every day until you became really good at it?" He shook his head. I said, "Well, there you go." Then I thought, "Did I just say that???"

I don't really care what position my son plays in baseball. His dad and I cheer him on at games, but we aren't going to talk to the coach or pay for private coaching, camps - both of which are standard practice in our area for 6 and 7 year olds (and younger).

Later that night I was wondering if I should have been more sympathetic or enrolled my son in sports camp or encouraged him to practice. Then I looked at my son and he was happy as a lark. He had completely forgotten about playing infield and about baseball in general. He's 7, LOL!

I think kids today are taught to place importance on things that just don't matter. You should have seen the mothers offering ice cream and candy to kids who'd struck out or missed a catch, etc.

I think kids today are not only suffering from overindulgence, but from an abundance of self-esteem.

A great book on the subject is Parenting by the Book by John Rosemond. I don't agree with everything Rosemond (or pretty much any author) says, but he has some interesting thoughts on "helicopter parenting".

Shez said...

Excellent article. You write so eloquently. I've been trying to write a post on this subject for some time. We've recently taken the decision that less is definitely more for our kids and we've been ruthless in cutting back out outside activities. As a girlfriend put it today, the plan is to "HOMEschool".
Hope the poxes stop itching soon. Wish we were closer to you, we'd come over for a pox party.
Shez over at Homeschooled Twins

christinemm said...

Shez thanks for your compliment.

I had a hard time writing of my thoughts and it took a week of mulling over the original piece, and reading it three separate times.

I am still trying to find a balance between being relaxed and having free time versus doing too much. I am trying for quality not quantity and also trying to leave time in between the quality experiences to actually appreciate them and feel grateful for them.

It is not easy and often I find myself doing too much despite concerted efforts to try not to overdo.