Author: David Elkind, Ph.D.
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Release Date: January 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7382-1082-7

David Elkind, Ph.D., is Professor of Child Development in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child develop-ment at Tufts University. Through his writings, media appearances, and lectures in the United States and abroad, he is recognized as one of the leading advocates for the preservation of childhood. The author of more than a dozen books including All Grown Up and No Place to Go and The Power of Play, he lives in Boston and on Cape Cod.

The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon by David Elkind

Preface to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition

When I wrote The Hurried Child in 1981, I had no inkling of the technological revolution that was to come. Indeed, I wrote the manuscript in pencil on lined, yellow pads, typed it up on an electrical typewriter, and sent the manuscript to the editor via parcel post. This new introduction, written in 2006, was typed on a computer and sent to the editor as an attachment to an e-mail over the Internet.

The electronic media have simply reinforced our need to hurry and our ability to get things done quickly. Much of this spills over into our child rearing and eduction. Indeed the revolutionary nature of the last quarter of a century is reflected in at least five new innovations in the lives of children.

  1. Infant Education. From a child development point of view, perhaps the most significant transformation in child life has to do with the new attention to stimulating infants and young children.
  2. Out-of-Home Care for Young Children. Today, 12.5 million children, 63 percent of the nation’s children under five, are in some type of child care each week.
  3. The Child As Consumer. Even the Girl Scouts have been co-opted and now take camping trips to the mall.
  4. Childhood Moves Indoors. When I first wrote this book, I was most concerned about the stress our culture placed on children and the mental health consequences of continued emotional upset. Today, however, the sedentary lifestyle introduced by our new technologies makes child physical health an equally important concern.
  5. The Technologically Empowered Student. The fifth and final innovation of the last quarter of a century is one that I believe is positive and offers the most hope for the future of children in our society: the increasing penetration of computer technologies and programming in our schools.

While emphasizing the changes that have come about since the first edition of this book, I would be remiss if I did not also remark on what has remained the same. It still takes a mother nine months to carry a baby to term. The ages at which children learn to walk, talk, and learn the three Rs have not changed, even with all the effort to introduce them earlier. Parents are still the major influence on children’s overall development, and children still need our love, our support, and our limit-setting. And what I appreciate now, much more than when I first sat down to write this book, is the importance of free, self-initiated, and spontaneous play to the child’s healthy, mental, emotional, and social development.

Our Hurried Children

Today’s child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress—the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations.

In too many schools kindergartens have now become “one-size-smaller” first grades, and children are tested, taught with workbooks, given homework, and take home a report card. The result of this educational hurrying is that from 10 to 20 percent of kindergarten children are being “retained” or put in “transition” classes to prepare them for the academic rigors of first grade!

Another evidence of the pressure to grow up fast is the change in the programs of summer camps for children. Although there are still many summer camps that offer swimming, sailing, horseback riding, archery, and camp fires—activities we remember from our own childhood—an increasing number of summer camps offer specialized training in many different areas, including foreign languages, tennis, baseball, dance, music, and even computers.

The change in the programs of summer camps reflects the new attitude that the years of childhood are not to be frittered away by engaging in activities merely for fun. Rather, the years are to be used to perfect skills and abilities that are the same as those of adults.

There are many other pressures as well. Many children today travel across the country, and indeed across the world, alone. The so-called unaccompanied minor has become so common-place that airlines have instituted special rules and regulations for them. The phenomenon is a direct result of the increase in middle-class divorces and the fact that one or the other parent moves to another part of the country or world.

The media too, including music, books, films, and television, increasingly portray young people as precocious and present them in more or less explicit sexual or manipulative situations. Such portrayals force children to think they should act grown up before they are ready.

Not surprisingly, the stresses of growing up fast often result in troubled and troublesome behavior during adolescence.

The rush to experiment is perhaps most noticeable in teenage sexual behavior. It is estimated that of girls who are fourteen years old today, 25 percent will be pregnant at least once before leaving the teen years.

Parallelling the increased sexuality of young people is an increase in children of what in adults are known as stress diseases. Pediatricians report a greater incidence of such ailments as headaches, stomachaches, allergic reactions, and so on in today’s youngsters than in previous generations.

Another index of the stress encountered by today’s children is their overall health. Researchers say that kids these days are on their way to being the most unfit ever.

The last hurrying-related teenage phenomenon I want to discuss is teenage suicide. The contributors to teenage suicide are multiple and complex, but it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that some of the contemporary hurrying stresses on teenagers, from the competition for high grades and getting into good colleges, to the pressures to use drugs and become sexually active, contribute to the increase in the number of young people who take their own lives.

The Dynamics of Hurrying: Parents

We hurry children because stress induces us to put our own needs ahead of their needs.

Caught up in our own coping struggle, inundated with the multifarious demands of life, we prefer to think of our children as endlessly flexible and resilient materials. As such, they may therefore be expected to adapt easily to our (adult) needs, schedules, interests, perspectives. We expect them to adapt more to adult life programs than we adapt to their child life programs.

The Child as Surrogate Self

Although I have no statistics to back up such a generalization, I would venture that there is a strong tie between job dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and a disproportionate concern with offspring’s success in sports, on the other. And as job dissatisfaction now arises earlier in professional careers, compensatory interest in children’s participation in sports often arises when the children are very young.

Parents also hurry children when they insist that they acquire academic skills, like reading, at an early age. The desire of parents to have their children read early is a good example of parental pressure to have children grow up fast generally. This pressure reflects parental need, not the child’s need or inclination.

The Child As Status Symbol

Today, parents brag not only about the colleges and prep schools their children are enrolled in but also about which private kindergartens they attend.

The Childhood As Partner

It is not always easy for working parents to separate what is reasonable from what is not. If a child can start dinner, then why not have him or her prepare the whole meal? If the child can keep one room tidy, why not the whole house? The temptation to pile heavy domestic burdens on the child is strong for parents under stress. Helping parents is one thing; taking over their jobs and responsibilities is quite a different matter.

The Child As Therapist

Though stressful to both parents (as to children), divorce and separation mean something different for men and women. One common way that single mothers hurry their children to grow up is to treat them as confidants. In some ways this is a natural phenomenon: a young mother, living alone, begins to confide in her eight-year-old daughter.

Single fathers also use children as confidants. When he sees the children on weekends, he may complain to them about how much money he has to give to their mother and how little this leaves him to live on. Or he may express his resentment about the arguments that caused the breakup, or his jealousy over their mother’s new relationships. The children are caught in the middle of these adult conflicts.

All of us today are under a great deal of stress from our rapidly changing society. Some parents are so stressed that they become ego-centric and either forget or find it impossible to use the knowledge we have about the nature and needs of children. Such parents need the support, the companionship, and the symbolic achievements of their children to relieve their stress.

The Dynamics of Hurrying: Schools

Many of our schools reflect the contemporary bias toward having children grow up fast. They do this because such schools have become increasingly industrialized and product oriented.

The factory model of education hurries children because it ignores individual differences in mental abilities and learning rates and learning styles. Children are pressured to meet uniform standards as measured by standardized tests.

Another example of how schools hurry children is the progressive downward thrust of the curriculum. When school is looked upon as an assembly line and when there is pressure to increase production, there is a temptation not only to fill the bottles faster but also to fill them earlier. Why not put in as much at kindergarten as at first grade?

Just as there is controversy over the current management emphasis in schools, and its resulting pressure on children, there is also controversy over the new sex education and its impact on children. The new courses on sex education include much more than anatomy; they deal with such issues as dating behavior, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, masturbation, mental illness, and death and dying.

The problem is, of course, that what may be appropriate for seventeen-year-olds may not be appropriate for younger children. Inevitably, however, the conviction that “earlier is better,” which so dominates today’s educational climate, means that such programs will be and are being used with preteen and young teenagers who may be given more information than they want or need.

In addition to testing and questionable subject matter, and first-grade issues, schools are engaging in other practices that hurry children. One of these is growing number of schools that are rotating elementary school students from one teacher and classroom to another for instruction in different subjects.

Consider the time it takes nine-year-old children to put away their materials, move to another classroom, and set up shop at another set of desks. If this process is repeated four or five times a day, the children have spent more time in getting up and getting down than they have in learning!

Departmentalization and rotation at the elementary school level hurries children. It hurries them both on a day-to-day basis by requiring so many additional adjustments to new teachers and classrooms, and it hurries them on a long-term basis by depriving them of a teacher who knows them sufficiently well to reflect back to them their continuity and wholeness as persons.

A certain amount of stress and pressure are important and healthy for children to realize their full powers. It is only when the stresses and pressures become inappropriate and extraordinary, as they are in many of our schools today, that expectations and demands become hurrying and the stress unhealthy.

The Dynamics of Hurrying: The Media

As we have seen, despite our knowledge about children’s development, all too many schools still regard children as empty bottles on an assembly line of grades—each grade fills the bottle up a little more, the bottle representing the child’s memory. What the schools fail to appreciate is that the “bottles” are already overflowing with information about the present and future that is provided by the media that now includes the Internet.

By the 1990s, parents have become so numbed to the swearing, nudity, overt sexual activity, and violence in movies that we have become less vigilant about letting our children watch this material. Additionally, the advent of cable television and rented CDs has made monitoring young people’s film watching even more difficult for us.

The explicit sex and violence that pervades the media puts a greater monitoring burden on parents. And it does so just when we are least able to bear it. That is to say, the monitoring demands on us have increased just as the time available for such oversight has decreased. Recent surveys indicate that parents are working more and have less time for child rearing than in the 1970s and 1980s. The amount of time is also reduced because of the number of two-parent-working and single-parent families.

But we do need to monitor. And it is necessary, not out of some misguided notion that childhood is a period of innocence that has to be shielded but, rather, because children do need to be socialized and it is our job as parents to teach them the socially prescribed rules of behavior. The real danger of growing up fast is that children may learn the rules of social license before they learn the rules of social responsibility. This inverted sequence increases the potential for uncivil behavior

The Dynamics of Hurrying: Lapware, Brain Research, and the Internet

The introduction of new technologies seems, inevitably, to create the temptation to use them with ever younger age groups. This has certainly been the case with computers. Nonetheless, I think it is a temptation that parents should resist.

The promoters of these products play on our parental guilt and anxiety about our children’s ability to compete in an increasingly technological and global economy. These concerns are understandable, but they are also a little misguided. What infants need most, and what will give them the best foundation for whatever world they are going to live in, is not provided by any computer program. What they need most is a healthy sense that the world is a safe place, that their needs will be met, and that they will be cared for and protected by the grown-ups in their world.

Although some exposure of children over the age of three to well-designed, age-appropriate programs may do no harm, it is unlikely that such exposure will have important or lasting benefits. There is no evidence that early exposure to computers gives children an edge in computer literacy, self-confidence, or self-esteem. In this regard it is well to remember that Bill Gates, founder and CEO of Microsoft, did not have a computer as an infant and young child.

On the other hand, we do have a solid basis for encouraging parents to talk and sing to the infant, and to have simple and safe crib toys such as rattles and play gyms readily available.

Like most of our new information-age technologies, the Internet is a mixed blessing. It is a tremendous resource for getting all sorts of information rapidly and in our own homes. And it is an extraordinarily helpful educational resource as well. At the same time, it poses a number of risks for children and adolescents. The price of our new technologies, like the price of liberty, is eternal vigilance. But if we use common sense, set reasonable usage rules, and do some monitoring, we can probably get the best out of the Internet and avoid some of its less savory offerings.

Helping Hurried Children

Ours is a hurried and hurrying society. We are always on the lookout for ways of doing things faster and more expeditiously. We have the supermarket to speed up shopping and fast-food restaurants to speed up eating. We build superhighways to speed up transportation and household gadgets to speed up housework.

Although the pressure to get things done more quickly and efficiently has positive benefits—it has made us the most innovative society on earth—it has its drawbacks, such as producing impatience. For all our technological finesse and sophisticated facade, we are a people who cannot-will not-wait. Compulsive about punctuality and using our time most efficiently, we become surly when forced to relax and wait our turn.

What can we do to help children who are being pressured to grow up fast and who experience this as inordinate stress?

If we are asking too much and are engaged in calendar or clock hurrying, we can either cut back on our demands or increase our supports. This is an objective way of helping children deal with hurrying in the sense that it deals with the actual, often unverbalized expectancies that we have of our children and with the amount and variety of supports we are willing to offer.

But hurrying, like any stressor, has a subjective dimension. How children perceive hurrying determines its effects as much as the fact of hurrying itself.

Young Children

Young children (two to eight years) tend to perceive hurrying as a rejection, as evidence that their parents do not really care about them.

Accordingly, when we have to hurry young children, when they have to be at a day-care center or with a baby sitter, we need to appreciate children’s feelings about the matter. We need to respond to a child’s feeling more than to his or her intellect. One might say, for instance: “I’m really going to miss you today and wish you could be with me.” The exact words are less important than the message that the separation is painful for you too but necessary. And it is equally important, when you pick your child up at the end of the day, to say something about how happy you are to see him or her. By responding to the young child’s feelings, we lessen some of the stress of hurrying.

If we need to break a promise about taking a child to a movie, the park, or the zoo, it is very important that we apologize and make it clear that we really are sorry. In the same way, when we ask children to do something for us, to save us time, or to help us out, it is really important to say “please” and “thank you.” Being polite to children speaks to their feelings of self-worth (as it does to adults), which are always threatened when we hurry them. Being polite to children helps them to perceive hurrying in a less stressful way.

When we are polite to children, we show in the most simple and direct way possible that we value them as people and care about their feelings. Thus, politeness is one of the most simple and effective ways of easing stress in children and of helping them to become thoughtful and sensitive people themselves.

School-age Children

School-age children are more independent and more self-reliant than young children. Consequently, they often seem to welcome hurrying in the sense that they are eager to take on adult chores and responsibilities, particularly in single-parent homes, where they may try intuitively to fill the role of the absent parent. The danger with this age group is for parents to accept this display of maturity for true maturity rather than for what it is—a kind of game.

For this age group, it is important that we communicate our appreciation for all that they do for us—helping around the house, baby sitting, and so on—but also that we know they are still children and that there are some things they should not be burdened with.

Adolescents

As young people move into adolescence and attain new, more complex mental abilities, hurrying is again seen in a new way. Although adolescents also perceive hurrying as a rejection at a deep young-child level, they begin to see it in more abstract, complex terms. First of all, adolescents construct concepts of ideal parents who are all-knowing, all-good, and all-generous and then compare their real parents with this ideal and find them sadly wanting. This is one reason why young adolescents criticize their parents for the way they dress, eat, talk, look, act, and so on. And when adolescents feel hurried by parents, the criticism often reaches a frenzy.

Secondly, adolescents blame their parents not only for hurrying them as adolescents but also for hurrying them as children. While school-age children rationalize parental hurrying, they don’t forget it. In effect, adolescents pay us back in the teen years for all the sins, real or imagined, that we committed against them when they were children.

Focus on the Present

If we concentrate on the here and now, without worrying about yesterday or tomorrow, our children will do likewise. If you are a working mother, enjoy the time you spend with your child and don’t spoil it for him or her by worrying about the time you were not around or about the times you will be separated in the future. Children live in the present, and they know when we are with them physically but not mentally. By worrying about the past and future, we lose the present and our children don’t have us, even when we are around.

Hurrying children into adulthood violates the sanctity of life by giving one period priority over another. But if we really value human life, we will value each period equally and give unto each stage of life what is appropriate to that stage.

In the end, a childhood is the most basic human right of children.

From The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon (25th Anniversary Edition) by David Elkind, Ph.D. Copyright © 2001, 1988, 1981 by David Elkind. Preface for the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition copyright © 2007 by David Elkind. Summarized by permission of the publisher, Da Capo Press.

288 pages. $16.95. ISBN-10: 0-7382-1082-X; ISBN-13: 978-0-7382-1082-7.

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