The Hurried Child Syndrome
A review of two books by David Elkind: The Hurried Child and Miseducation – Preschoolers at Risk
Living in modern Australia means that our lives are moving at a blinding rate. The symptoms of this pace are beginning to show up in our children as we attempt to make them grow up quicker to fit our needs.
We live in a time-oriented and time-regulated society, where the emphasis is on speed, instant results, fast foods and services – there are even courses that offer spiritual transformation in a weekend! Very often it is ‘quantity rather than quality’, and the hothousing of vegetables and flowers (and now children?) is an accepted norm. It takes great strength and discipline to try and lead a slower pace of life, so most people flow with the fast current – and, according to Elkind, this fast current is growing rapidly faster. The hurried-child-syndrome, connected to the hurried-life-syndrome, that was once a minor ailment two decades ago, has now become an epidemic. In his book, The Hurried Child, Elkind identifies three main dynamics of hurrying – parents, schools and the media.
Firstly, he points out that many modern parents are ‘reappropriating the medieval view of seeing children only as miniature adults and yet they are not innocent about children (as our medieval forebears were), nor is our economy or society primitive’. This leads him to the question ‘What powerful motivations and distractions cause us (parents) to disregard the mountains of knowledge we have about childhood and child development?’ In other words, why are parents today treating their children as little adults when they really ‘know’ they are not little adults?
Elkind’s answer, frightening but real, is STRESS, widespread stress. The stress of fear, loneliness and insecurity; the stress of divorce and single parenting; the stress of living in a time of rapid change and impermanence – all this leaves little or no energy for enthusiastic child-rearing. And, parents ‘who are stressed, like those in ill health, are absorbed with themselves – they are, in a word, egocentric’.
Elkind then points out the dilemma this prevalence of self-centredness puts parents in in regard to raising children, as ‘successful’ child-rearing requires a good deal of self-lessness, ‘a good deal of decentering from one’s own needs and perspectives’. More and more over the past 20 years the parents’ needs have been placed in front of the child’s needs. The ‘hurried’ child is an accommodation to changes in adult society, particularly the increases in adult stress – and today’s adult expects the child to adapt more to adult-life programs than he/she adapts to their child-life programs.
In another of his books, Miseducation – Preschoolers at Risk, Elkind identifies further differences in the ‘hurrying’ process – some children are hurried because parents are stressed and overwhelmed and need them to grow up fast to reduce some of the pressure on themselves (he cites an example here of a child of a divorce asked to be the confidant of his troubled parents), but there is a newer more pernicious form of hurrying taking place in our modern times.
This form of hurrying occurs because the parents, through parental ego more than parental need, want ‘superkids’, and therefore are attempting to teach their infants to read, to do gymnastics, and more, at an age when they simply should be playing and enjoying childhood. Elkind calls this ‘miseducation’ and sees it as a ‘social invention to alleviate parental anxiety and guilt’ (p.ix). He agrees there is a considerable overlap between these two forms of hurrying (they are both stress related), and attempts in his books to help parents and teachers understand the short and long term risks of such practices.
According to Elkind, the reality in today’s society is that the conception of child competence, of the ‘superkid’, of the ‘hurried’, ‘adultified’ child has had the opposite effect to what parents may have hoped for – ‘the truth is that children in contemporary America, including advantaged children, are less well off today than they were a couple of decades ago’ (p.xiii).
Some statistics he gives include:
• a 50% increase in obesity in children over the last 20 years
• a tripling of suicide and homicide rates over the last 20 years;
• 15-20% of young children are ‘flunking’ kindergarten;
• millions of children are being medicated to make them more ‘tractable’ at home and at school;
Note – this last point is also becoming a frightening statistic in our own country. A Four Corners program on the [Australian] ABC (Feb, 1995) on Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) showed that 10% of all Australian children are diagnosed with ADD and many are being treated with amphetamines on a regular basis. Now in 2002 those numbers have increased staggeringly. The program concluded with the question ‘Are we treating a real disease or simply drugging difficult children into passivity?’ And shouldn’t we be asking ‘Why are they so difficult?’
Our industrialised and product-oriented schools are the second dynamic of ‘hurrying’. Elkind states that schools in general are out of sync with the larger society, representing our past rather than our future. The ’factory’ model of most schools ignores individual differences, and the downward thrust of the curriculum (eg computer programs for preschoolers) is adding to the miseducation and adding to the hurrying of our children. Passing tests is seen as more important than meaningful learning, and education today is mainly a preparation for the workforce rather than a preparation for life (pp 47-64).
The third dynamic, the media, is responsible for extending and indeed ‘hurrying’ our senses. Elkind points out the frightening fact that young children watch the most TV of all children. Because many parents seem powerless to control their viewing, and also because TV works to homogenise age differences, our young children today are often exposed to information beyond their developmental needs and understanding. The media is responsible for hurrying children through both information and emotional overload – eg first graders dieting to fit into designer jeans!
TV fills the vessel (ie the child) to overflowing before schools can even have their chance. Then schools add to the stress and hurrying, and it is the culmination of many different kinds of hurrying that leads to overstressed children. These children are then likely to grow into stressed adults and the vicious cycle continues.
Elkind’s books not only call our attention to the crippling effects of hurrying, but offer insight, advice and hope for encouraging healthy development of our children while protecting the joy and freedom and innocence of childhood – the natural right of every child. They are a must-read for parents in the new millennium!
Elkind, D. (1988). The Hurried Child. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Elkind, D. (1993). Miseducation – Preschoolers at Risk. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 5, March 03