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Jewish World Review June 12, 2001 / 22 Sivan, 5761

Betsy Hart

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Consumer Reports

All structure, no play . . . -- IN the movie classic "The Sound of Music," wealthy Captain von Trapp's housekeeper tells the newly arrived governess Maria, who is shocked that her young charges don't seem to have play clothes, that "The von Trapp children do not play - they march."

As we all know the movie has a happy ending, but watching it again made me think of today's elite children, of whom it might sadly be said "they don't play - they achieve." News stories have chronicled the plethora of high-powered American kids, the ones in daily pre-pre-school at the age of two (if that's not too late) before moving on to an intense schedule of sports, music, and academic enrichment activities - prior to kindergarten, and before things really get serious.

But this isn't just about the super high-powered. It seems more and more American kids have been prematurely pushed onto the fast-track. TIME magazine, in noting studies showing that today's children typically don't have nearly as much free, unstructured playtime as kids did just a few decades ago, entitled a recent article on the phenomenon, "What Ever Happened to Play?" Similarly, the Associated Press has reported that across the United States the time schools allow for recess is way down, increasingly squeezed out by academics and structured activities.

What's going on? Kay Hymowitz is an expert on children and the culture, and the author of the book "Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future - and Ours" . (HARDCOVER) or (PAPERBACK) . She's also an editor of the Manhattan Institute's magazine "City Journal," for which she recently wrote about the trend of child as super-achiever in a piece entitled "Survivor: The Manhattan Kindergarten."

Hymowitz told me that she thinks there's been a fundamental shift in how parents view their role. A generation or more ago, it was the goal of parents to raise good people, men and women who became upstanding citizens and good parents and spouses themselves. But today, Hymowitz says, the goal seems to revolve around training children to achieve.

The formative years are now less about letting children experience the innocent joys of play and, in the process developing their "whole person," Hymowitz contends, than it is a period for networking and resume building. Under this new hyper-scheduled child rearing paradigm, filled with classes and "enrichment" activities from the earliest days, Hymowitz told me "there is just no time for creativity."

How did we get here? Hymowitz sees our culture as more "achievement" oriented than ever before - and says that those high-powered plans and priorities are getting passed on to kids. In addition, Hymowitz suggests it as having something to do with the sheer number of moms in the workforce. It used to be that a mother was primarily in the home preserving a less structured, more protected and values-oriented environment, a kind of sanctuary, which balanced what the dad was doing in the world. Now in many cases both parents are in the "achievement sphere" and that's what the kids are trained to model.

It may also be attributable in part to a decline in spiritual values. Hymowitz says kids today are often pushed with vigor into Sunday school or Hebrew school programs. But the anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests that this may often be less about developing what was once seen as a child's all-important spiritual life than it is about another track of achievement that needs to be successfully completed.

Hymowitz, like a growing number of expert and lay observers of this scenario, told me she is concerned that we are raising kids with terrific resumes - who are stressed out and who miss out on many of the innocent, unstructured, creative joys of childhood play. That, she fears, can lead to an overall narrowing of the inner person, including a life-long inability to revel in the simple pleasures of, well, life.

This isn't news to me. Every year as we head into summer, I'm saddened to see young children scheduled into one camp or activity after another all day long all summer long. I'm considered different because my kids - the older ones only - are signed-up for little more than one week of morning vacation Bible school and a few tennis classes. Mainly my family is looking forward to enjoying long lazy days together at the pool, with lots of PB&J sandwiches and Popsicles, good books (for them and me), and all kinds of time for the kids to just play.

Whew. Looking around me, I'm sure glad I'm not a "modern" parent.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2001, Scripps Howard News Service