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How to Let Kids Be Kids

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The hyper-parenting hype

This tendency of parents to organize their children's lives like Admiral Ramsay plotting the invasion of Normandy is a phenomenon that Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., the former head of the child psychiatry training program at Stanford University in California and author of The Overscheduled Child, calls hyper-parenting. It's a form of "child-rearing madness," Rosenfeld says, with no proven scientific advantages. Even the central tenet of hyper-parenting — the idea that parents ought to accelerate children's performance at everything from reading to swinging a bat — may be incorrect: Some of the world's most prominent talents have emerged at a very human pace from decidedly average or even troubled beginnings. "Leonard Bernstein started playing the piano at 10," notes Rosenfeld. "And until George Gershwin discovered music, he specialized, apparently with considerable success, in being a child hoodlum." And Michael Jordan, one of the great athletes of all time? "At first, he didn't make his high school's J.V. basketball team."

Of course, there are some children who really do thrive on being supercharged and superbusy. But for every kid who enjoys keeping lots of balls in the air, there are probably 10 who suffer in the process. All work and no play makes Jack not just a dull boy but, in the long run, a less happy and productive one, too. In the leisure time kids manage to squeeze out between appointments, they're often engaged in electronic media — computers, television. Which may be sometimes educational and entertaining, but they are not play; in fact, according to Linn, they are usually "antithetical to play." Play is about discovering what the world is for yourself; most computer games and television shows are presenting you with a world invented by a programmer, where you are either a passive spectator or a character defined and limited by rules that other people have engineered. There is speed, noise, action, distraction. But to develop into a creative being in this noisy, fast-paced, electronics-filled world, Linn insists, children need "time, space, and silence."

How can you let your kid just be a kid?

There's a good chance that your child is, right now, making his own Harry Potter broomstick out of a stick he found in the backyard ... and he might prefer it to the pricey vibrating plastic version you were thinking of buying him. Childhood experts and those who have studied the stressed-out are weighing in on the ways we can help our children reclaim simpler pleasures. Here are a few of their suggestions for slowing down and getting a little balance back into kids' lives:

  • Embrace the joy of goofing around.
    If you live in an area where you can let your child run amok with his friends outdoors, let him; if you don't, remember that just hanging with friends and neighbors indoors can be great too. I've recently adopted an open-door policy with the parents and kids in my building: The result sometimes necessitates that I wear earplugs and swill wine on a Saturday afternoon when the hordes descend, but the chaos and occasional showdowns ("You cheated!" "Did not!" — ah, the dulcet tones of 6-year-old boys) are far preferable to the eerie silence that descends when little kids are locked for hours in the world of Noggin or Club Penguin.
     
  • Limit kids to one or two activities per season.
    For her book The Overachievers, which chronicled the lives of hyper-competitive teens destined for prestigious colleges, Alexandra Robbins interviewed kids of all ages; she found some as young as 6 who complained of stress, and 8-year-olds who were carrying day planners. "Kids may have lots of energy, but they get as tense as adults would when they're overscheduled," Robbins says.

    Some parents I know are taking the less-is-more idea a step further, at least temporarily. "One semester we took the girls out of everything," says Soledad O'Brien, an anchor and special correspondent for CNN and mother of four children under 8. With all the various activities of the older girls, "it was getting insane ... and it was hurricane season for me, so I was traveling more than usual. I said, 'Screw it,' and took 'em out of all extracurriculars." O'Brien then substituted dates with her daughters: Once a week Mom picked up one girl, who got to do whatever she wanted — museum, bookstore, carriage ride in Central Park, lunch in the CNN cafeteria (a favorite). "One-on-one time is great, especially with four kids," says O'Brien. "And a child walking down the street telling complete strangers, 'I'm on a date with my mom!' is really sweet."
     
  • Eat dinner together.
    Forget homework and extracurriculars; if you really want your children to thrive, break bread with them. "For young children, mealtime at home is a stronger predictor of academic achievement and psychological adjustment than time spent in school, studying, sports, church/religious activities, or art activities," says William J. Doherty, Ph.D., a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and author of The Intentional Family. And for older kids? Family dinner is not only a strong predictor of academic success; it is also correlated with lower rates of alcohol and drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicide risk.

  • Encourage more human time, less screen and toy time.
    Our children are spending larger and larger chunks of time with stuff and less time with people. "Think about it," says Elkind. "Even with something as simple as a car ride ... parents used to use car time to talk to their kids, and now the kids are watching DVDs in the backseat." Elkind also notes that the reason classic toys like Etch A Sketch, Mr. Potato Head, and Play-Doh are still popular is that they don't direct a child's play; they don't say, "Here's the story. Play with me like this." Instead, these simpler toys allow for more wide-ranging, creative experience. "A good toy is 90 percent child and only 10 percent toy," notes Linn.

  • Introduce computers with caution.
    Many childhood experts agree that the interactive quality of computers can be powerfully motivating for kids who are learning to read and write — and games can be just plain pleasurable, too. But, notes Elkind, computers are finding their ways into tinier and tinier hands. "There are these little computers and computer games for 6-month-olds now," he says. "Parents who say, 'Well, computers are part of our world' are right. But to them I say: 'Microwaves are part of our world too, and you wouldn't stick one in the crib of a 6-month-old.'" 

  • Reclaim summer.
    The first week of summer, I took my son Henry up to a lake outside the city and assumed he'd do exactly what I'd done at his age: hunt around for frogs, stare at the dragonflies. Instead, I got "Boorring"; he couldn't wait to get back home to open his lemonade stand and make some bucks. Now, this kid has been Alex P. Keaton since the moment he heard the words Commerce Bank; still, I was appalled that he had so little concept of the pleasures of a lazy summer day. Maybe taking him on a tour of the New York Stock Exchange a few days earlier instead of going to a friend's swimming pool hadn't been such a hot idea.

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