The Harried Parent and the Stressed-Out Child

 In Article, Children, Kids, Parenting

  Articles: The Harried Parent and the Stressed-Out Child

By Patricia VanBuskirk, MFT

The Myths have successfully invaded our culture!! The following cultural myths are shaping our lives, and it is time we take a deep and critical look at them:

“the more you do, the better you are”
“the faster you go, the more productive you are”
“the more activities and successes of your child, the better parent you are”
“earlier is better”

Let’s examine the impact of living by these myths on our children, our families, and ourselves.

In the 1988 edition of the seminal work entitled THE HURRIED CHILD, David Elkind states “today’s child has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress — the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations.” He urges us to deeply examine the impact of our frenetic pace on the lives of our children.

In a recent article entitled “See How They Run” by William Doherty, PhD., the rat race of hyperscheduling, overbusyness, and the loss of family time is described as the “problem of the decade”. Teachers of young children see children as tired and burdened from being up too early in the morning, going to bed too late at night, and being crunched in between by extremely competitive activities. One teacher calls these children “an abused generation”.

If this is true, then “What are we thinking?”


Many of us are afraid that our child will miss out on opportunities or fall behind their peers. Of course this fuels early, intense involvement in activities and we feel pressured to have our children show promise at young ages and be introduced to many different activities so they can achieve their dreams. It appears, however, that the MYTHS have insidiously crept in. The more you do, the better you are” and “the more activities and successes of my child, the better parent I am” as well as another sneaky invader, “earlier is better”.

It is suggested that the adult world of hypercompetiton has invaded the family. Our culture defines a good parent as an opportunity provider in a competitive world. So we feel we are doing our job if we are keeping our children busy and in the game. How often do you “brag” about how busy you are? How often do you “brag” about how busy your kids are? (“Brag” could look like “complain”.) We need to remember that parenting is not a competitive sport.

What is Good Parenting?

We all desire to be good parents. But what are the standards of “good enough parenting” (that is, not “perfect”, just “good enough”)? Some ideas are as follows:

How well do you KNOW your child?

What is his or her temperament?

How do they enter a room?

What makes them feel successful? (Have you asked?)

How do they do life?

What is his or her stage of development?

What are realistic expectations of this age and stage of development?

How much quiet time do they have during the day? (This does not include TV watching.)

What does your child do when he/she is bored? Whining is okay, by the way. A parent is not an recreation director. You can have around the house clay, paints, hammers/nails, books, scissors, balls, bikes, etc. That’s it.

How many days a week do you not get into a car? How often do you walk to the park or around the block?

How often does your child hang out and be a kid?

How much parent-child time do you have with your child?

We must begin to question our assumptions: Who ever said a parent has to work in the classroom? Where did we get the idea that a parent has to be at every single game and every single practice? What about carpooling to practices so some parents can stay home and make dinner and spend one-on-one time with another child?

Doherty reports a study by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center during 1981 and 1997 found that during those 16 years, children lost 12 hours per week in free time, including a 25% drop in playtime and a 50% drop in unstructured outdoor activities. During the same period, time in structured sports doubled (emphasis mine) and ’passive, spectator leisure’ (watching sibling sand others play and perform) increased sixfold– from half an hour per week to more than three hours. Time spent on homework increased by 50 percent.

Many parents are acting like professional agents for their children. They are afraid their children will be left behind when the achievement train leaves the station. We must all do what we can do to stop this rushing and regain our innate sense of childhood and family.


This fast-tracking of childhood is a new cultural phenomenon. There are great losses involved in buying into Cultural Myths. One major loss is that of relationships. When we are overscheduled, relationships suffer. Relationships with our partner, our friends, our family, and, a very important one, with our children are the victims. The parent-child relationship is the most important relationship in determining mental health, and it has nearly dropped off the radar screen.

Family Meals

Doherty reports a study of American teens found that having family meals showed a higher incidence of academic success, psychological adjustment, and lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behavior, and suicide.

Did you know that more meal time at home is the “single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems”? Mealtime is more powerful than going to school studying, going to church, playing sports or doing art activities. Amazing!! These results found in a study at University of Michigan hold across all types of families and all income levels. And yet a recent study shows those even claiming to have regular family dinners has decreased by one-third.

Our Children are At Risk!

Dogherty states that for the first time in human history family life revolves around children’s optional activities rather than these activities revolving around the family. Reread this sentence before you go on.

What do our children think of all of this? A recent national poll found that more than 20% of teenagers rated “not having enough time with parents” as their top concern. Ron Taffel found that in a study he completed one wish expressed by nearly every child between the ages of preschool and 6th grade was that their parents would spend more time with them.

Much of this time famine is because of parents deciding to work more hours and more jobs. Another factor, however, is more insidious: the overscheduling of kids.

What do I do??

Well-intentioned parents take note: We are neither professional agents nor recreation directors for our children. Nor can we continue to project our unfulfilled desires (i.e., dancer or athlete) onto our children. We can no longer validate our parenting by the successes or failures of our children. We are buying into those aforementioned cultural MYTHS that faster is better, earlier is better, and the more you do makes you a more successful parent. Again, these are MYTHS that we live by, which guide us into inappropriate belief systems and potentially harmful behaviors. We can do something:

Examine our own participation in the myths stated above.
Begin to speak out about the negative influence of frantic schedules and the resulting time famine on family life. For example, it is okay to say NO to coaches who require two or three practices a week in addition to a week-end game.

Begin to “know your child”. It is really OK not to have your child in a sport if he or she wants to climb the trees in your yard. It is OK to wait until your child is older to introduce extracurricular activities of any kind.

Be careful about projection. If you want to take dance, Mom, take dance and leave your child to play in the mud. If you want to play baseball, Dad, join a league and let your child daydream.

Encourage creativity. Did you know that most creative ideas come out of quiet unstructured time, i.e., what we call “boredom”? Did you know that the most creative ideas come from trying something new, failing, trying something else, failing, trying it a different way, and then succeeding at some point? This takes “TIME”.

Sit down and examine your daily schedule. Work on creating alternative schedules and stop regarding frenetic lives as normal and inevitable.

Remember you and your significant others (this includes friends, family significant other, etc.) need nurturing as well. Are you allowing your kid-centered schedule to interfere with your primary relationships?

Celebrate national TAKE BACK YOUR TIME DAY, on October 24, 2003. We are facing a new threat to childhood and family life — it is disguised as “fun”, “achievement”, “healthy competition”, and “keeping busy”. This is a MYTH — name it. And begin talking about it.

We are dealing with the problem of an out-of-control culture that is unfriendly to children, marriage and other adult unions. And, we are “them”. We are the culture. Are we willing to STOP and look and question and change?

Doherty, William, Ph.D., “See How They Run”, Psychotherapy Networker, September/October 2003.
Elkind, David, Ph.D., The Hurried Child, Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, Rev. Edition, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1988.

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