The Hurried Child, Revisited

About 20 years ago, my supervisor suggested that I pick up the book The Hurried Child by David Elkind. This was shortly after I had finished graduate school and was just starting out in my first professional job. He suggested I read the book in order to give myself some context around the lives that many of the children in my caseload were leading. I devoured the book and it changed the way I think about kids and their relationships with adults and society.

Originally published in 1981,  The Hurried Child’s central premise is that powerful forces in our rapidly changing society have combined to pressure children to grow up too fast. By placing unreasonable expectations on our children, we have created a nation of stressed-out, type-A kids. Over the years, I have recommended The Hurried Child to many of my clients as well as to most of my friends and family members. I Recently  picked it up again to see if I would continue to hold it in such high regard after being in the field of child development for over 20 years and after nearly 7 years of being a parent myself.

The Hurried Child

For the most part, the book has held up quite well. Many of the societal dynamics that Dr. Elkind, a professor of Child Development at Tufts University, described in 1981 have become more firmly entrenched and pervasive over the past 3 decades. On the other hand, I found parts of the book to rely too heavily on generalization, hyperbole, and a view of family life that often seems unrealistically nostalgic.

Dr. Elkind states his main point right at the outset of The Hurried Child:

“The concept of childhood, so vital to the traditional American way of life, is threatened with extinction in the society we have created. Today’s childhood has become the unwilling, unintended victim of overwhelming stress – the stress borne of rapid, bewildering social change and constantly rising expectations. The contemporary parent dwells in a pressure cooker of competing demands, transitions, role changes, personal and professional uncertainties, over which he or she exerts slight direction.” 

According to Dr. Elkind, parental stress often leads to emotional exhaustion. At a certain point parents lose their ability to be “other-oriented” and they unconsciously begin to put their own needs before their children’s needs. Parental frustration gets projected onto children, who, through their academic, athletic, and social achievements, become surrogates for their parents. Dr. Elkind cites the increased pressure for early intellectual accomplishment in schools, the growth of children’s camps and programs that focus on helping children to improve their skills rather than having fun and relaxing, and a tendency for parents to treat their children as friends, confidantes, and fellow decision-makers as just a few of the specific manifestations of this dynamic. The pressure that children feel to succeed in a world that places unrealistic demands upon them inevitably leads to a fragile sense of self-worth that is bound up in adults’ expectations of them and that is shaped and put at risk by their limited ability to cope with these demands.

Dr. Elkind also lays much of the responsibility for hurrying children firmly in the laps of our public education system and its ever growing emphasis on high stakes, standardized testing. He writes:

“Accountability and test scores are what schools are about today, and children know it. They have to produce or else. This pressure may be good for many students, but it is bound to be bad for those who can’t keep up… Worse, students who fail to achieve feel that they are letting down their peers, their teachers, the principal, the superintendent, and the community. This is a heavy burden for many children to bear and is a powerful pressure to achieve early and grow up fast.”

What are we to make of Dr. Elkind’s assertions? To me, his observations and conclusions about education are right on the money. Written 20 years before No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were passed, The Hurried Child’s description of a system that is consumed by the relentless pressure to improve test scores was darkly prophetic and has more resonance today than it did when it was first published. Testing has taken on the predominant role not only in our assessments of children’s progress but also in the performance of our teachers, administrators, and school districts as a whole. Increasingly, testing has become a part of children’s educational experience from their earliest days in school. According to Reuters, as of September, 2012, at least 25 states mandate at least one standardized, formal assessment of kindergartners per year. In fact, “states that pledged to assess all kindergartners earned extra points on their applications” for federal early education grants. Education.com cites a study by The Alliance for Childhood that found that nationwide, kindergarten teachers spend 20 to 30 minutes per day on activities associated with testing.

Aside from the pressure placed on young children and lost learning opportunities for our children, our current system is a drain on our teaching talent as well. Personally, I know of at least two veteran, extremely talented teachers who quit or retired early rather than be boxed in by the one-size-fits-all approach to education that seems to be the inevitable outcome of our fixation on testing.

I also found that The Hurried Child’s observations on how parents hurry their kids have held up quite well over the years. One area near and dear to my heart that Dr. Elkind touches on is the trend towards sending children to specialty camps that focus more on skill development than on anything else. He writes:

“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.”

Each year during the summer, my practice stops conducting its weekly social skills groups and becomes a small summer day camp. From its inception in 1995, we have striven to swim against the tide that Dr. Elkind describes. We focus on cooperative, non-competitive games that take the focus off performance and evaluation. Kids succeed as long as they’re trying hard, having fun, and keeping the needs of their fellow campers in mind. In such an environment, kids tend to be more relaxed, less defensive, and more receptive to social overtures from their peers or counselors. Because they feel more comfortable without the looming sense that their performance is being monitored and judged, they tend to throw themselves fully into our activities, which, parenthetically, tends to improve their physical and social skills in the process.

Dr. Elkind also takes time to point out aspects of contemporary parent-child relationships marked by inappropriate limit-setting and role confusion that can contribute further to a child’s sense of confusion and frustration. Many of these observations are spot on and make the book worthy of a read by anyone who comes in regular contact with children.

On re-reading The Hurried Child, I did find some parts problematic. Some of this reaction was a visceral reaction stemming from the fact that this time, I read the book as a parent – in particular, a parent from a different generation than the author. David Elkind was born in 1931 so many of his formative years occurred during the aftermath of World War II. The United States emerged from that conflict as the only major industrialized nation not to have suffered complete devastation. We were  able to become world’s pre-eminent economic power and our families attained unprecedented levels of comfort and prosperity. It was possible for many families to raise kids with only one income earner in the household. As the rest of the world re-built, we gradually found ourselves with an economy that often required two income earners per household. When The Hurried Child was written, that transition was still relatively new and  fluid. Today, I know of very few families who can afford to have one parent stay at home full time. In my family, we’d be in pretty dire straits without two full-time incomes. What I’m getting at is that the stress, competition, and constant change that still struck Dr. Elkind as being novel in 1981 seems to be a settled fact of life these days. As I re-read the book and came across his critiques of overworked families and their priorities, I found myself thinking “Dude! I’m trying! But give me a break! I can’t always be the perfect parent!” At this point, whether it’s for better or worse, it’s the life that I and millions of other parents have been dealt and we just have to try to make the best of it.

Despite this objection, along with Dr. Elkind’s tendency to overstate the negative role of the media, sex education, and other issues on the lives of children, The Hurried Child remains a valuable, thought provoking book. As long as the reader tries to keep its dire and alarmist tones in perspective, it can offer a very helpful lens through which to view our relationships and interactions with children.

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4 Responses to The Hurried Child, Revisited

  1. kara says:

    Thanks, Bruce! I will pick up a copy. I am ever so grateful for the fact that I can stay home with my son. I am one of the fortunate few, but, I can say, it has been the best gift for both of us!! Thank you again, for all you do.

    Kara

    • bsabian says:

      Kara – I wasn’t trying to pass myself off as “working class hero.” If you do go out and get the book, you’ll see that he sets the bar pretty high sometimes for parents. Having said that, it’s still a classic in the world of child development. Most of the books that become as widely read as The Hurried Child tend to be about more of a specific topic or a “how to” kind of book. The Hurried Child is a pretty far reaching book and gives the reader lots to think about.

  2. Nancy says:

    Bruce,
    Thank you for this great article. The “free play” that kids had when I was growing up is scarce in today’s society. I am a huge fan of “playing in the neighborhood” because the lack of adult driven rules, expectations, etc. make playing fun and I find that the kids build their competitive and social skills naturally. My two sons love to play in the neighborhood and they often have a hard time finding kids who aren’t in structured programs. The school and home setting provides a good basis for them to practice and learn from their mistakes or conflict with neighborhood kids. Amen to letting kids be kids and not having them focused on achieving the next goal.

    Thank you so much for your newsletter, I look forward to every publication.

    • bsabian says:

      Thanks Nancy. There’s a good sized section in The Hurried Child about unstructured play. You’re right – there are definitely fewer opportunities for it now than there used to be. There are lots of good reasons to believe that it helps kids develop executive function skills – in setting their own agenda, they have to deal with time management, negotiation and compromise, emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, etc…Plus, unstructured play is just fun, which is the most important thing. Kind of a fine line to walk when you have a kid who has cognitive/social issues as that unstructured time can be overwhelming at times. Somewhere, there’s a balance though.

      By the way, Elkind wrote a separate book on this called The Power of Play. Unfortunately, it’s not very good.

      Thanks for the kind words about the newsletter and blog!

      Bruce

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