Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Hurried Child Syndrome

In "The Hurried Child", Dr David Elkind calls us to take note of the dangers of exposing children to a life of 'overwhelming pressures" for it can lead to lower self-esteem. By expecting children to "grow up too fast too soon", they will tend to immitate adult sophistication and hide their natural childlike innocence. Quoting Alvin Toffler, the author digs into the background of the modern stress faced by young children. "The new society required mobility. It needed workers who would follow jobs from place to place. Torn apart by migration to the cities, battered by economic storms, families strip themselves of unwanted relatives, grew smaller, more mobile, more suited to the needs of the workplace."

Elkind observes that the pressures on middle-class children began in early childhood, with people putting extreme respect for child prodigies. Young geniuses like Terence Tao are revered. People do have a knack for promoting 'miniature adults' so much that the kids may miss out on the joys of being a kid! Elkind writes:
"Chief among them is the pressure for early intellectual attainment, deriving from a changed perception of precocity. Several decades ago precocity was looked upon with great suspicion. Early ripe, early rot is seen as evidence of bad parenting." (David Elkind, The Hurried Child,6)
For Elkind, creating 'miniature adults' is a bad idea. Instead it is important to give children space and time to grow, and develop at their natural pace. The problem of the hurried children that leads to stressed children is due to the Four dynamics of hurrying: Parents, Schools, Media, Lapware, brain research and Internet. Parents unwittingly become self-centered when stressed and transfer this to their kids, to keep up with their neighbours' children. Schools through tests and exams are inadequate measurements of a child's progress. Elkind then attacks the media using statistics to show how much programming has been targeted at children (a vulnerable group), and urged reading as an 'antidote' to watching TV. Finally, he talks about the use of the modern technology which hurries children by having adults putting kids on their lap to look at the computer together as 'lapware'. What happens to good old days of playing marbles in a patchy ground, rather than clicking digital images on the LCD computer screen?

These four reasons are pretty compelling.

- Grow up slowly
- Learning to be social
- Learn how children react to stress
- Need to help already-hurried children

Interestingly there are people who reacted to Dr Elkind's thesis of a hurried child. For instance, Lynott & Logue argues that there are three problems with such a thesis. Firstly, the statistics used by Elkind are historically limited. Secondly, it fails to identify who the hurried children are. Thirdly, there is a negative bias in the work and it uses a deterministic model. Based on the three problems, they conclude that the "Hurried Children" is a myth, which is untrue for a 'large majority' of children in America.

While I think it is a somewhat valid technical critique on the methodology, Elkind's work should motivate us to be more actively involved in the education and growth of our children. We should become more mindful about the four dynamics of hurrying, especially for those parents who are too busy not to think. On the other side of the coin, Lynott & Logue helps us not to fall into the other extreme of paranoia over the "Hurried Children" syndrome. Elkind's work ought to be seen as a good wake-up call especially for middle-class working parents who hardly have time to spend with their children. Whatever it is, both viewpoints should highlight the increasing need for parents and children to be in relationship that is open, two-way and frequent. This is not easy but has to be done. Otherwise, how can we obey the instructions like:

"Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." (Proverbs 22:6)
Both sociological viewpoints described above lacks the positive punch of what then shall we teach the child? The biblical way is proven through the centuries. Here in this verse, the verb 'Train' is in a commanding tone, while the verbs pertaining to the child is in the 'imperfect' tense. The imperfect tense means an action that is incomplete. There is a notion of some things that the parents cannot control. It is like the parents can only prepare the children up to a certain point. After that the child will have to walk his own way. That puts the importance not to be too content-driven but to be more process-driven in our educational aspects. This is like not feeding or overfeeding a man but to teach the man how to fish. Life skills is more important than being able to compress millions of bits into a small mind. Such life skills can be best imparted by observing how each child is wired. One of the best ways is through play, and constant communication. That's the imperative for parents not to be a sage by the stage but to be a guide by the side.


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