We’ve Turned Childhood into a Competition and We’re all Losing

We are a competitive culture. In business school we are taught that we can’t fix it until we measure it. As a society, we are addicted to knowing where we rank—first, second, third—and to constant improvement in an effort to raise our scores. Since our kids were babies, we logged their first smiles, celebrated that magical day they rolled over, and when they were (finally!) potty trained. We know these milestones because, as any good parent would, we bought the book. Or, our friends bought it for us, wrapped it up in cute yellow and green paper, and presented it to us to use as our pregnancy bible, kick-starting our obsession with yardsticks. Read by more than 90% of pregnant women who read a pregnancy book, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, is arranged into milestones that our children should meet. If we needed our competitive instincts to kick in any harder, this definitely did it.

If you are concerned that your little one is just not keeping up with her head lifting, there are tips, including providing more tummy time, preferably 15 to 20 minutes every day by the first month. Once our offspring reaches four or five years old and starts to interact in the more academic realm of preschool, we reach for other measures with which to measure our prodigy against their little preschooler friends. The easiest and most readily available yardstick for us and for teachers is reading. There are numerous tests that psychologists run to measure intelligence, but in elementary schools across the country, reading is, by far, the easiest way to benchmark children until they get a good way through elementary school. Little Abby’s ability to organize the most creative American Girl tea party or play a mean, age-advanced game of Uno aren’t easily measurable or accessible statistics. As they grow up, we measure accomplishment by the college sticker stuck to their rear window.

We work, from the instant they’re born, we set our kids off on a path, this Path of Conformity, on which we work to brand them and wrap them up in college-application-ready packages. Our kids need to be triple threats in the sport of life to get into a competitive college, because they are actually that hard to get into. They must be high-performing students with exceptional GPAs and course loads filled with academic rigor, varsity sports, and leadership positions on the student council, the school newspaper, or other club of their choice. To ensure they’re well-rounded little triple threats, we’re pushing our kids into more activities, or at least signing the waiver when they ask and not saying no when they want to add one more activity to their already packed schedules. Homework loads have increased so that weeknights are filled with practices, tutoring, homework, and reading, with little or no free time.

The Downside of the Path

The downside is that our kids are missing out on a lot of what growing up is supposed to entail. Childhood is no longer a time for exploration, for giving curiosity free rein. It is no longer a time for developing character through free, unorganized play. It is no longer a time for kids to learn about limits and stretching those limits, taking chances while the stakes are lower and then learning from mistakes made. Childhood has become a high stakes game of sticking to the syllabus, of adding experiences and expertise that our kids can package up to make themselves into the most attractive college application possible.

Off the Path

There is a better way. The first step to understanding our options and finding a better way is to be aware that we didn’t get here by following a well thought out plan. The problem is not just that the path to getting into a top school is exceptionally hard and requires a lot of sacrifices. It’s that we’re actually sacrificing the experiences and growth that will help our kids figure out who they really are, what they really want to do, and who they really can become. The sacrifices are not just Friday night sleepovers, they’re much more important things like the freedom to be curious and to follow a string to see where it leads, the freedom to play without adult direction or supervision, the experience of learning through failure. When honors tracks start in elementary school and 8th grade scores can show up on high school transcripts, we learn to play the college admissions game when our kids are at a very early age. Activities are year-round starting in early elementary school. The season never ends. And this is for kids who will, in all probability, go no farther than their high school teams. We ended up here by making college admissions the goal at the expense of our children’s development of their own unique strengths and interest—of their individualness.

The beauty of embracing our children’s uniqueness, their individualness, is that they will they have a better chance of figuring out what they enjoy and where their strengths lie. If we are bold enough to help our kids jump off the Path of Conformity, to encourage them to utilize their own strengths and follow their own interests, they will find passion and glory racing to the top of the mountain of their choosing, on their own path.