In the hothouse, parents plan out the lives of their children and propel them into a variety of programmed activities that are intended to have Ivy League appeal; they then ferry the kids around to classes and activities. The critical element in this setup is not that it leaves the kids with little unstructured time but that there is no way of opting out. Someone is always there to see that they get to the next stop in the circuit of activities. Playing hooky, daydreaming, or just kicking back is out of the question, and the programming starts early in order to carve the groove as deeply as possible. "My neighbor's boy goes to karate, soccer, swimming, and baseball after going to school four days a week from 8:30 to 2:30," says one mother in suburban Connecticut. "He's five years old. And he has no free time." Neither does his mother.
The Hottest of Hothouses
The ultimate in hothouse parenting is undoubtedly homeschooling, a phenomenon so appealing to today's parents that it is growing at the rate of 7 to 15 percent a year. To the best that anyone knows, well more than 1.1 million children in the United States are now schooled at home by their parents, perhaps 2.1 million, with or without additional tutors. Homeschooling is now legal in every state in the United States, but it is not uniformly regulated, and in some states it is not regulated at all; whatever parents choose to do, they can. The adults often provide many rationales for homeschooling, from the inculcation of religious or political values to inferior public school instruction to the avoidance of educational regimentation that does not keep pace with their child's needs. Their children may even excel academically.
That is not its danger. Whatever else it does, homeschooling deprives children of any chance to breathe, of opportunities to discover themselves on their own and to escape from parental vigilance, parental bias, or parental ignorance. It gives parents license to micromanage every detail of their children's lives. It gives children a false sense of their own preciousness; many parents, in fact, choose to homeschool their children because they feel their kids are "special," surveys show. There is a deeper, more subtle issue: the nonstop scrutiny that comes with making the home a school disables in children the mental mechanism that is activated only by separation from parents, the mechanism that will endow children with the eventual ability to navigate securely on their own in the world.
"I'm My Parents' Hobby"
If you're searching for someone to blame, consider Dr. Seuss. "Parents have told their kids from day one that there's no end to what they are capable of doing," says John Portmann, an assistant professor who teaches in the religious studies department at the University of Virginia. "They read them the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You'll Go! and create bumper stickers telling the world their child is an honor student. American parents today expect their children to be perfectthe smartest, fastest, most charming people in the universe. And if they can't get a child to prove it on their own, they'll turn to doctors to make their kids into the people that parents want to believe their kids are." What they're really doing, he stresses, is "showing kids how to work the system for their own benefit."
And subjecting them to intense scrutiny. "I wish my parents had some other hobby than me," one young patient told David Anderegg, a child psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts, and professor of psychology at Bennington College. The author of Worried All the Time, Anderegg finds parents are anxious and hyperattentive to their kids, reactive to every blip of their child's day, eager to solve every problem for their childand believe that's good parenting. "If you have an infant and the baby has gas, burping the baby is being a good parent. But when you have a ten-year-old who has metaphorical gas, you don't have to burp them. You have to let them sit with it, try to figure out what to do about it. They then learn to tolerate moderate amounts of difficulty, and it's not the end of the world."
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