Overachieving Children, Childish Adults

By | October 6, 2016 | 0 Comments


Some time ago, I asked a friend about her teenage daughter. The woman replied that her daughter had been a behavior problem when she was 13 and 14, but now that she is 18, she is finishing high school with good grades and plans to go to college. The mother added, “Maybe it’s good to go a little crazy when you’re 13 and get it out of your system. Then you don’t go crazy when you’re 18, when you can do more damage, or when you’re 30 or 40, when you can ruin your life.” She may have a point.
My first eight years were spent in a small North Dakota town. My parents told me that I was hyperactive until I was about five. I would stomp around the house singing and shouting. I would play rowdily with my friends. Of course, back then no one used the term “hyperactive.” No one had heard of ADHD. Kids were called “high-spirited,” and boys were expected to act like boys.
There was no nursery school, preschool, or even kindergarten where I lived. By the time I started the first grade when I turned six, I had calmed down and was a good student. But if I were a kid today, I would have been put on powerful drugs related to amphetamine, and given a lifelong diagnosis of mental disorder. I would have been forced into nursery school and preschool, which my parents would have applied for when I was still in the womb. I would have had homework at the age of five. My time would have been regimented with military precision. I would have little time to play.
Then there would be band practice, math coaches, soccer coaches, music teachers, and of course therapists. There would be play dates, which would be taken up by video games, not playing with actual toys that teach kids how not to break things – and sometimes even how to fix them.
Instead of going through public schools, I would have had to get into the “best” nursery school, so I could get into the “best” preschool, so I could get into the “best” elementary school, so I could get into the “best” middle school, so I could get into the “best” high school, so I could get into the “best” university – and often the “best” graduate school. All this would have drained my parents’ finances, forced both of them to work, severely reduced their time with me and with each other, and made me a nervous wreck.
I would have had little opportunity to be a child. But my need for childish behavior would not have been eliminated – only suppressed and postponed.
Despite my educationally “deprived” childhood, I got into the University of California at Berkeley, where I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in my junior year. At our graduation, the valedictorian – a woman – had a record with only one or two B’s. No one in the class of about 3000 had a perfect A average.
Before the era of grade inflation, we all knew that only God was perfect. We tried to do well, but we knew that no human was perfect. And my “deprived” record was enough to get me into the University of California School of Medicine at San Francisco.
I tell you this to make the point that nursery school, preschool, and kindergarten are now required, but they were unnecessary for academic success. Kids should have time to be kids when they are kids, so they won’t have to go through childhood when they are 40 or 50. Going to school for 16 to 20 years is too long a sentence for an innocent child. It exceeds the sentence for most criminals convicted of armed robbery or manslaughter.
Now we have “helicopter” parents – continually hovering, over-protecting, over-controlling, making decisions that kids used to make, interfering with teachers and coaches – and leaving young people incapable of making their own decisions or becoming their own persons.
Often parents – especially mothers – wait till their late thirties, forties, or even fifties to have children. Often they need intensive pharmacologic intervention. Then the child, often an only child, is seen not as a unique individual in God’s image, but as a costly possession to be shown off and boasted about. Of course the helicopter parents will hover, keeping close watch on their prized possessions.
Add to all this the pressures of maintaining a marriage and raising children. Kids do not grow up to be Superwoman or Superman. Sometimes they don’t really grow up at all. High expectations can be motivating. Unreasonable expectations can be destructive. Feminists tell girls they can “have it all.” Did they do the girls a favor? Does “all” include a failed marriage, troubled children, an unsatisfying career, and years of therapy?
Besides unneeded academic pressure, the modern regime of child rearing allows too little time for emotional development. If kids are doing homework at age five, they have less time to interact with their family and peers. Both parents probably work, assuming there are two parents, and classmates are also busy doing homework.
Going to school is too adult for very young children, but at the same time it may be too infantilizing for older teenagers and people in their 20s. I went to high school and did perhaps two hours of homework on school nights, then relaxed on weekends. Now kids have a continual cycle of homework, academic coaching, athletic coaching, and other extracurricular activities – which they must accomplish to get into the “best” universities.
Often there is no time for dating as we knew it. There is only time for “hooking up.” If you think brief episodes of loveless sex are a good preparation for a long-term marriage, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. It’s a really nice bridge.
Teaching young people to be ambitious and goal-oriented is good, so long as it isn’t overdone. A spring that is too tightly wound is likely to snap at an unexpected and inconvenient time.
Twenty years of intense overachieving may be a good preparation for a degree in law, engineering, or medicine. But it is a lousy preparation for a well-rounded adult who takes responsibility for a spouse and a family. Spending your adolescence doing math may make you a good engineer, but it may leave you at the emotional age of 13.
Psychologists and drug counselors see clients who did drugs from age 13 to age 30. Even when the clients become clean and sober, they are still aged 13 emotionally. What 30-year-old potential spouse wants to marry, or even date, a 13-year old? The ex-drug user may be socially handicapped for the rest of his or her life.
The same risk may apply to academic overachievers. It may make little difference to your emotional development whether you spend your time locked in your room smoking pot, playing video games, or doing calculus problems. You’re still stuck as an emotional 13-year-old. You’re no better off at age 30 than the “stoner.”
I believe something similar is happening to many middle-aged overachievers. We should ease up on kids. We should let them have time to be kids when they’re young. Otherwise, we run the risk of having to deal with childish adults in positions of great power and responsibility.
Recently a man called the police. He told them that his brother was “high” on drugs and was running around with a large knife. The police arrived, the brother came at them brandishing the knife, and the police shot him. But the man – who called the police because he could not control his brother – complained bitterly. What did he expect the police to do – allow the brother to run in the street with a knife? It was as if he were a child and told daddy his brother was acting out, then began to cry when daddy smacked the brother, while screaming, “I hate you, Daddy, I hate you!”
Adults acting like children aren’t just annoying; they can be dangerous. The police, or government in general, can’t substitute for daddy. Kids, especially boys, need real daddies to help them grow into adults. Inadequate parenting can be just as damaging as excessive parenting – damaging to the family, and damaging to the nation.
I believe that many of our current political and social problems result from so-called adults acting with intense self-absorption, a vast sense of entitlement, the unshakeable belief that they are the center of the universe, a complete disregard for the consequences of their actions, and a total inability to hear the word “no” without throwing a tantrum of epic proportions. How better can one define the word “childish”?

Contact: dstol@prodigy.net. You are welcome to publish or post these articles, provided that you cite the author and website.

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