He’s doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing for his age,’ was once music to parents ears, comforting confirmation that their child was healthy, normal and developing at just the right rate. But in today’s achievement-oriented, competitive society, it seems that many parents want more. They want their children to be healthy and normal, of course, but they also want them to be developing a little faster and a little better than the rest-doing more than they’re supposed to be doing for their age. They want them to be precocious, gifted, talented and accomplished, to have an edge. They want them to be superchildren.
Is it because these parents want the best for their children that they want them to be the best? Sometimes. But sometimes, there are other motivating factors. Parents who missed getting into a top university are bent on rearing Oxbridge-bound children. Parents who were mediocre athletes are intenton their children excelling on the court, the playing field, the slopes. Parents who were never manage more than ‘chopsticks’ on the piano are determined that their children be weaned to Chopin. Parents who were never completely satisfied with their lot want a lot more of their children. Parents who consider their children a reflection of themselves want their children to reflect well. Even parents who don’t philosophically believe in pushing often end up pushing-if only so their children won’t fall behind the rest.
But whatever the reason for pushing a child towards superchild status, experts agree that it’s ultimately a mistake. While it might well temporarily net the kind of prodigious progeny these parents dream of – it is possible to teach very young children, even babies to read (monkeys can be taught to read, too) – the benefits will be short-lived and the price too great. Studies support the following generalization about children whose parents impose too much pressure too soon, as compared with less pressured children:
- Their long-term performance is not improved. For example, though children who are taught to read early may have an initial edge, it is quickly lost as children who begin later catch up. It’s much wiser to wait until a child wants to learn – at which point learning comes more easily.
- They often suffer from early burnout. The toddler who is dragged to preballet for a couple of years, for example, is often tired of it before she takes her first ballet class, and may rebel by refusing to attend at all.
- Their self-motivation is usually weak. Driven by their parents from the start, these children rarely learn to drive themselves.
- Though they may be more advanced in learned skills in the short run, they are often behind in reasoning, logic and conceptualizing in the long run. Able to parrot back what they’ve been taught, they may not truly understand it.
- Their creativity and imagination are often dampened. With early emphasis on structure learning rather than free play, these important qualities may go unnurtured.
- Their curiosity may be stifled. In play, young children have the chance to explore the world, repeatedly test it out, and draw their own conclusions-opportunities virtually stolen from those who are given answers before they even have a chance to inquire. As child development authority said, ‘Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.’
- Their resourcefulness may be diminished. With activities so thoroughly planned for them, they may not learn how to plan for themselves. When left to their own devices, they may not know how to occupy themselves.
- When they reach formal schooling, they are often less enthusiastic about learning than less-pressured children, probably because the joy and spontaneity have gone out of their learning, and because they are accustomed to achieving to please their parents rather than themselves.
- As a direct result of the constant pressure to perform well, they are afraid of failure and of being wrong, often timid about taking chances.
- With the emphasis on achievement and little time for normal childhood socializing, development is lopsided and social skills often lag behind.
- They may have trouble finding their own identity. Children who have always been pushed towards achieving goals their parents have set for them instead of goals they’ve set for themselves are deprived of the chances to discover what their interests are, what makes them happy-in essence, who they are.
- Their self-esteem can suffer. Self-esteem grows when children are successful, and children are most successful when the challenges are set before them are within their reach. If frequent failures come early – as when children are pushed to achieve tasks that are beyond their ability – self-esteem usually takes a beating. It also suffers when parents run the show, putting their children in the role of followers: ‘The thing my parents want me to do are important, the things I want to do aren’t. So I can’t be very important.’
- In extreme cases, they miss out on childhood pleasure entirely. Because their parents see play time as a waste of time, some ‘superchildren’ never experience what every child needs: a carefree and fun-loving childhood. This deprivation may stunt their growth as adults.
Clearly the case against pushing your child to become a superchild is a strong one. Children grows and develop to be the happiest, healthiest, all around biggest they can be by being loved and appreciated for the way they are, and by being allowed to develop at a rate that’s appropriate for them.