Some arguments in education are endlessly recycled. Battles over homework, the best ways to teach math, school discipline, and other hot-button issues wax and wane, but they never go away or get resolved. One of these hardy perennials is in full flower again: the myth of the overstressed child.
The New York Times‘s normally sober columnist Frank Bruni last week pronounced himself filled with sadness over the plight of “today’s exhausted superkids” and their childhoods, which he described as “bereft of spontaneity, stripped of real play and haunted by the ‘pressure of perfection.'” He lauded the arrival of a shelf of new and recent books—an “urgently needed body of literature,” in Bruni’s words—collectively arguing that “enough is enough.”
There’s already a fairly rich body of literature on the subject, and it paints a very different picture. In 2006, a trio of researchers—Joseph L. Mahoney, Angel L. Harris, and Jacquelynne S. Eccles—published an extensive study based on a nationally representative longitudinal database of five thousand families and their children. The researchers concluded there was “very limited empirical support for the over-scheduling hypothesis.” In fact, the opposite seemed to be true: Participation in organized extracurricular activities is closely related (even when controlled for socioeconomic status) to a broad range of positive outcomes, including children’s physical safety and psychological well-being, supportive relationships with peers and adults, higher self-esteem, reduced alcohol and drug use, and higher high school graduation rates.
If American childhood has become a hothouse of overscheduling and stress, it’s not showing up in the data. Mahoney and his colleagues calculated just how much time kids spend at sports competitions and practices, faith-based activities, volunteer work, afterschool programs, and other obligations. The average was about five hours per week. Many teens—about 40 percent—spent no time at all in organized activities during the school week.
Where are all the exhausted superkids? A mere 6 percent of U.S. teens participate in twenty hours or more of organized activities in a week, and even those who overdo it end up better off than the completely disengaged. “At a national level, over-scheduling in organized activities seems to be overstated,” says Mahoney, a professor of psychology at Elizabethtown College. “Relatively few youth participate excessively in organized activities and even their adjustment is reliably more positive across broad array of outcomes, from childhood to young adulthood, than youth who are uninvolved,” he observes. When they revisited the data in 2012, Mahoney and his colleagues found the benefits of participation in organized activities had persisted into young adulthood “in terms of lower psychological distress, and higher educational attainment and civic engagement.”
Academically, a similar tale seems to be true: Privileged outliers drive the narrative. In his column, Bruni decried our “insanely programmed, status-obsessed and sometimes spirit-sapping race. Take one more Advanced Placement class. Add another extracurricular. Apply to all eight Ivies.”
Once again, look at the available data and a different picture emerges. One more AP class? Two-thirds of American high school graduates take exactly none. Now factor in the 19 percent of Americans who don’t even graduate. For diligent and ambitious college-bound students, five AP courses over a high school career is a rigorous course load, but not an excessive one. From 2011 to 2014, despite enormous growth in the program, fewer than 8 percent of high school students took more than five AP classes before graduation. Raise that to seven or more APs in high school—presumably the sweet spot of superkid status—and the number drops to less than 5 percent of the three million 2014 high school graduates. Meanwhile the College Board estimates there are at least twice as many, some 300,000 academically prepared students, who either did not take an AP course they could have or attended a school that did not offer an AP course in that subject.
In sum, there is a yawning gap between the media meme of the overstressed American teen and the reality. To his credit, Bruni acknowledges that overscheduling may indeed be a problem among “an ambitious, privileged subset of Americans.” The mischief inevitably comes when the concerns of the worried well-off influence parenting and educational practice for the less well-off. Most children, particularly those from low-income families, are non-participants in the academic and extracurricular arms race.
I have no doubt that for some families, the pressure on kids to achieve and perform are a legitimate source of anxiety. But the far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child who lacks access to rigorous academic coursework, the incentive and opportunities to participate in organized activities, or both. It would be a shame if the concerns of the privileged few—however valid—became the new conventional wisdom. The data speak clearly: Most kids need more enrichment and challenge, not less.
— Robert Pondiscio