Under Pressure: The Frantic Need to Keep Kids Busy

Why do so many kids and their parents feel they have to fill every spare moment? Is it pressure to get into the top schools? Or is it worry that they’ll become couch potatoes or delinquents?

My experience has shown that too many parents are obsessed with how their family looks to others, instead of concerning themselves with the reality of how their child is actually doing, thinking, and feeling. Instead of creating the proper intellectual and psychological climate, they become obsessed with getting into the best school or having the best cell phone, iPod, backpack, clothes or whatever, for no other reason except that it looks good and impresses others. Of course, they will rarely admit it outright, but this is the paradigm upon which I see many parents operating.

Of course, there are many parents out there who are creating a good—perhaps even excellent—psychological and intellectual climate for their children. I consider them to be heroes in today’s world, where rational standards, or any standards at all, are becoming more and more of a rarity.

Day after day, these parents-as-heroes swim against the social current, unthanked and unacknowledged by the likes of Oprah, the President, or any of the other smug (yet clueless) media/intellectual/political “elites” who go through the motions of making it look like they’re running things.

How does a child’s busy schedule affect the family? Does Mom end up becoming a taxi driver for the kids? Does Dad rarely see them? In a healthy family, the parents pursue productive careers, yet have enough time left over for imparting to their children the intellectual and psychological tools for becoming healthy and self-confident. If a parent’s career and maintaining the right environment for the children conflict (and to some degree they usually do), then one parent simply has to slow down and give the children the time they need, at least in the first five to ten years of their lives.

Does this mean that parents have to make sacrifices for their children? If the family is psychologically healthy, then it’s not a “sacrifice.” It’s just part of the territory. If I bought a beach house, I would not call it a “sacrifice” to have to drive there every week to spend time in it or maintain it. These actions are simply the price I pay for the joy of owning a beach house.

If it’s true for a beach house or a nice car or boat, then it’s certainly true with raising kids. If you want to enjoy what they have to offer, then you have to take the time to raise them properly. If you don’t care for that sort of joy—then don’t have children. It’s not that complicated!

As financial climates fluctuate, clients ask me how parents can cut back without having the child miss out on beloved hobbies, sports, etc. Part of encouraging a good intellectual and psychological atmosphere means a “quality over quantity” mentality. Rather than trying to do too many things at once just to say you did them, the goal instead becomes a few activities done well. If they become bored, you can add on or replace them gradually over time.

The more healthy the atmosphere created by the parents, the more likely the child will want to be busy with different productive activities—but not in a compulsive way.

Compulsive activity does nothing but lower anxiety, but it’s not activity pursued for its own sake. Some students work hard in school to avoid shaming themselves or their family; others work in order to achieve and accomplish. The second option carries a lot less baggage.

The basic psychological difference between compulsive activity and healthy activity is this: In unhealthy activity, the child or adult feels, “In order to be a good person, I must do this (or that). Unless I do these things, I’m not good.” In healthy activity, the child or adult feels (in so many words), “I’m a good and capable person, and I should do stimulating and challenging activities. I deserve the confidence and happiness that results from such activities.”

The Limits and Benefits of “Down” Time

Another subject that comes up in my office is the benefit (if any) of just “vegging out.” Children, like everybody else, need down time. I reject the literal concept of “vegging out” because it implies the mind has to be blank or unfocused.

That’s not what children (or adults) need. What children do need is mental “refueling” time. “Refueling” consists of using your mind, but in a different way than you would at school or at work. To take a break from, say, your math homework, you might watch a good movie. The movie should stimulate thought as well as entertain. You’re still using your mind, but in a different way.

Physical activity is also important. Creative play should require imagination and abstract thinking. Have your children tell stories. Make up (solvable) mysteries for them to unravel. Have them build things with Legos or other toys.

Encourage invention and creativity, not just passive reaction to momentary flashes on a television or computer screen.

Reading, alone or with a parent, is absolutely crucial, not only to develop reading skills but also to cultivate thinking and analytical reasoning skills.

Children must also be taught, or rather, shown, that learning and education can be fun. In all honesty, you will not find that atmosphere in too many of today’s public, or private, schools. Many of today’s public schools are large, gray, dreary institutions, more like prisons than inspiring houses of learning and growth.

Inept, arrogant politicians and self-proclaimed educational “leaders” prattle on about the “education of our nation.” How profoundly misleading! Education is, first and foremost, an individual process, not a social or political one. Conformity to the group, rather than individual creativity, has become the call to arms—no surprise since that’s what politics is all about. And some disturbed young people are literally taking up arms in desperate rebellion against this assault on their minds, as evidenced by disasters such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, and all the other school shootings over the years.

What a devastating experience to spend twelve of one’s most formative years in such an uninspiring, often anti-intellectual atmosphere as the typical school today. If you are a parent, take responsibility for creating the right psychological and intellectual atmosphere for your children. Show them they have minds, and show them how to use them. Don’t entrust this sacred responsibility to outsiders alone.

The above is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Hurd’s most recent book, “Bad Therapy Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference), available for purchase at Amazon.com and on this website.

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