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Ask an adult what’s changed most about kids today, and you’re likely to hear a number of ageist (yep, we said it) rants:

  • They’re glued to their screens
  • They don’t have manners
  • They’re growing up way too fast
  • They don’t have enough time to “just be kids”

We hear this last one pretty often and thought it might be worth exploring…First, in full disclosure, my child is three and has already taken a Jazz class at Lincoln Center in New York, French lessons at L’Alliance Francaise and he frequents the “Tours for Tots” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He’s also taking ski lessons as we speak. So I do not speak as a parent who has resisted the temptation to put my child in organized activities; my husband and I relish these opportunities as much (and at times, much more) than our son does. At the same time, we’re conscious of his need to play by himself, and are at our happiest when he’s telling us a story about the characters he’s created (oftentimes “a mommy, a daddy and their little boy” and the adventures they take on his train set, on his toy airplane or just in his backyard).

But this issue isn’t just about individual parenting styles, but rather, is at the heart of a bigger conversation about how we raise our children today. In 2010, Waiting for Superman garnered attention for how schools were limiting children’s educational opportunities. Road to Nowhere, another excellent documentary in the same year, was less buzzed about – perhaps because it challenged the notion that wiring kids for achievement works (or is healthy for them). As much as we care about overstressing and overscheduling, it’s not hard to find classes for tots, organized programs for tweens and resume enhancing activities and clubs for teens. Most parents fear that they won’t expose their child to every possible interest or passion more than they worry about the side-effects of a life arranged and organized by adults.

In her 2003 book, Unequal Childhoods, Class, Race and Family Life, sociologist Annette Lareau defines this style of parenting, which she observes in a species she calls “the American middle class” as concerted cultivation. She discusses a parenting strategy (which is deliberate to differing degrees) that seeks to empower kids, make them feel comfortable around authority figures (able to ask questions and assert themselves at a doctor’s appointment, for example), expose them to skills that will benefit them later in life, instill them with a sense of competitiveness, and even give them access to cultural capital that will help them in countless ways in their lives (I, for one, am hoping that knowing a little bit about Charlie Parker helps my son make friends in kindergarten. I joke.) She notes that the institutions that children inevitably find themselves in, and that, in many ways, determine the choices they have for their future education and possible employment, favor this strategy as well. But while she claims that children who are not raised this way (i.e., who are from working class or impoverished families) start school with some disadvantages, she also highlights the benefits of their approach to parenting – one that tends to involve more free play, more involvement of extended families and more autonomy in structuring their time.   

So what’s a parent today to do? Bypass the many opportunities presented to today’s youth because taking yoga at age 6 simply wasn’t the way it was when we were kids? Or letting the opportunity to play on the select soccer team slip away because it means crowding weekends with one more obligation? Maybe. And for each kid and family, the excited to stressed equation probably calculates a bit differently. But one thing we do advocate is thinking through the why and the how we engage kids in multiple activities versus assuming that one way trumps another. And for organizations creating experiences for children, we encourage them to consider the right balance between rules and freedom, between serving kids and letting kids serve themselves. And finally, can organizations and companies with a take in children’s success help bridge the gap between the valuable ideas fostered in working class and impoverished homes with the expectations of the institutions that influence their outcomes?