Ode to a Rush-Free Childhood

by Pia K. Ruda

As parents, we are constantly playing catch up in several fields at once, trying to keep up with the others. Almost two months before the new school year started, I was already too late to sign up for library duty at my son’s school.  More efficient and organized parents had taken the shifts, on the first day of sign ups.  To get the optimal time slots for piano lessons, tennis, or art classes, you have to be on it.  I am an outcast in this game.  In fact, I am growing to celebrate it.

I’ve seen many kids pushed into too many activities by perky parents, but especially by parents of endlessly curious, high ability children (code for gifted).  These parents sigh that their offspring is “just so interested in everything.”  They say that their kids insist on being a part of all those activities.  Gifted children do often have natural abilities in several areas:  sports, acting, music, or art, to name a few. Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.  

Luckily, many fields can be explored in unstructured ways that do not require long-term commitments.  A pursuit does not always have to give your child a certificate of achievement or a medal at the end.

Choosing the rush-free path can be especially hard with the multi-talented gifted child. What if he could be the next big thing in something that we rule out?  What if he misses out, if he doesn’t reach his potential?  Well, then, I guess we will never find out – and I choose to take comfort in that.  I believe that true passions are not so easily silenced, and that they will thrive even in less optimal conditions.  I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

I believe that they will grow, much like resistant wildflowers between the rocks, without all that top-of-the-line fertilizer and weeding.  Boredom makes healthy wrinkles and cracks in our kids’ perfect lives.  Through those cracks, creativity and new ideas flourish.

Having moved to the U.S. a little over a decade ago, it has been interesting to observe parental roles and expectations in this country.  Here, filling a child’s life with as many structured activities as possible seems to be one of the key measuring sticks of successful parenting.  Families aim for perfectly planned and balanced schedules with a great variety of activities.  These tightly packed days start in toddlerhood.  I remember watching my boys’ classmates getting hastily transported to activities after Pre-K, shoving down a snack in the car.   They ran to karate, ballet, violin, baseball, art, or gymnastics – a different activity each day.   “You want them exposed,” parents would say.  “You want to give them all these choices.  You don’t want them to miss out.”

But what if they miss out on their own childhood?

A gifted child, especially one with the perfectionism monster lurking on his shoulder, can get anxious with the pressures and demands. Some gifted kids base their self-worth on their achievements, on what they measurably do.  Especially for these children, it can be beneficial to consciously shift the focus towards celebrating learning itself.  They need awareness of their own discoveries, their new connections and thoughts, and the feelings found within themselves, through the exploration of a new field. In order to give room for character development, I firmly believe in allowing our children breathing room.  They need space to discover who they are, and what is truly important to them.  They need unstructured time, to discover their inner world, without too much push-and-pull and direction.  

Social-emotional growth and well-being need both time and space.

Cultural reflection is where I spend a lot of my own time.  From my perspective, I see this game – scheduling and programming our children and youth – in the revealing Arctic light.  In my native country, little Finland, things are different.  We have no school sports teams, no cheerleaders, and no prom queens or kings.  In Finland, college admissions are solely based on academic success in high school, as well as subject specific entry exams.  As a result, the kids are not required to have inhumane numbers of recorded achievements from a variety of extracurricular activities.  In Finland, kids spend their afternoons playing, with a hobby of their choice, or sometimes just getting bored.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.  I see the rush-free childhood as a right, much like recess and school lunches.  These are children’s rights, not privileges.  For me, this is closely linked to “instinct parenting,” which gives the parents the right to follow their own safe instincts when parenting their own children, instead of religiously following the manual of the moment.

We Finns are a nation of complete slacker parents compared to the U.S. – yet Finland has gained positive publicity over the past years, shining at the top of international comparisons of learning results. Critical thinking is valued high.  You can’t analyze if you are over-scheduled – with too little time, you just take information in, without digesting it.

So, I’ve decided it is just fine not keeping up with it all, and I think we’re still going to be just fine in the end.  I have never heard an adult complain bitterly that he had too much time to play as a kid, or that he spent too many hours reading books and riding his bike.  I have, however, heard bitter adults share memories of parents making them play a certain sport, or practice an instrument for which they themselves felt no passion.  

Yes, my boys are missing out on so many activities in which they could potentially shine.  But I would rather have them not miss out on their own childhood.  I want to give them space to find themselves, and not force-feed the ingredients of the ideal overachiever. That is where my priority lies. With the long American school days, and excessive amounts of homework, it is hard — but I try to give my sons the leading parts in their childhoods. Now is the time, for there won’t be any dress rehearsals.

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Helicopter vs. Free-Range: How the Parent Label Debate Hurts All Parents

by Emily VR

Sometimes, in parenting, labels are helpful. When we research to understand diagnoses or challenges, and when we search for others with similar circumstances, labels help us find communities and support.

Sometimes, however, labels don’t help. When we categorize the parenting decisions of others – decisions we know very little about – this can be divisive and hurtful.

One current example: references to “helicopter parenting” in the “free range” debate. Parents who support “free range” parenting generally self-identify with the label, and favor less parental supervision than their local norm. “Free range” can describe a child’s unsupervised play in local public places, such as a park, or unsupervised walking/biking between locations. Some parents use the term more loosely, simply calling for a return to the days of fewer precautions and more unstructured time.

One mother-turned-author describes the label on her website:

“Free-Range Kids is a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times.” www.freerangekids.com/faq, May 13, 2015

Free range parents raise issues which concern most of us: the need for children to learn independence (yes), and the harm caused by excessive scheduling and stress (yes, yes!). Unfortunately, a few free range choices come into conflict with local safety expectations, and sparks fly. More unfortunately, in defending their choices, some free range advocates have gone on the offense, labeling not only their critics but other parenting styles: “over-involved,” “overprotective,” “helicoptering,” and so on.

The “helicopter” term is not new; years ago, it described parents who “hovered” over adult children in college, complaining to professors about grades. In today’s parenting discussions, however, the label seems fair game for a wide range of parenting decisions, from playground etiquette to educational advocacy – almost anything deemed excessive by the person invoking the term.

Strangely absent from most “free range” and “helicopter” discussions are exceptions for children with physical, psychological, and developmental differences.

It should be obvious, one might argue, that these debates don’t cover special needs.  When the parent of a child with diagnosable differences comes across lists of “helicopter parent” offenses, and the parent sees that he’s committed most of those offenses – should that parent assume that we all know which families don’t count, for purposes of the article?

Judging others’ parenting decisions involves assumptions. As my son observed in preschool: our friends who have autism don’t look different on the outside.  Diagnoses of special needs don’t come with neon signs, but they usually require extra supervision or intervention, in public and/or at school.  These parents often don’t have the luxury of making many “free range” choices. They must monitor and intervene to keep their children learning, healthy, and alive.

What types of situations, then, deserve exemption from the “helicopter” label?

  • Food allergies: up to 8% of U.S. Children
  • Developmental disabilities: approximately 1 in 6 children
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: 1 in 68 children
  • Children receiving Special Education Services: about 13% in 2010-2011
  • ADHD: 11% of children ages 4 – 17 in the U.S. in 2011
  • Dyslexia: 1 in 5 people
  • Auditory Processing Disorder: about 5% of children
  • Mental or addictive disorder causing impairment: up to 21% of children ages 9 – 17
  • Asthma: about 10% of children in the U.S. in 2009
  • Sensory Processing Disorders: 5 – 16% of school-aged children, impacts coordination, behavior
  • Temperament: impacts intensity and activity level; different parenting strategies are needed for different temperaments
  • Cognitively gifted children: 2 – 5% of children, as measured by psychologists, have specific needs and characteristics; unmet needs can result in negative outcomes. Some gifted students have additional special needs/disabilities, increasing difficulty at home and school.
  • Lifelong medical conditions: diabetes, epilepsy, immune deficiencies, and more.

Some of these categories can overlap.  Some can be compatible with many “free range” practices.  Yet each diagnosis requires parental action that wouldn’t be needed without the diagnosis.

Back to parenting labels: if we set aside self-identified “free range” parents and “average” parents, and we then set aside special needs – who’s left? Is it possible that we’re wrongfully labeling families who struggle with misunderstood or undiagnosed challenges?

In schools, negative labels can cause damage. Parents of children with differences must make requests of overworked teachers and administrators. Educators struggle with large class sizes, state testing requirements, and insufficient resources – and must then think about federal and state laws (and in an ideal world, best practices) for students with special needs. These needs can be difficult to diagnose and meet, and despite best intentions, students can fall through the cracks. Parents must navigate paperwork and meetings about disabilities and learning differences, and must request to follow the recommendations of doctors or psychologists. When educators have limited training in specific conditions, parents must unexpectedly become experts. These parents need our understanding, not judgment.

In our efforts to become better parents ourselves, it can feel reassuring to embrace a branded parenting philosophy that works for us and our children. When that happens, I believe it’s important to use language carefully, and to remember that not all children are like our own. Some free range advocates hold the media responsible for the ugly side of this debate, and for the labeling and criticism of so-called over-parenting – yet many still contrast their own decisions with “helicoptering” and “hovering.” I admire parents who advocate for better understanding and flexibility for their own parenting choices – but not at the cost of furthering stereotypes about the decisions of other parents.

This, then, is my request: please keep an open mind about and show respect for the experiences and decisions of others. If we can do this, perhaps we can set an example for our children to do the same.

The importance of that, I think, is something we can all agree on.

Sources:

https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/8-Percent-of-US-Children-Have-Food-Allergies.aspx 8 Percent of U.S. Children Have Food Allergies. American Academy of Pediatrics. Web. June 4, 2015. Data and Statistics. CDC. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/developmentaldisabilities/features/birthdefects-dd-keyfindings.html Key Findings: Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in U. S. Children, 1997–2008. CDC. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html Data and Statistics. CDC. Web. June 4, 2015.

https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/Indicator_CGG/COE_CGG_2013_01.pdf Children and Youth with Disabilities. National Center for Education Statistics. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html New Data: Medication and Behavior Treatment. CDC. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://dyslexia.yale.edu/MDAI/ Multicultural Dyslexia Awareness Initiative. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/ears/central_auditory.html Auditory Processing Disorder. KidsHealth. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://www2.nami.org/Template.cfmSection=federal_and_state_policy_legislation&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=43804 Facts on Children’s Mental Health in America. National Alliance on Mental Health. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://www.cdc.gov/VitalSigns/asthma/ Asthma in the U.S. CDC. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kidsi Bunim, Juliana. Breakthrough Study Reveals Biological Basis for Sensory Processing Disorders in Kids. University of California San Francisco, July 9, 2013. Web. June 4, 2015.

http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/wwb/wwb23.html Allard, Lindsey T. and Amy Hunter. Understanding Temperament in Infants and Toddlers. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Web. June 4, 2015.

Research on the psychology, education, and challenges of the gifted can be found through multiple organizations. Some of my favorites: SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted, http://sengifted.org), NAGC (National Association for Gifted Children, http://www.nagc.org), The Gifted Development Center (http://www.gifteddevelopment.com), and in Texas, TAGT (Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented, http://txgifted.org).