A few years ago my 14 year-old nephew was playing in a hockey tournament. A young man with only one arm was refereeing one of their games. My nephew’s team was losing and the affair was getting rough. As his team fell behind, some parents became increasingly vocal in expressing their frustration with the officiating. In response to a called penalty, one parent yelled, “Hey ref, did you lose your eye sight when you lost your arm?” It was another example of a parent losing perspective and exercising horrible judgment. For at least some of the parents in attendance that day, the game was not about sportsmanship or giving their child an opportunity to have fun. Winning was their only priority.
According to Carl Honoré, this sort of behavior is typical and has far reaching consequences for children. In his book, Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood From the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, Honoré laments that parents and society are compromising childhood in a variety of ways. Many problems Honoré cites stem from the competitive impulse: parents are so busy preparing their children to succeed in life that children are forced to forego much of their childhood. The obvious examples are those parents who are so committed to ensuring their son or daughter is the next great athlete, that they forget that sport is a form of play meant to stimulate joy and creativity. However, the risk to childhood comes from other sources as well. Technology is so ubiquitous and can be so all consuming that for an increasing number of children and teenagers it is the only medium through which they experience the world.
Childhood pressures can begin early and innocuously. The race to raise the smartest child, for example, has been fuelled by the theory that there is a small window of opportunity to shape a child’s brain. If the right steps have not been taken by the age of three, or so goes the theory, children will invariably not reach their full potential. Marketers have seized on this idea to peddle all types of learning products designed to stimulate a child’s brainpower. Mozart’s genius, we are told, is sure to rub off on a two year old if she is presented with the opportunity to listen to his music. Although there is nothing wrong with exposing a child to Mozart’s brilliance, there is no evidence that doing so will somehow cultivate her inner genius. Indeed, when a child is perpetually stimulated, it can very well be at the expense of her own imaginative impulses. It may seem counterintuitive but occasional bouts of boredom are a necessary aspect of a child’s development. As a way of relieving boredom, a child develops a natural curiosity about the world around them.
Honoré is at his best when discussing education. We are constantly reminded that our education system must adapt to the rigors of the global economy. The fear that a country’s standard of living will be compromised by declining productivity has been the impulse behind ever more rigorous forms of standardized testing. Subjecting kids to the same tests allows educators and parents to measure their development. The appeal of standardized testing, moreover, becomes self-reinforcing. Better results by definition means children are being effectively taught and are learning more. Or does it? Many educators question the wisdom of this approach to teaching and learning. Relentless testing and competition can put too much pressure on children, so much so that it can ultimately undermine the more noble aim of education, namely to instill in kids a love of life and learning.
Under Pressure is far from perfect. Although the book is meant to be a relatively easy read, Honoré’s writing should be more polished. He also has a bad habit of referring to “studies” in support of various theories of child learning or child development without actually referencing them. In a word, he should have been more rigorous in his presentation. Nevertheless, Honoré’s plea for a more balanced approach to education and child rearing is welcome.