Monday, February 1, 2010

Parenting is NOT an Olympic Sport

While sitting on the sidelines of my 4-year-old's soccer game this Saturday, I was eavesdropping on two moms talking. (Yes, I was eavesdropping. And don't pretend like you don't do it, too.)

I was fascinated by how the conversation developed. It went straight from "Hi, I'm so-and-so" and "Which is your kid?" to "Well, I do a curriculum with him at home, and it really is the most sound of all those available out there."

Curriculum? At home? How could you be talking about curriculum when you just met? I mean, you just met! What happened to the weather? Nice shoes? How long has your kid been playing? You know: small talk?

This mother went into an incredibly detailed and lengthy explanation of all of the curricula she had purchased for her 4-year-old and how long she spent researching the different ones out there and how they use a phonics one and a math one and a thinking one and it's all very organized and structured and scheduled throughout the day.


Now, I'm a teacher. I've been one for 13 years. I even have a background in early childhood. I take education quite seriously. I know all about curriculum. I know the importance of a good foundation. My kid is in preschool. But there was something about the way this woman was throwing the word "curriculum" around when talking about her 4-year-old that made me want to cry. Her face was pinched. She was very serious-looking. Focused. Intense. Kinda scary. Something told me that this little boy wakes up every morning with his Mommy to face a day filled with objectives and word lists and tasks. There was no mention of library time. No talk of snuggling with stories. Museum visits. Coloring. Play. But that c-word came out at least 8 times in 3 minutes.

I don't understand these parents. It's almost as if parenting has become a competition. I know women who started looking into preschools when their kids were infants, for fear of being left out of "the good ones." I've been warned that if I want my kid to be able to compete in sports, he has to start soon. He can't miss a season. He can't try other things. He needs to "specialize." I know parents who are running their children ragged with schedules fuller than their own: ballet, violin, karate, tutoring. There is no time for play. There is no time to just exist. Parents are raising their children to live the same kinds of hectic, harried lives they do.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had read about playing classical music for my growing baby. I was skeptical, but as tired as I was, I'd use any excuse to sit around, a set of stretched out headphones on my belly, rocking some Baby Mozart. I figured, it couldn't hurt, right? But now, I've seen ads in magazines for stuff categorized under "prenatal education." Are you frickin' kidding me?!? I thought that woman on the soccer field was bad; you can buy a curriculum for your embryo!

I just don't understand the urgency, the stress. "I just want to give him every advantage possible," I heard her say. The other mom nodded emphatically, and I wondered if she was thinking 'I wish this woman would let me watch my kid play' or 'I can't believe I am so behind on little Johnny's curriculum!'

My question is: An advantage over what? The other 4-year-olds in the block center? Or does she think that somehow, this magical curriculum she is using now will get her kid into the best college?

I want my kid to be smart. I want him to do well. I want him to get ahead in life and be successful. But mostly, I want my kid to be happy. And nice. Is there a curriculum for that? 'Cause I figure I have plenty of time for academics and instruction. Right now, I want to make my 4-year-old laugh and play and learn about how not to hurt other people's feelings and how to make friends and how to be a friend. I want to read the next chapter in his latest superhero book at bedtime and watch him as he figures out that if his little brother gets 2 of his cookies, then he is left with 2 also. I want to be his Mommy. I do not want to be his teacher.


  1. It's so sad how many parents are like that, though. Blech.

  2. I'm with you, Liz. Big Boy is starting preschool this fall. My criteria for a good pre-K curriculum? Time for the kids to explore, discover, and play. I hope that he will learn important lessons, but ones that he can't learn from a book: cooperation, following directions, being kind to others. How to be happy. How to be nice. Absolutely.

  3. Ugh, I'm going to have to admit something really icky: I started down this road with my first one. Not quite to this extreme, but just waaayyy too serious. I think it was my ego- I really was caught up in how my mothering made me look to other people. Ugh, I may have to shower after admitting that. I'm happy to report I'm O-V-E-R all that and trying to take things way less seriously.

    Liz, have you see the Free Range Kids blog? You might love it and her book is awesome too. Most of her humor is at the expense of uptight parents, but not in a (too) mean way.

    My final thought is: curricula rhymes with Bunnicula, which is a really fun kid's book from back in my day.

  4. I've seen the Cult of Parenthood up close and personal -- and it's not pretty. We decided early on that our children wouldn't be over-scheduled, they would have "boring" times to encourage imaginative and creative play, and that we wanted them to be relaxed and confident when it came time for official instruction.

    My 9 year old is allowed to play one sport at a time and is top of his class, yet in that same classroom are children who engage in 3+ extracurriculars and have been in some type of preschool since at least age 3.

    If anything, parents who try so hard to groom their children for SUCCESS often get disillusioned. I mean, really, what's the point?

  5. Liz, Awesome post! I always know when I'm among parents who are nothing like me - when it's all "honors this" and "honors that" (my son's starting high school soon) and where, in grade school, they were planning on what their children were going to do for the rest of their lives.

    Children have to be children, they have to have recess. They love playgrounds. And I remind myself - they'll be grown up for the rest of their lives; there's plenty of time for seriousness later.

  6. Curriculum for a four year old: Mud pies, dumping sand, finding out what happens when you take someone's toys and feelings get hurt, sharing cookies AND cooties, being snuggled, making friends, getting dirty, having fun. Specific curriculum? What a bunch of baloney! How in the world did you keep from smacking her? I wonder what curriculum she will prefer when her 6 year old has a nervous breakdown because he got a B on a spelling test? Sheesh!

  7. There is no replacement for happiness in a childs life. A child that is happy will do far better at school than one that is forced to pursue extra curricular activity. At such a young age too, rediculous. What next? Make them work at the local bookmakers when they are 6!!

  8. Better to have a happy and nice kid than a genius with no friends...
    I'm totally with you!

  9. I've been teaching for 16 years, and I'm the mom of 2. I think all this competitiveness kills their spirits. What happens when they grow up and can't live up to all the out-sized expectations? SITS sent me by, and I'm glad they did...

    Behavior Modification-Big-Time

  10. Amen. Parenting is difficult enough. I don't have the energy to think about a curriculum for a toddler...I just want to wash my hair sometime during the week. :) (Stopping by from SITS)

  11. Liz - how funny; I just had this discussion over lunch yesterday. My friend's children are in elementary school and she is running into this everywhere. It's a shame that parents today think raising children as a competition. I know I ran into it when Man-Child was small - but it wasn't as rampant then (thank goodness!). I didn't over-schedule him or push him unnecessarily - and guess what? He's doing fine. And isn't overly stressed. And is a pretty confident human being.

  12. I am a teacher as well. I think that one of the most important parts of school is the socializing... and lets face it... we all need time away from our parents. I appreciate that some parents homeschool when there are no suitable schools available but I feel that the public or private school system far outweighs the benefits of home schooling.

  13. If you think this is bad at four, wait until the kids are teenagers. My son's one friend has so much going on, I don't know when the child sleeps. And, yes, even at 15, he is still a child.

    There are so many things our children will remember about their childhoods. Do we want it to be "mommy made me do school work before I went to school" or "I remember when we went to the park that day?"

    Great post, Liz!!

  14. My husband is Indian (dots, not feathers) and the competition in the Indian community is INSANE. My husband still recalls the trauma of having to be in at least three extracurricular activities AND having to study for the SAT's on weekends starting in...6th grade.

    Go to a party at an Indian person's house, and the chit-chat is: What did Ravi get on SAT's? Raj got 1450...blahblahblah.

    My neighbor (Indian) has her girls, 4 and 6, in swimming, ice skating, violin and skiing lessons at the moment.

  15. I couldn't agree with you more. I feel like in my blog - and in my LIFE - I spend so much time and energy fighting this tide ... it is so reassuring, like I can let go for one second - to hear someone else who sounds like a kindred spirit. I sense there is a bit of a change out there, people rejecting the Olympic sport mindset, but there are still many, many people who embrace it. Not easy. Thank you for writing this.

  16. That is so incredibly common these days! I feel sorry for those kids because they're going to be so pressured!

  17. Brilliant post Liz, so well written.

    "Prenatal education".....are you kidding me...puh-lease!!!

    I have just been out for lunch with mothers whose children are at preschool with my 4 yr of them was talking about a mother who tutors her 4 yr old...I nearly fell off my chair!!

    Quality time with your children is what you need and that, to me, is the most important thing.

    Happy confident children is what I want to see.....and all the tutoring and activities in the world can't guarantee you that.


  18. I agree, I think that mothers have turned Motherhood into the Olympics. It's sad, but sometimes women are our own worst enemies. I just want my son to be healthy, happy and loved. Those mothers make me feel like I've suddenly been transported to Stepford.

  19. I'm totally with you on this Liz - the week before my 10 yr-old's entrance exam his school was closed due to the heaviest snowfall this country has seen in years. While most of his friends were indoors doing papers their parents had downloaded from the internet, Jack had the time of his life sledging and building snowmen. His school has been preparing them for this exam for years and a couple of extra days doing verbal reasoning in their kitchen is not going to make the difference between a pass or fail...I hope!

  20. Brilliant Liz. Another reason I find it so damn hard to make friends in real life. Too many moms are focused on shit like Curriculum. Gah! Enough already. I want my kid to be as smart as the next one, and to offer him all the opportunities that school and sports have to offer, but c'mon...where is the sense of humor, the self-awareness, the thrill in one's life?

    You rock, girlfriend.

  21. I just want my kids to be kids but do worry that I'm somehow disadvantaging them by not getting them to do all this stuff the other parents are doing ...

  22. Ahhh... a breath of fresh air. I run into this All The Time and can't stand it but of course, as insecure as I am, I start to second guess my approach. Which is like your approach. Let them be kids. Teach them through fun, love, and giggles. They will have plenty of time with curricula (curriculum?). I actually called one of my good friends this week and she said she was busy doing homework with her 4 year old. I questioned this knowing that her 4 year old is in preschool and she said, "Oh yeah, I call it homework because it's when we sit at the table and do reading, math or science together." Can't we just call it mommy time? Can't we just call it reading a book, counting jellybeans or making a volcano?

    Bunch of crazies if you ask me!

  23. In my opinion parents/people that act that way are very competitive in nature and it doesn't matter what the situation is, they strive to "one up" whoever they are talking to. Which is just plain sad.

  24. Ugh. The C-word. I could not agree more. We should let our kids be kids. We should care - and care deeply - about their education of course, but within limits. At age four, their education should involve being a kid and playing. What amazes me is that these parents do not realize that they are actually doing their kids a great disservice by treating parenthood like a competition.

    Great, thought-provoking post.

  25. Ha ha, sooo true. I grew up in a time when a kid could be a kid....I wanted and still want the same for my children. Life is hard enough-there is much to learn just by living without the "C" word!!!

  26. I just stumbled onto this post. Sadly I recognized that conversation as I have heard many parents talk in a similar fashion.

    Childhood comes and goes in the blink of an eye. I want my children to have the best and do their best. And I want them to do that without feeling like they have a yoke tied around their neck.

    I don't spend time worrying about what other parents do. All I worry about is what we do and hope that we get it right.


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