Book Review

February 28, 2013
Karen Virag

Rescuing childhood

Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting
Carl Honoré
2008, 293 pages
Knopf Canada

Never mind the trophy wife. This is the age of the trophy child.
—Carl Honoré

In North America, we call parents who continually hover around their children “helicopter parents.” Scandinavians refer to them as “curling parents,” because they are always sweeping the ice in front of their children. In Japan, they are “educational parents,” and they devote every waking minute to their children’s “betterment.” They, and the screwed-up children they are raising, are the subject of Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting by the London-based Canadian journalist Carl Honoré.

In a wide-ranging investigation, Honoré cites examples from around the world of how, in their quest to raise über-children, modern-day middle-class parents are robbing kids of their childhood, stultifying their creativity, and making them physically and mentally ill.

Hyperparenting actually starts before birth, through such things as expectant mothers listening to Mozart in the mistaken belief that it will make their children smarter. In infancy, it takes the form of baby aerobics, baby yoga and classes in baby sign language. In toddlerhood, Honoré cites the extreme case of little Budhia Singh, of India, whose parents forced him to be the first three-year old to run a marathon. Honoré visits a nursery school where the kids are being turned into narcissists by being taught to replace the words of the childhood song “Frère Jacques” with “I am special, I am special. Look at me. Look at me.” Teenagers’ lives are crammed with scheduled activities, from various clubs to music lessons to organized sports. Honoré reports that when some U.S. cities introduced red light cameras, the people who got the tickets weren’t young men in souped-up roadsters but soccer mums chauffeuring children to their next appointment. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

Teachers are well acquainted with the effects of hyperparenting, which is linked to the growing incidence of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—in the U.S., 10 per cent of 12-year-old boys are on Ritalin or some other anti-AD/HD drug. Bullying is a big problem in schools; according to the British charity Kidscape, much bullying is attributable to children behaving “like little gods who think that everything revolves around them.” And parents who think their preschoolers should learn to read Proust, take note: “Teachers … say that the child who arrives at Year 1 socially adept, who knows how to share, empathize and follow instructions, will stand a better chance of mastering the three Rs later.”

The fallout from this parental hypervigilance is alarming. In Britain, every 28 minutes a teenager tries to commit suicide. In Japan, teens retreat into their rooms and don’t come out for months, or even years. Experts estimate that over 400,000 of the country’s adolescents are now hikikomori, or full-time hermits.

Honoré attributes the rise of hyperparenting to convergence of a number of trends, such as globalization, which increases competition and makes people anxious about their children’s future; the consumer culture, which sells the myth that there is a formula for a perfect life; smaller families; and woman having babies at a later age.

Though Under Pressure imparts an alarming message, the author is quick to say that not all is doom and gloom, and he provides some common-sense ways to rescue childhood from the excesses of the early 21st century that adults, whether they be parents or teachers, should follow: accept that children have different aptitudes, don’t micromanage kids, don’t buy them everything they want, learn to say no, limit screen time, give kids structure and guidance, but also give them freedom.

On a recent walk through Toronto’s Cabbagetown I came upon a lovely sight that would warm Honoré’s heart. It did mine. It was a group of kids playing shinny in the road on a cool winter afternoon. They were laughing and running and shouting and shooting and scoring and everything was completely unscripted. And most wondrous, there wasn’t an adult in sight.

Karen Virag is the publications supervisor for the ATA and a freelance writer.