Childhood is not a race that only Alpha children can win

February 28, 2013
Carl Honoré

Parents and children need to slow down

The following is reprinted with permission of the author.

It all started at a parent-teacher evening. “Your son really stands out,” gushed the Year 2 art teacher. “He’s a gifted young artist.” And there it was, that six-letter word that gets the heart of every parent racing. Gifted.

That night, I started hunting for an art tutor to nurture my son’s gift. Visions of raising the next Picasso swam through my mind—until the next morning. “Daddy, I don’t want a tutor, I just want to draw,” my son announced. “Why do grown-ups always have to take over everything?”

The question stung like a belt on the backside. My God, I thought, he’s right. I am trying to take over. I’m turning into a pushy parent.

These days, we all feel under pressure to push, polish and protect our children with superhuman zeal. The problem is that micro-managing kids doesn’t work. Children need a firm push now and again, but when adults call all the shots, when every moment is scheduled and supervised, there is a price to pay. Child depression and anxiety—and the substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide that often go with it—are now most common not in urban ghettos but in middle class neighbourhoods where go-getting parents project-manage their kids.

The bottom line is that children need time and space to explore the world on their own terms: that is how they learn to think, socialize and take pleasure from things; how they learn to stand on their own two feet; how they work out who they are, rather than what we want them to be.

The good news is that change is afoot. Around the world, schools are cutting back on homework and exams, and finding that pupils thrive when given time to relax, reflect and take charge of their own learning. Towns across North America now cancel all extracurricular activities on certain days to give children a breather. Youth sports leagues are clamping down on parents screaming abuse from the sidelines and shifting the emphasis away from winning at all costs to learning and enjoying the game.

As parents, we need to relax a bit. Childhood is not a race that only Alpha children can win. Look at the people you most like and admire: chances are they followed different paths to adulthood, and that few were ever classified as “gifted.” Many were probably late-bloomers.

We also need to trust our own instincts more—to do what feels right for our child rather than what sounds impressive in the playground. And remember this: a child will make the most of any talent when he pursues it for himself rather than for his parents.

I’m already on the road to recovery. My son recently announced his intention to join the school sketching club. “That’s great,” I answered, suppressing the urge to say “I told you so.” This was his decision, and I wanted to keep it that way.

Let’s just hope I remember that lesson when it comes time to organize his first exhibition.

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Carl Honoré is a Canadian journalist who wrote In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed about the Slow Movement. In 2008, he published Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting (reviewed in this issue of the ATA Magazine. Honoré was born in Scotland, but considers Edmonton, Alberta, his hometown.

Carl Honoré will be appearing in Edmonton, on April 17, 2013, at a joint event sponsored by the ATA and the Edmonton Public Local. Refer to the Association website, www.teachers.ab.ca, where details will be posted as they become available.