Hurried parents, hurried kids: Who takes time to listen?

February 19, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

Let's begin with a question: Do Americans pay too little attention to their children?

But first, a word of caution.

The question is not about whether we talk a lot about children or shower them with material things or spend hours every day getting them to day care, to pre-school, to school, to the library, to tutoring classes, to baseball practice or ballet lessons.

And it's not about being up-to-date on the latest wrinkle in child psychology or reading the newest how-to book on raising children.

What's at issue here dives down much deeper into our nation's underlying attitude toward children.

The real question here is: Have we adults become disconnected from the real lives -- the inner needs as well as the outer ones -- of our children?

At least one important child advocate thinks we have. In a major address earlier this week, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley delivered a grave assessment of the unfortunate "disconnect" between children and adults.

"We seem as a nation to be drifting toward a new concept of childhood which says that a child can be brought into this world and allowed to fend for himself or herself," Riley told hundreds of educators assembled at Georgetown University.

We have moved, it seems, over the last 30 years into what some psychologists call the era of the Postmodern Family. And in so doing, they say, we have traded the view that children need an extended period of guidance from adults for one that perceives children as competent at an early age.

Competent enough, for instance, to deal in very early childhood with the images of violence on TV. And competent enough as teen-agers to be able to navigate, often with little or no parental help, the maze of realities confronting adolescents: realities that now routinely include sex, AIDS, drugs and crime.

In trying to account for the emergence of the Postmodern Family, Education Secretary Riley touched on one of the forces at work in our society: The huge time deficit that exists on the part of most parents.

"Parents are certainly the first and most important teachers," he said in his speech. And he urged them to "slow down" in our routinely fast-paced "world of fax machines, car phones and beepers."

But slowing down is precisely what the Postmodern Parent can't figure out how to do.

For the last three decades we have worked hard to develop a society that offers more flexible lifestyles -- in terms of work and family -- for adults. At the same time, it has become increasingly ++ difficult for many families to live on one paycheck.

This combination has produced more two-parent working families, more single-parent families and more economic and emotional stress. It has also produced the hurried parent.

And the hurried child.

Child psychologist David Elkind looked at what happened to such families in his 1982 book, "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon." His conclusions? "Sooner is not better," he told an interviewer in 1982. "Not for learning to read, not for lipstick, not for sex, not for hearing about parents' lovers. . . ."

His advice at the time was not unlike the one suggested -- a dozen years later -- by Education Secretary Riley: Parents must slow down and spend more time with their kids.

Easy to say; hard to do. Particularly where the economics of a family dictate parents work long hours.

But perhaps for parents who do have some economic leeway, it might be helpful to remember their own childhoods.

It might be helpful to remember that so many of the well-intentioned plans made for you by your parents -- piano lessons, summer camp, dance class -- are not what shaped the things most important in life: an ability to trust others and feel empathy; an acceptance of yourself and others; and a receptivity to loving the world.

Someone once said that no one can have it all, that life unravels faster than anyone can weave it back together.

And, let's face it, there's no turning back to the so-called "simple life." We have to work with what we've got.

But I can tell you what I regret most about my parenting days: that I didn't listen more -- and in a different way -- to my sons when they were younger.

That I didn't spend more summer evenings sitting on the grass with them, talking.

Or more to the point, listening.

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