Elkind's children's crusade demands time to be young Families: Author of "The Hurried Child" has kind words for parents who let their kids grow up at their own pace.

September 26, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

David Elkind is a crusader who goes where he is wanted. Some 50 times a year, the Tufts University psychologist leaves his idyllic Cape Cod home, not to persuade adults to return childhood to children, but to applaud those who have already done so.

"I preach to the converted," says the author of "The Hurried Child: Growing up Too Fast Too Soon," and other groundbreaking works on contemporary child rearing practices. "I think that it's important [to support] parents who feel uncomfortable, or feel beleaguered by parents who are pushing their children It's even more difficult today to raise unhurried children; parents need all the support they can get."

Tonight at 7, Elkind addresses the challenges facing today's families in a lecture at Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville.

Elkind's relentless examination of children pushed to premature adulthood strikes a nerve among all those folks who juggle jobs, kids and -- if there's time -- the quest for self-fulfillment.

In "The Hurried Child," published in 1981, Elkind tapped early into the angst of over-achieving yuppies who saw their children as pint-sized extensions of their own egos. In sports and other fields, these children were "early initiated into the rigors of adult competition."

In that work, Elkind also took on goal-heavy school curricula, the media and the psychological impact of stress on children.

In "Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk," Elkind's focus was the damage done to little ones shoved into music, dance and sports programs by insecure and competitive parents, "who may be deadened in their own minds and careers, unhappy in marriage and seek to find challenge and excitement in the lives of their children."

Elkind's most recent book, "The Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance," analyzes the social stresses that force children to function as competent adults before they are developmentally ready to do so.

Elkind may be right on the money, but what about families with two working parents who can't afford more time for their children? Don't offspring need a head start in our cutthroat society? What about lonely single parents who rely on their children as peers and confidants? Are mothers supposed to step back into 1950s, stay-at-home roles for the sake of the children? Elkind's intention is not to make the guilty feel more guilty by harping on their imperfections. But there is room for improvement, even under today's pressing demands. "Many parents do tell me they have changed their parenting style, and overall are very happy that they did," he says.

As for those who are "made to feel guilty" by his theories and advice, "I guess they will feel guilty no matter what," Elkind says.

Elkind says he is one in a long line of social critics as far back as Aristotle who recognize the importance of letting children grow at their own pace, of not treating children like miniature adults. "It's not a unique message," he says.

It is a message that has been muffled by recent scholarly works suggesting that childhood, as a separate developmental stage of life, is a relatively modern cultural invention, Elkind says.

His role, as was his predecessors', is to remind contemporary parents of their responsibilities. "We don't inherit ideas. Each of us starts from scratch."

Yet Elkind finds it difficult to believe that anyone would think that children are simply small adults. Children "need time to be," he says. "They feel differently, they think differently, they're different in terms of motor skills."

People are "so busy today," Elkind laments. It's "convenient not to have to understand that kids need time time to put their clothes on, look at things, see things The world is very new to kids. They like to explore and take their time. We forget because we're in a hurry."

Even in a stressed-out world, parents can slow down for their children, Elkind says. They don't have to "do everything." It's enough to "do something," Elkind says. "Take time to share with your child, write a note to them or call [from work]."

And in the last chapter of "The Ties That Stress," Elkind has good news. Our society, so prone to extremes, is finally achieving an equilibrium that allows mothers and fathers to lead fulfilling lives while meeting the needs of their children, he says.

tTC Tonight, Elkind will elaborate on that trend, which he calls the "vital family." It will be another evening that he could be at home, gazing at the ocean.

"Obviously, it's something I care about," says Elkind, the father of three grown children. "If I can be supportive of parents and teachers, that's important to do. There are not many people out there doing that. There are very few supporting parents and teachers who want to give kids a more relaxed childhood."

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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