The Parent Trap

All Fall, Suzanne Upton of Ann Arbor, Mich., struggled to manage her children's demanding schedule: homework plus soccer and hockey for Sam, 9, and piano, soccer and ballet for Annie, 7. It wasn't easy, especially with Sam's required practices--three days a week for soccer and five days for hockey. The Christmas season, filled with school parties, threatened to be even more hectic. Then the snow started falling... and falling... and falling. Four housebound days later, the family had baked cookies and generally mellowed out. Those snow days, Upton says, "were God's way of telling us to slow down."

But that's not likely. These days, raising kids is like competing in a triathlon with no finish line in sight. Millions of parents around the country say their lives have become a daily frantic rush in the minivan from school to soccer to piano lessons and then hours of homework. But they're trapped, afraid to slow down because any blank space in the family calendar could mean their offspring won't have the resumes to earn thick letters from Harvard--and big bucks forever after. And a busy schedule at the office only adds to the pressure. Parents believe they have to do it all--or they're toast (and so are their kids). As a result, says psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, coauthor of "Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard?" middle-class parents are under "continuous pressure to plan, enrich and do this important job the one, precisely right way."

Although the current generation of parents is the richest and best educated in history, they are particularly apprehensive because they're raising their kids in an uncertain time. In a world where a high divorce rate and job hopping are the norm, "parents themselves are more insecurely placed in life," says Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies modern family life. Rapid technological change has contributed to that sense of instability, says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington. She thinks today's middle-class parents are reacting to the aftershocks of the seismic shift to the digital economy, just as blacksmiths and farmers in the 1820s worried that their kids wouldn't make it through the Industrial Revolution. "Parents today are having a comparable anxiety crisis," says Coontz. "What do you do to protect your child and secure them a good future?" No one really knows the answer to that question. Thirty years ago a college degree was the key to the good life. Today's parents fear that a B.A. isn't good enough, but they're not sure what's better. So they try to give their kids a little of everything that's available.

Parents sacrifice their dwindling free time (and their own social lives) to make sure their kids are safe and want for nothing. It starts off innocently enough, with playdates for their toddlers set up weeks in advance. Then it snowballs to the point where everyone is overwhelmed-- and bragging about it. In elementary school, many youngsters attend activities every afternoon because their parents are afraid to let them ride bikes down the street. Workdays end with frenzied trips to pick up the kids; no one wants to leave a 6-year-old alone on a soccer field in the dark.

As the activities multiply, psychologists say, parents often forget that sports and music are supposed to be fun experiences for their children. They get overly involved in the minutiae of their kids' lives, stage-managing successes and robbing kids of the opportunity to learn from their failures. William Damon, director of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Adolescence, describes this as the phenomenon of "parents as agents." He says the overbearing parent of an earlier generation, the one who pushed his kid to be a doctor, for example, is now the standard model. Families are smaller, so all that intensity gets focused on fewer kids. With the stakes so high, parents are pressing for school to be more challenging, which, in turn, has resulted in more homework, more testing, more tutoring and, some educators say, more cheating. There has also been an increase in eating disorders, alcohol abuse and other stress-related problems among teenagers. "I think parents have a sense that we've become a 'winner takes all' society, and the rewards are going to fewer and fewer people," says Damon, "and if you miss the top rung, you sink down into hardship and discomfort."

For many parents, activities that used to be just for fun now seem to have lifelong consequences. Sports are particularly fraught; no one wants to raise a loser. Brad Bole, a stockbroker who volunteers as the coach of his sons' soccer and hockey teams in Marietta, Ohio, says he's constantly trying to get the "really intense" parents to calm down. But he's not always successful. "I had a mother come over to me and tell me she thought Brad really needed to push the kids more," says his wife, Babette. "They want that intensity. They want their children to be fighters. They want them to be hustling."

That intensity is fueled by stories about champions like Venus and Serena Williams or Tiger Woods, whose very involved parents were key to their success. The message: champions are made, not born. That message is reinforced by childbearing advice in books and magazines that stresses the importance of stimulating developing young brains. Parents think they can't let up; every minute of the day has to have a purpose. That's why Angela Collins, 40, a mother of four in La Grange, Ill., a Chicago suburb, says she spends so much time driving her three older kids to activities that her 1-year-old, Malachy, is practically being raised in the family minivan. "When he's not in the van, he's somewhat disoriented," she says. "It's funny, but kind of sad, too." Caileen, 10, is signed up for Irish dancing, church choir, soccer and Girl Scouts; Quinn, 8, has soccer, baseball, basketball and Boy Scouts, and Kristen, 5, has Irish dancing, soccer and Daisies (the youngest rank of Girl Scouts). "Our parents think we're insane because we're flying all over the place," says Collins. "My husband [Patrick, 40] is one of 13 kids, and I don't think his parents did as much running around as we do with four. But I feel it's part of my job, my obligation, to expose my children to the arts, sports, various activities." But while parents believe they need to be constantly on top of things at home, the corporate culture is demanding that they put in longer hours at the office as well. Americans are working harder than anyone else in the world, including the Japanese. According to a 1997 study by the International Labor Organization, fathers were working an average of 50.9 hours, while mothers were working 41.4 hours. So you have the spectacle of parents on their mobile phones taking care of business while they're cheering their kids on the football field, and parents working late at the office correcting their kids' homework by e-mail and fax. Even if parents wanted to cut back at work, they couldn't afford it. They need the big paycheck to foot the bill for tutoring or tennis lessons.

Jane Sullivan, the mother of 6-year-old Jack and 1-year-old Bridget, performs what she describes as a "daily ballet" taking care of her family and staying on top of her job as the director of public relations for San Francisco International Airport. Her husband, John, runs his own graphics business. "I say that we are a working family; we all kind of work," says Jane. "We cook, cook, cook through the day. And it's not just me and my husband. The kids are on a treadmill, too." Still, she tries to make time for Jack's weekly swim lessons. "I carve out a slice of my day so I can take him," she says, "but just because I'm there doesn't mean I can switch from working woman back to Mom. There are all these nonworking moms looking at me as I get calls on my cell phone." Jack, a first grader, is already showing signs of burnout. Homework that should take no longer than 20 minutes to complete often takes an hour or more to get through. "He doesn't see us much, and this is his time to act out," she says. "We have battles in which he tests us. Maybe this is his way of getting us to fully focus on him."

What families risk losing in this insane frenzy, many parenting experts say, is the soul of childhood and the joy of family life. "These are supposed to be the years that kids wander around and pal around, without being faced with the pressures of the real world," says Stanford's Damon. Instead, he says, "the parenting experience is being ruined and parents' effectiveness is being diminished. They're not giving the right kind of guidance, dispensing wisdom about life. It's all about how to get into Yale."

Even as they struggle to get through the day, many parents know that on some level all this overscheduling could be harmful. They just aren't sure how to cut back without depriving their kids. Take, for example, the Hagner family in Boston, N.Y., outside Buffalo. A day with mom Cathy Hagner makes those opening-credit shots on "ER" look like slow motion. The kids--Brenden, 12, Matthew, 10, and Julie Ann, 8--are signed up for hockey, soccer, basketball, flag football, skiing and piano. And that's on top of a full load of schoolwork and assorted extra projects. "My whole day, from the time they come home to the time they go to bed, is spent doing homework and running them around," says Hagner. "Yesterday I spent four solid hours in the car. First Brenden had to go to basketball, then I took Julie to a soccer game, then I went back to the basketball game to get Brenden and take him to the flag-football game, while my husband went and got Julie, and it just went on from there. By the time it was all over, all I had done other than drive around was stop at the store to get a gallon of milk."

Last year Hagner quit her job as a paralegal because there were too many conflicts with her children's schedules. Now she's a substitute teacher, working on call about 35 hours a week. Her husband, Dennis, a truckdriver, is on the road 60 hours a week delivering gas, oil and asphalt. Cathy Hagner, who never played organized sports as a child, says she often longs for a simpler life with more time for picnics, reading by the fire and even schoolwork. "Sometimes I question the value of all this," she concedes. But there's no time for more reflection: she has to take Matthew to a soccer game.

In a few communities, parents are organizing to find ways to stop the madness. A group called Family Life 1st!, based in the affluent Minneapolis suburb of Wayzata, has asked coaches, teachers and leaders of youth groups to cut back on required games and practices--especially during holidays and vacations. But most parents who buck the trend are just taking action on their own. Elise Herner of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was as proud as any mother when her 8-year-old son, Ross, was one of the 13 lucky kids out of 80 picked for a traveling soccer team. But then the pressure began to take a toll on Ross. After he played in a hailstorm in the first of two Sunday-afternoon soccer games, Herner gave him a warm bath to thaw him out before the second match. But he refused to play, and his mother relented--even though the coach was not happy. "I couldn't hold an 8-year-old to that commitment," Herner says. She had to ask herself: "Did he make the commitment or did we?"

Many parents use grades as a test of how much is too much. Kim and Jerry Larance of The Woodlands, Texas, say that they make their three very active sons scale back on sports if there are conflicts with schoolwork. "If push comes to shove, academics are their first priority," Jerry Larance says.

Others set a rule of only one major activity per child. Lynn Reed of Downers Grove, Ill., says she's determined to control the schedules of her two kids, Aileen, 10, and Andrew, 9. "When they were younger, they wanted to try everything," she says. "Andrew had basketball, baseball, soccer, swimming. But he has found a love for soccer. He made a traveling soccer team, so we cut back on his other sports activities." Aileen has made a similar commitment to swimming, with practices for her private swim team four days a week, 60 minutes per day.

Still, it's not easy to keep the family functioning smoothly, says Reed, who runs a part-time business out of her home. Though they're only in third and fifth grade, the children have at least an hour of homework daily, plus 20 to 30 minutes of mandatory reading. Reed has a strict routine; homework is the first order of business when the kids come in from school. "Trying to juggle the homework is tough," says Reed. "I joke that if I knew about homework, I would have reconsidered this kid thing!"

Homework is a major battleground for many families. Parents think they are giving their children a tactical advantage by closely supervising their assignments, often to ensure that their children get the best possible grades. Students today have lots of homework at earlier and earlier ages, even though many educational researchers say homework in elementary school has almost no effect on student achievement. As assignments get more complex, parents find that a huge chunk of the "quality time" they could be spending with their children is devoted to untangling algebra. "For many families," says Rivka Polatnick, a senior researcher at the Center for Working Families at the University of California, Berkeley, "this means a choice between homework battles or a 'solution' of almost doing it themselves, just because they want to get it over with."

That pattern of intervention can continue long past grade school, robbing teenagers of the opportunity to develop maturity and independence. When there's trouble, some parents go into overdrive, says Damon. "If a child is caught doing something risky, like drinking and driving, parents these days are so incredibly protective of their kids that the last thing they will do is call on anyone outside the family to help, like the local police or the school. They don't want anything on their child's record that could hinder their quest for achievement someday."

Students who've never learned to make their own choices can feel lost and confused once they get to college. Even then, parents aren't letting go. With e-mail and mobile phones, parents can keep in constant touch with their kids--a dramatic change from their own college years, when a weekly call home was considered more than adequate. "I had a student crying in my office the other day," Coontz recalls, "who said, 'I know how to write a paper, taking any position, but I have no idea what I believe in myself'... There's a significant minority of kids who have shut down emotionally because they've tried so hard to achieve."

The best way to prevent that, child-rearing experts say, is to pare down the family calendar and remember that downtime can be the most productive of all. That's a lesson Houston mother Cindy Cicio is trying to teach her three kids--ages 10, 6 and 4. They're all involved in sports, music and church activities, but she's constantly on the watch for burnout. When any of them shows signs of stress, she reminds them that their activities are just intended to be fun, and that they shouldn't worry about how well they do. She also tries to leave a little space for just hanging out. "I make sure they have time in their day when they can go outside for 45 minutes to an hour and just be a kid." She and her husband, Patrick, try to give themselves the same gift of time every night. Around 9, after all the homework is done and the kids are in bed, they make it a priority to just be together. "If there are clothes that need to be put away, they just sit there," she says, "because I have to chill out." And, of course, gather strength for another round in the minivan.