Friday night topic: The professionalization of childhood


— 5:13 PM on April 5, 2013

I don't know how many of you have observed this, but I think there's a growing trend over the past, say, 20 years or so toward occupying kids' time with an incredible amount of structure. From dawn to dusk, many children these days have virtually every moment mapped out for them in advance, with little leeway or leisure time. Schools are piling on more and more busywork, in part for political reasons. Kids are shuttled from one sort of activity to the next, from music lessons to church to play practices to three different kinds of sports practices. The children who excel in such activities can level up into really rigorous formats, like "competitive" sports teams that travel to play the best teams around the region or nation.

There's very little time left over for, you know, play.

I think the intentions are good, but the implied goals smell a little odd to me. Seems like an awful lot of parents are angling for their kids to become multi-sport professional athletes. You probably can't manufacture the next Bo Jackson, folks. (At least, not outside of a genetics lab.) Another motivator is the "midnight basketball" theory: the idea that one can keep kids out of trouble by giving them something to do . . . every living moment. That approach seems destined to fail the moment the child encounters even brief freedom, but perhaps it's a somewhat effective hedge against, say, growing up in a difficult neighborhood or the like.

I dunno. What I remember from my childhood is this: vast swaths of leisure time that I could put to use as I pleased, within a few basic limits. Yeah, I was on sports teams and took music lessons and the like, but those things were interruptions, not the constant state of affairs. I spent tons of time riding my bike, building "forts" in the abandoned lot down the street, playing Archon on my Atari 800, and running around in the woods near my house. Other kids around me, I think, had similar experiences.

With more structure, I seriously doubt I would have developed an unnatural affection for the DMA I/O properties of SCSI hard drives as an early teen, and that turned into a whole thing that has mattered tremendously in my career.

Now, that sort of play-filled, self-directed life appears to be virtually impossible for many kids. In its place, they have fully pre-programmed agendas, packed with activities intended for their betterment.

So I'm wondering. Did any of you grow up as a "professional" child, and if so, how has it affected you? Did you turn out as a concert pianist with full-ride scholarships in multiple sports who aced the SAT and will one day run for President?

Or are we losing something important here, with too much structure in kids' lives? Is it true that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?

How would you raise your own kids? Discuss.

   
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