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25 years later, even more hurried parents

Modern childhood, for all its abundant privileges and advantages, keeps falling on hard times.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, David Elkind sounded one of the first alarms in his eloquent book, "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast, Too Soon." He warned that pressure in the media, schools, and homes was forcing children to hurry through life, creating an assault on childhood.

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That was also the era when Neil Postman published "The Disappearance of Childhood," making a case that the growth of electronic media exposes children to sophisticated information formerly out of bounds to them. That, he said, blurs the line between children and adults, eroding innocence.

In the decades since those books appeared, the pressures on children have only intensified. Dr. Elkind's classic book remains so relevant, in fact, that his publisher will soon issue a 25th-anniversary edition for a new generation of parents.

Another urgent warning comes from 110 teachers, children's authors, and psychologists who signed an open letter to the Daily Telegraph in London this month. They wrote darkly that "junk culture" is "killing" childhood, and that children are "being poisoned by modern life." They spoke of "toxic childhood" and "the death of childhood" as they listed negative influences, among them computer games, poor diets, and the stress brought on by highly competitive education.

No less eminent a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury joined the chorus by describing a "crisis" of modern childhood. The Very Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams warns that parents are failing to demonstrate the right mix of love and support. As a result, they are rearing children who are growing up too fast, becoming "infant adults."

Sobering talk indeed.

Such cautionary tales can be useful reminders of the need to protect children. But if there truly is a "crisis" here – and that attention-grabbing word does tend to be overused – perhaps it's not just a crisis of childhood but of parenthood as well.

As carefully synchronized fathers and mothers shuttle between home and work, chauffeuring children to school, soccer practice, and music lessons, they may feel part of what some call a "family unfriendly" culture.

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They also face criticism. Madeline Levine, author of "The Price of Privilege," charges that many parents are pushing their children to be high achievers. That raises a question: Where does encouragement end and pushing begin?

To add confusion, a report being released in early October challenges the notion that children have too many activities. Yale psychologist Joseph Mahoney, who conducted the study, found no negative effects on students who take part in high amounts of organized activities.

Only 6 percent of the children in his study spend nearly 20 hours a week in organized activities. A surprising 40 percent of children have no extracurricular activities, the report finds.

Too many commitments? Too few? Each family must find its own balance.

Even if children aren't overscheduled, some of their parents are. Dr. Levine cautions that "marriages suffer under the barrage of child-centered activities."

Parenthood may be the world's longest, hardest, and ultimately most satisfying job for which there is no real training. We are all, in our own ways, winging it, doing our best, and hoping we do it right.

The reassuring news is that as children and parents in every generation navigate the shoals of their particular era, most families prevail. They find their own solutions to meet the needs of their children. They write their own definitions of success and happiness.

Which doesn't mean they don't need help. Perhaps it's time for a book titled "The Hurried Parent," outlining ways to reduce the pressure on families.

Offering one bit of comfort, Sue Palmer, a former teacher and a signer of the letter to the Daily Telegraph, says simply, "Childhood is not a race."

Neither, she might add, is parenthood.


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