Raising the Perfect Child

It's a scorching afternoon, one of those days on which weathermen warn everyone to stay inside, avoid all things stressful, and wear light, loose-fitting clothing. But for 11-year-old twins Caroline and Suzanne DeFelice, it's riding day, and a little heat is not going to stop them. Their mother drives them to the Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton on the North Shore, where they slip on their heavy black chaps, black helmets, and gloves, climb up on their ponies, and bounce off into the woods behind their instructor.

This seems like the perfect day to do nothing, to let kids be kids and play under a sprinkler or on a swing, and as she waits in the shade of the stable for her daughters to return, Wendy DeFelice comes clean. Sometimes, she confesses, she has to step back and ask herself if her children have so much to do because that's what they want or what she wants. “It's easy to get caught up in it and think, if that child's doing it, maybe mine should too,” she says. Like the time she signed up her daughters in kindergarten to play soccer. “None of the children had any idea what the game was, or how to play, and the coaches just stood on the side screaming,” she says. “My kids never wanted to play soccer again.”

She pauses. “I should have waited.”

As the 21st century unfolds, DeFelice can take some solace in knowing that other parents are struggling with similar decisions. Children have been forced to multitask as much as their stressed-out moms and dads have been, juggling one after another supervised activity. A University of Michigan study found that children's free time – after sleeping, studying, eating, and participating in organized events – has dropped from 40 percent to 25 percent in the last two decades; kids 12 and under lost 30 minutes a day, or almost four hours a week, of play time during that same stretch. Childhoods once spent bicycling through the streets, watching Saturday morning cartoons, and building forts in the bushes have been replaced by Baby Mozart, Tumble Tots, tutors, swimming, riding, piano lessons, foreign language tapes, baseball, basketball, karate, flash cards, educational CD-ROMs, and traveling soccer teams.

And that's all before high school.

Then – especially in a region as intellectually driven, fast-paced, and competitive as greater Boston – come the college prep workshops, SAT and MCAS courses, and a multitude of extracurricular activities, all to make that college application look more like a CEO's résumé so its owner can nab a slot at an elite school. No longer is a bachelor's degree the yardstick of success. Now it's a master's or a Ph.D. Even Harvard, of all places, acknowledges what's happening, referring in its application to the “hysteria,” “peer pressure,” and “fear of being left behind” some students feel.

When did this craze begin? Parents have always wanted the best for their children. What's new is that today's parents are more educated and wealthier than any previous generation, and can pay the college coaches and costly tuitions without blinking. Also, more mothers are working (62 percent in 1999, compared to 44 percent in 1975), pushing parents to arrange more structured supervision for their children while mom and dad are at the office. Meanwhile, youth sports leagues are demanding more time than ever. “Sundays should be sacred family time,” a Newton father of six pleads to his children's coaches, who schedule games and practice on the weekends.

Kids are being spread so thin that the oddest of role reversals has occurred. Psychologists, once concerned for the hyper child, have turned their focus to the hyper parent, the one who cries when her tot is rejected by the preferred preschool, or pummels the hockey coach for not playing his son, or argues for her daughter to be allowed to take five honors classes in one semester.

“People believe you can raise the perfect kid without effort, just by using Baby Einstein and the Kaplan tests,” says Boston-trained child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap. Parents increasingly feel compelled to micromanage their kids' lives, Rosenfeld says, over-scheduling them in an attempt to ensure future success. Reduce your child's activities by 5 to 7 percent, he warns, or watch them burn out right before your eyes. “Parents are spending more time with their kids nowadays,” Rosenfeld says, “but only because they're driving them to more activities.”

And the consequences are showing. Inside a small, drab Kenmore Square office, volunteers for the Samaritans of Boston answer confidential, sometimes suicidal, calls on a 24-hour hotline. The adult line gets up to 150 calls a day, while a special hotline for teens gets 15 to 20, mostly in the evenings, from callers who seem to be getting younger. Jane Lindquist, the youth coordinator, says an 11-year-old called recently about pressures he was feeling. “With the teenagers, we hear a lot of isolation,” Lindquist says. “They've got friends, but they're in violin until 4 p.m., then they have homework, then this and that. They have no connection, and they don't feel like they can share with their friends.”

Or their parents. As more parents believe that busier is better for their children, and that free time is wasted time, play time has vanished and some disturbing trends have followed. While the suicide adult rate has declined, the adolescent rate has tripled nationwide since 1950. In Massachusetts, young people between 15 and 24 are now the most likely to be hospitalized for attempting suicide, and in the last five years the number of mental-health-crisis visits by kids to Boston hospitals has doubled. More teenagers are wrestling with alcohol abuse and eating disorders. A growing number of children are taking Ritalin, a drug that treats attention deficit disorder and that critics say has become the lazy parent's Band-Aid for calming unruly kids. Children are spending more hours at school, yet educators are seeing more cheating than ever; a Boston high school valedictorian admitted in June to cheating on his calculus final, for example. Recess is slowly disappearing as educators make sure children are spending enough time in class, and as a result kids are learning less about sharing and cooperating and more about e-mailing. Some schools, including Lexington High, have gone so far as to form academic stress committees to explore why students are burning out so young.

Really, though, in a region that has both Harvard and MIT in its back yard, among the most Ph.D.s, medical doctors, and Nobel laureates per capita in the nation, and a thriving technology community, is it any great surprise that children here are simply following the lead set by their parents?

The toddler on the swing by the Charles River near Harvard is squealing with delight as his father pushes him higher. With the sun reflecting off the water, it's a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting: father and son bonding on a Saturday morning. Except for one detail: The father is on his cell phone, in deep conversation. He's not even looking at the boy, leaving his right hand extended so he knows when to push by feeling for the swing.

Interaction between parents and their children has never been worse, says T. Berry Brazelton, a child development expert who lives in Cambridge and whose latest book, Touchpoints Three to Six is due out this month. Instead of welcoming a snow day during the school year as unplanned time to spend with their kids, parents tear their hair out at the thought of their children's being home. Parents are more stressed, and so are their children. “It's no coincidence that the rash of school shootings has come as the stress level in children has risen,” Brazelton says. “These killings are a real warning sign.”

And the pressure is starting younger and younger.

Brookline has 15 to 20 preschool/daycare programs, and most of them take children as young as two. Nursery school used to be for three- and four-year-olds, but with birth rates booming and fewer daycare slots open, parents are jump-starting their tots' educations and applying for seats when their children are barely a year old – in some cases, still breast-feeding. That means some mothers and fathers are researching preschools during pregnancy. It's hard for many not to be distraught when they don't get their first choice, especially when the cost of enrollment can be as high as $10,000 a year. And remember: This is preschool.

“We got caught up in the fury,” one Newton mother of three admits about her disappointment after learning her oldest child had been rejected by a certain private school. “At first we felt lucky we could make a choice. But I look back and wonder why we got so frothed up. I mean we were trying to figure out when they're three years old where they're going to high school.”

She and her husband agreed on their town's public schools, and now they realize it should have been their first preference.

“I think it's really hard for parents to be looking for a school when their baby isn't even walking or talking yet,” says Carol Killian, the director of Judge and Mrs. Lewis Golberg Nursery School at Temple Kehillath Israel in Brookline, which has 18 spaces for two-year-olds. Killian says many parents aren't sure they want their child in preschool – that is, until they see their neighbor's kid enrolled. “There's peer pressure,” she says. “That child is doing it, so what is my child missing out on? Everyone is pushing their children.”

But will childcare help them achieve? The debate over how young to start daycare has raged for years. It grew even testier last spring when an ongoing National Institutes of Health survey of 1,100 children, from birth to age four and a half, found that the more hours children are separated from their mothers, the more “disobedient, defiant, and aggressive they were” once they reached kindergarten. “The issue should not be care versus no care, but lots of care versus less care,” principal researcher Jay Belsky says.

Countering Belsky, Lewis Lipsitt, a professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University and a former member of the survey's advisory board, says the results weren't all gloomy. The children in childcare “coped better, could solve problems easier, and were able to plan intelligent activities,” Lipsitt says.

That toddlers would be unhappy the longer they're away from their mothers should seem obvious. But in the 55 years since Dr. Benjamin Spock published his book, Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, which became the bible for every expectant couple, much has changed. “Don't take too seriously all that the neighbors say,” Spock wrote. “Don't be overawed by what the experts say. Don't be afraid to trust your own common sense.”

The book remains a top seller today, but its message has been buried beneath the avalanche of other parenting books, magazines, and new toys promising to stimulate babies into becoming the brightest and the best. It's a far cry from what Spock had in mind when he wrote: “Bringing up your child won't be a complicated job if you take it easy, trust your own instincts.”

So when did parents stop trusting themselves? Was it during the sexual revolution and civil rights struggles of the 1960s? During the rise in violent crime and the mom-goes-back-to-work era of the '70s? Amid the greed of the '80s? During the Internet revolution of the grunge '90s? Or is it more recent, a reaction to school shootings by Web-surfing teenagers who can obtain a gun as easily as a Game Boy, only to learn that the bullets go bang-bang, not beep-beep, and leave behind a trail of dead bodies?

“This started about 30 years ago, once women had choices about what they did,” says Linda Braun, executive director of Families First, a Cambridge nonprofit group that works to help parents communicate better with their children. “They needed validation that their choice was okay, and one of the ways they got validation was through the achievements of their children.”

The result, she says, has been a war among mommies.

“The mothers who went to work,” Braun says, “are afraid they're depriving their child, and to overcome the guilt, they pile on the flash cards, the puzzles, the music, and everything else.” The mothers who chose to stay home, she says, believe they should have the most well adjusted children since they are making the ultimate sacrifice. And then, when they see the children of the working mothers wrapped up in so many things, they feel the urge to keep up.

All of this before elementary school.

The large wooden trunk in the foyer of the Cohan house in Newton holds the family's life story. Six compartments, six names, dozens of sneakers, cleats, and shoes for every sport the children play. With kids ranging in age from 2 to 20, Bob and Phuli Cohan seem to spend all their time driving from one game or lesson to the next. Sundays are reserved for arranging the driving schedule for the coming week.

A typical day had 10-year-old Greg in Hebrew school from 4 – 5 p.m., and rushing to soccer right after. Natasha, 12, had temple from 5 – 6 p.m. and basketball right after. Back and forth Phuli went like a pinball on autopilot. When 14-year-old Emma had to choose between a Friday night basketball game and a school trip, she chose the trip, and her father had to break the news to her coach. “He took a deep breath and said he accepted her decision,” Bob says.

So should parents deny their kids a sport, or should the coaches and schools lighten up? “I don't blame the parents. I blame the schools,” Phuli says on the porch of their home. It's 8 p.m. The only child home is two-year-old Sophia, and even she's running next door to play with her neighbor. “There should be more pressure put on schools to not have sports on holidays and weekends. Why do they have practice three times a week for 12-year-olds?”

She may not like it, but many parents prefer it that way. On one bright morning outside the Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School in Newton, the students arrive in droves. Crossing guards keep the kids and parents moving through the intersections, some on foot, others in cars. A father pulls into the parking lot, puts his daughter on his shoulders, and walks inside. A mother kisses her daughter in the car before the girl hops out and the mom zips off to work.

Five minutes apart, Angela Cedrone and Julie Daly stroll out of the school after leaving their children inside. They are both mothers of two youngsters, and work limited hours so they can spend more time at home. But their feelings on how to raise their kids could not be more different.

“It's become a competition for a lot of parents,” Cedrone says, almost whispering so other parents don't hear her. She says she makes an effort to keep her kids free. “Too much activity stresses kids out,” she says. “Maybe my kids will take swimming lessons in the summer. That's it. I'm not sure about camp.”

But Daly says she wants her children as busy as possible. Her son takes karate three times a week, swims twice a week, and has hours of homework on top of everything. “I like to keep them active,” she says. “I'd rather he be outside than in front of the TV.” She's quick to add, however, that these outside activities are mostly structured and supervised. Rarely is her son allowed to simply roam the neighborhood. “In this day and age, you can't just go out and play. It's too scary. It's a crazy world.”

Does she worry about piling on too much? “They tell me if they're tired,” Daly says. “The other day, it was hot, and my son said he didn't want to go to karate. So he didn't.”

But most experts agree it should never come to that – kids begging out of activities – because children want to please their parents. It's healthier when they have more time to themselves, Brazelton says. “With all this structure, we're taking play time away from them.”

That's not to say Little League is evil. Dozens of cars were parked on the street at Garfield Park in Lexington one summer evening as parents sat on lawn chairs cheering for their children, snapping pictures. One father of three, who asked that he not be named, leaned against his minivan while watching his son. “From 4:30 to 5 p.m. is homework time,” he says, “and 20 minutes of reading as well.” He says his son was so wired – with baseball, karate, schoolwork, and everything else – that he and his wife hoped Ritalin would help him relax. “It's calmed him down so much,” he says. “I don't think there's too much on them. If they were overloaded, we'd cut back.”

But what's overloaded? In as sure a sign as any of the changing times, Lego, the maker of those colorful, plastic building blocks that were once a fixture in every kid's basement, is losing millions of dollars. No time to play. Children are spending less time playing indoors and watching television, and more time studying and in organized activities, a direct reflection of how adults are leading their own lives. “Parents are very stressed, and it leads them to think stress is the way of life,” Brazelton says. “When you substitute objects for people, or Mozart for people, it's not a good trade.”

It's gotten so bad that some children don't seem to know how to just play.

When it's recess at the William L. Foster Elementary School in Hingham, Principal Mary Ann Morrissey says she watches the children rush outside and launch into a version of some organized sport, usually soccer. It's all they know. And it's created a dilemma for her. She wants them to know how to play games that don't require teams and competition, so that the less athletic students don't feel left out. Then again, she doesn't want to step in and suddenly make recess one more structured part of the day.

“We're thinking of teaching more playground games at recess,” she says. “They don't know how to play four square. There are no jump ropes or Hula Hoops. They are interested in organized sports, and that leads to ill feelings.”

But at least Morrissey is determined not to shorten recess. Chip Wood, executive director of the Northeast Foundation for Children in Greenfield and a former elementary school principal in western Massachusetts, says the state Department of Education is closely tracking how schools use every hour of every day. Since recess is not considered educational, it's the first place some schools cut when they have to find more hours for teaching. “We're talking about children,” Wood says. “They need exercise and play as much as they need reading. It's a part of growing up.”

Learning is too, however, and Morrissey says she sees another trend with students: They are being tutored younger, so parents who come home after an exhausting day don't have to struggle with their children's algebra. “The upside is that parents don't have to do it,” she says. And maybe it's paying off. The number of students taking advanced placement tests has jumped from about 1,000 in 1961 to more than one million today.

Is that a good thing? More tutoring means total strangers are getting the quality time with children while the parents sit in the other room hoping their money will lead to better grades and a better choice of colleges.

Betty J Ruth was enjoying a rare moment of peace from her 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. Sitting at the kitchen table in her small Cape in Lexington, she flipped through her hometown newspaper, the Lexington Minuteman, when she spotted the ad on the bottom half of page 3 in the March 29 edition. “I just gasped,” she recalls.

“Wearing a sweatshirt from your kid's college shouldn't be humiliating,” blared the ad for a Web site called Getintocollege.com. “Getting into the right college isn't easy. Our program makes it seem like it is.”

An assistant clinical professor of social work at Boston University, Ruth stared at that one word – humiliating. Would it really be humiliating if her son attended, say, New England College, a small liberal arts school in New Hampshire, instead of Harvard? Irate, she called her friends. She took the ad to work. She stewed about it for days. And she vented in a letter to the editor, both at what the advertisement said, and at her disgust that some parents might actually believe its message.

“Any parent who is humiliated by their child's attendance at a given college because it isn't prestigious enough needs to wake up,” she wrote. “Children are not meant to be blue-ribbon by-products of their high-achieving, well-to-do parents.”

Maybe not, but that's exactly what many have become. Michael London, president of College Coach (Getintocollege.com), says many parents his Newton-based service sees are more interested in finding the best school for their child, instead of the right school. London says the ad in the Minuteman was intended to poke fun at the pressures of the college application season, but instead stirred up anger in parents, and stirred up business for him. “It was the best ad we ever did,” London says. “We had a lot of people call wanting to use our service, but also a lot of complaints.”

He pulled the ad after only one run because of those complaints but says the response it got was revealing. “We were making a joke,” he says, “but a lot of parents saw some truth in it.”

Marcus Catsouphes, 18, has seen the pressure. The Princeton-bound graduate of Lexington High School says the pressure on students can be overwhelming. It's what drove teachers, parents, and students to start the Academic Stress Committee, and explore solutions, including reducing the number of classes per day, and not scheduling tests and long-term projects at the same time in multiple subjects.

“There's pressure, and desire, to get into a topnotch school,” Catsouphes says. “But when you have kids getting three hours' sleep a night, that's not healthy.”

Though students may put some of that pressure on themselves, Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a child psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Boston, says it usually starts with the parents. “When friends of their teenagers come over,” he says, “the first question parents ask is, 'So where do you want to go to college?' To say, 'My child got into an Ivy League school' is more important than, 'My child knows the difference between right and wrong.'”

Don't think the children don't notice. Why do so many kids judge success by how much money they will make? The answer, experts say, is often found at home, in parents who use the college application process as a stamp that they have succeeded.

“Parents need to understand that we had Nobel Prize winners before their obsession to develop the perfect child,” says Dr. Julius Richmond, a professor emeritus of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health and the first director of the Head Start program in 1965.

And it's not just rich kids. “With the middle class, what you have are both parents extremely busy, working full-time,” says Karen Norberg, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Cambridge who has studied youth suicide. “The problem is what to do with the kids after school. Even if you're not a competitive parent, you're worried your kid will lose that competitive edge by not participating.”

So when was the last time you curled up on the couch and read with your 8-year-old? Or played catch in the backyard with your 12-year-old? Or rented a movie with your teenager and munched on popcorn? “God forbid you should spend a Sunday morning just sitting around,” says Sparrow. “That kind of interaction is missing.”

It's easy to blame the coaches for holding too many practices, the schools for scheduling too many games, the teachers for assigning too much homework, the media for deluging parents with college rankings, the toy manufacturers for promising perfection, and the experts for writing enough books to fill the Library of Congress. But mom and dad still control the calendar.

Sure, you think it's rough being a parent today with a 9-to-5 job, endless carpools, and the fear of a molester your child met on the Internet around every corner. Imagine being a kid. No more time to run around free of supervision and a clock. Instead, a schedule devoid of white space and filled with enough appointments to run a marathoner ragged.

“God knows parents love their kids, but it's for what they can do, instead of who they are,” says Braun, of Families First. “Kids pick up on that. Kids are dying to please their parents, but at the same time want to kill their parents.”

Back from their riding lesson and off their ponies, Caroline and Suzanne DeFelice both smile as the sweat drips off their matted brown bangs. The sixth graders say they love riding, and all the activities they do, for that matter. But they also have a message for parents everywhere.

“I wish we could slow down,” Suzanne says. “I get home after school and have 10 minutes to change and go back out. I wish we could relax. Sometimes I wish we had more days to just play.”