The Quest For A Superkid

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PHOTOGRAPH FOR TIME BY THEO WESTENBERGER

Tom Marton and Danit Ben-Ari of Brookline, Mass., have a cunning strategy for successful child rearing. Like most other parents, they wouldn't mind if their two daughters turned out to be among the next Mozarts or Martha Grahams or Mia Hamms. But essentially, they just want to help the girls get the most out of their lives. The key, they've decided, is the weekends, when they see to it that their daughters do ... pretty much nothing at all.

Actually, "nothing at all" isn't quite accurate. If the girls, ages 4 and 7, want to sleep late, they do — as do Mom and Dad. After that, there's time for a family breakfast and a lazy morning and an afternoon of outside play or a museum trip or whatever else strikes the family's fancy. Monday, they all know, will come soon enough, and the girls will be going back to the high-stakes race of schoolwork and homework and ballet or chess or soccer practice. But until then, they are going to have a chance to breathe. "My children," Ben-Ari insists, "will have all the time they need simply to hang out and be children."

There was a time when kids being kids wasn't a radical notion. For generations, childhood may have been life's one, true sweetheart deal: go to school six hours a day, take up hobbies or sports to keep your mind and body active, and the rest of the time you play. If along the way you turned out to have some remarkable talent or unexpected gift, fine. But that wasn't one of the job requirements.

In the past few years, however, all that has changed. At the dawn of the 21st century, a curious — and unsettling — transformation has come over American kids. The marvelously anarchic institution of childhood has been slowly turning into little more than an apprentice adulthood. Toddlers who once would have been years away from starting their formal education are being hothoused in nursery schools. Preschoolers who would have spent their time learning simply to play and share are being bombarded with flash cards, educational CD-ROMs and other gadgets designed to teach reading, writing and even second languages. Grade-schoolers are spending longer hours at school, still longer ones sweating over homework and filling what time they have left with a buffet line of outside activities that may or may not build character but definitely build résumés. Kids who once had childhoods now have curriculums; kids who ought to move with the lunatic energy of youth now move with the high purpose of the worker bee.

The engine behind this early striving is, often, the parents, who are increasingly consumed by the idea that if they can't perfect their children, they must at least get them as close to that ideal as possible. And who can blame them? Birth rates, while short of baby-boom levels, are nonetheless robust, tightening the competition for spots in the best schools. At the same time, almost all those schools have democratized their admissions policies, meaning it's no longer just the élite who can attend. With competition getting ever keener, kids have to do ever more to distinguish themselves.

Parents are also driven by something a lot more primal: old-fashioned guilt. Even as men take on more responsibility for rearing children, the lion's share of baby care is still handled by mothers. But in an era in which it often takes two incomes to meet the monthly nut, increasing numbers of moms can't spend nearly as much time with their kids as they'd like. In 1999, 62% of mothers worked outside the home. That figure was 54% in 1985 and just 44% in 1975. "Parents feel tremendous guilt because they feel they're spreading themselves too thin," says Dr. Joshua Sparrow of Children's Hospital in Boston. "When parents have time, they can wait for things to happen," adds Rachelle Tyler, an M.D. and professor of pediatrics at UCLA. "But when they're pressured, they feel they've got to see their children respond now."

Into this anxious mix have stepped hucksters and marketers who see worried parents as the most promising pigeons. Store shelves groan with new products purported to stimulate babies' brains in ways harried parents don't have time for. There are baby Mozart tapes said to enhance spatial reasoning and perhaps musical and artistic abilities too. There are black, white and red picture books, said to sharpen visual acuity. There are bilingual products said to train baby brains so they will be more receptive to multiple languages. The hard sell even follows kids to the one place you'd think they'd be allowed some peace — the womb — with handheld tummy speakers designed to pipe music and voices to the unborn baby, the better to stimulate the growing brain and get it ready for the work it will eventually have to do. Parents who don't avail themselves of these products do so at their children's peril: the brain, they are told, has very limited windows for learning certain skills. Let them close, and kids may be set back forever.

But is any of this true? Is it possible to turn an ordinary kid into an exceptional kid? Even if it is, is it worth it to try? Is it better to steer children gently through childhood, letting them make some mistakes and take some scrapes and accept the fact that some of them may not be marked for excellence? Or is it better to strive for a family of superkids, knowing that they are getting the most out of their potential if not out of their youth? Clearly, many parents are caught up in that quest, even if they quietly harbor doubts about its merits. "Parents have, to a large extent, lost confidence in themselves and in their own good judgment," says Peter Gorski, a committee chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The phenomenon of the driven child has been coming for a while, but it was in 1994 that the new breed was truly born. That was the year the Carnegie Corp. published a 134-page report describing a "quiet crisis" among U.S. children, who it argued were being ill served by their twin-career parents and their often failing school systems. The report's findings were worrisome enough, but buried in its pages were two disturbing paragraphs warning that schoolkids might not be the only ones suffering; babies could be too. Young brains are extremely sensitive to early influences, the report cautioned, and the right — or wrong — stimuli could have a significant impact on later development.

Those paragraphs went off like a grenade in the otherwise unremarkable study. The press ran alarming stories about blameless children being left behind. The White House called a conference on childhood development. Parents snapped up news of both, hoping it wasn't too late to undo whatever damage they had unwittingly done to their kids. "Every parent began to worry," says John Bruer, president of the McDonnell Foundation and author of the book The Myth of the First Three Years. "They thought, ‘If I don't have the latest Mozart CD, my child is going to jail rather than Yale?'"

In order to make up for their feared lapses, parents indeed started buying the approved kinds of music — and a whole lot more. A study conducted by Zero to Three, a nonprofit research group, found that almost 80% of parents with a high school education or less were assiduously using flash cards, television and computer games to try to keep their babies' minds engaged.

Child-development experts, however, consider these sterile tools inferior to more social and emotional activities such as talking with or reading to children. These specialists agree that the only thing shown to optimize children's intellectual potential is a secure, trusting relationship with their parents. Time spent cuddling, gazing and playing establishes a bond of security, trust and respect on which the entire child-development pyramid is based. "We have given social and emotional development a back seat," says UCLA's Tyler, "and that's doing a great disservice to kids and to our society."

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