Skip to main content

Parents, why are you pushing your kids?

By Jeff Pearlman, Special to CNN
updated 9:38 PM EDT, Tue July 17, 2012
Scheduled activities rob kids of opportunities to make their own fun without parental interference, says Jeff Pearlman.
Scheduled activities rob kids of opportunities to make their own fun without parental interference, says Jeff Pearlman.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeff Pearlman says he's baffled as to why people schedule their kids lives so much
  • He says highly scheduled lives for kids are supposed to lead to success? He thinks not.
  • He says growing up, he and a cadre of friends played freely, were successful as adults
  • Pearlman: Kids should play, grow, have fun without parents' interference

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman is the author of "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton," out in paperback in August. He blogs at jeffpearlman.com. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- What's the end game?

That's what I want to know. It's the question I ask, silently, every time I hear of a first grader going for extra academic tutoring; every time one of my daughter's friends is permanently unavailable for a play date because she has after-school ballet on Monday, after-school theater on Tuesday, after-school swimming on Wednesday, after-school mathematics on Thursday and after-school origami on Friday.

Because I am a coward, I refuse to stop other parents and ask the question aloud. But it burns inside of me. I'd like to know.

What's the end game?

Jeff Pearlman
Jeff Pearlman

Or, put differently: What the heck are you trying to accomplish here?

Back when I was a kid, growing up on the mean streets of Mahopac, New York, we returned home from a day at school and did (always in this order) three things: First, we had a snack (long story, but my mother hid the treats in the trunk of our '80 Datsun 510, leaving my brother and me a choice of plain graham crackers, carrots or -- dear God -- homemade yogurt). Then, we did our homework. Then, we played our asses off.

Motherhood and work, is it possible?

Really, we did. We'd meet up with Gary Miller and Dennis Gargano and Matt Walker and John Ballerini and David Clingerman and Jonathan Powell and a dozen other neighborhood kids and run. And bike. And tackle. There were games of kill the carrier and tag and H-O-R-S-E and kick the can; gleeful mile-long walks into town for bubble gum and soda. Inevitably, as darkness fell, Matt's dad, Bob Walker, would let loose a two-fingered whistle that shot up Emerald Lane's steep hill like a flamethrower. "Time to go in," Matt would say, and we'd all leave for dinner.

Remarkably (and against all modern parental logic), we've all wound up doing just fine. Married, kids, homes, careers, contentment. Matt is a designer for ESPN. Dennis is an attorney. Powell graduated from the Naval Academy. On and on and on.

It came, to a large degree, naturally. Just letting children be children.

Nowadays, however, I live in a community relatively similar to the place where I grew up, and nothing for kids is allowed to come naturally. Pressure reigns, the air poisoned by a looming need to make certain—cost and logic and inanity be damned—that your child has been placed on the 100-percent-guaranteed-or-your-money-back path toward success.

It's no longer enough to have Junior learning at his grade level. He has to be, testing-wise, one or two notches ahead (Unintentional end result: A classroom of bored, poorly behaved tykes). It's no longer OK for Junior to have little to do after school, free time to use as he sees fit. No, now you're either signing your child up for myriad organized activities, or you've somehow allowed him to fall behind. Everything revolves around success, success, success, success.

But here's the thing: What in the world is success?

Opinion: Hey, baby boomer parents, back off!

Please, I would love someone to tell me. Is it being a class valedictorian? Is it getting into Harvard? Is it earning an MBA or a Ph.D.? Is it skating for the Tampa Bay Lightning? Going to law school? Joining an exclusive country club? Working for NASA? Dating Justin Bieber? Having your own reality TV show?

Everyone is in such a rush to guarantee a child's future, yet nobody has been able to rightly (and righteously) explain the ultimate reward. I've heard people say, "I just want to give my child the best opportunity to succeed" at least 100 times, but always without elaboration. Hell, many of the parents I see gunning hardest for said success are, quite frankly, unhappy. They either work 70 hours per week at a job they loathe or count the hours until the kids go to sleep, or they just generally long to be somewhere — anywhere — but here.

It's as if we're all lined up on a racetrack, and we know we need to sprint as fast as possible — only there's no discernable finish line. Just run hard, expend all your energy, and maybe you'll find it.

Maybe.

Fortunately, I have the solution. Actually, it came from my wife. We were discussing which so-and-so teacher would best suit my son's so-and-so needs.

"You know what I want?" she said.

"What?"

"I want him to have fun."

"In school?"

"Yes, but also in life."

I couldn't agree more.

Kids are gifted with 18 years of childhood. That's it — less than two decades before the cruel, dark, real word overtakes their bliss. Yes, I want mine to do well in school, and learn the virtues of compassion and empathy and hard work. But I also aspire for them to jump on our trampoline until their legs sag from exhaustion, and ride their bikes up and down the street until someone lets loose a loud whistle, and play tag next door in Ashley and Emily's yard and chase down the ice cream man and watch in amazement as the pink petals fall from our cherry blossom tree.

If they wind up at Yale, and they're happy, I'll be thrilled. If they wind up collecting garbage, and they're happy, I'll be thrilled, too.

That's my end game.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT