Pace of life has accelerated at an alarming rate, even here in Dubai where the common definition of a nanosecond is the length of time between the change of the traffic light to green and the blowing of the car horn behind you. In his landmark book The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon, noted psychologist David Elkind identified Hurried Child Syndrome, the disturbing trend that sees kids rushed to mature physically, academically, and emotionally earlier than they need to. Apparently, this trend has only got worse.
The good news is that part of the rush comes from the endless ways for people to spend their time. The bad news is that overloading on those options can be just as detrimental as overeating or spending too much time in the sun. ‘Many parents have the feeling that giving their child a good education means pushing them into a large number of activities,’ says pediatrician Dr Rajeshri Singhania, of Singhania Children’s Clinic in Dubai Healthcare City. ‘Modern children are often bombarded with information, but they need time not only to learn new information, but also to download and process it.’
In many ways, the media is to blame. Not only are kids feeling the pressure to achieve, they’re also feeling pushed to look and act like little adults. Take, for example, Bratz dolls – all of which wear skin tight trousers, teeny mini skirts, and loads of blue eye shadow. All the rage among girls barely out of training pants, it’s little wonder that kids are feeling the pressure to dress like dancers in an MTV music video.
Another alarming source of stress comes from schools. More and more programmes are pushing academics and allowing ‘unnecessary’ activities like sports and the arts to fall by the wayside in favour of core subjects. Without an outlet for all that pressure, it’s not surprising that so many kids are feeling the detrimental effects of anxiety.
Ultimately, though, the main source of stress for kids who feel hurried comes from their parents. In many instances, the problem lies not in the number of activities in which a child is engaged but the parents’ attitude towards their child’s involvement. ‘Here in Dubai, we see a lot of parents who try to fulfil a dream they never accomplished through their children,’ says clinical and forensic psychologist Dr Raymond Hamden, of the Human Relations Institute in Knowledge Village. ‘Sometimes, for competitive reasons, they want their children to excel, not so much for the kids’ sake but for their own social and cultural expectations, or to show off how well or how much their child is doing.’
These parents, says Dr Elkind, driven by their own ego more than the desire to do what’s best for their offspring, try to transform their children into ‘superkids’ by rushing them from one enrichment class to another, often at very young ages. One Abu Dhabi primary school teacher tells: ‘I have kids in my class who are falling asleep at their desks – they go straight from school to practices or lessons every day. It seems like every minute of their lives is dictated for them, and they don’t seem to be enjoying it.’
So what happens when your kid’s weekly timetable starts careering out of control? ‘I’ve seen a lot of children in Dubai who are dealing with a great level of stress that manifests itself in anxiety,’ says Dr Hamden. ‘Sadly, a few have even been suicidal.’ A child who has no time to himself, who is engaged in more activities than he can handle, or who is always rushing from one class or playdate to another may be suffering. Dr Singhania reminds us that while activities like art, music, or sports are meant to be fun, they are also learning experiences during which children must strive to perform correctly or compete – which is not the same as simply playing for the sake of having fun alone.
‘If a child feels that the goals set before him are unattainable,’ says Dr Hamden, ‘he may become frustrated and fear being rejected by his parents for not fulfilling his parents’ dream.’ Warning signs can include stomach aches, headaches, anxiety, depression, learning difficulties, and other symptoms of stress. Dr Hamden explains that kids may:
• Act out in aggressive, socially unacceptable ways
• Be defiant, agitated, or irritable
• Lack concentration or have memory problems
• Lack interest in socialising
• Cry easily
• Experience sleep disturbances or changes in eating habits
So, how can you avoid the rush? No one thinks it’s a good idea to let kids spend all their free time vegging in front of the TV or PlayStation with nary a challenge to stimulate them. There are plenty of benefits for kids who are involved in a variety of activities. But Dr Elkind’s research suggests that if you want your child to succeed later in life, the answer lies not in hours of baby university and toddler violin lessons. While structured activities can enrich your child’s life, just as important is unstructured play, especially the kind that stimulates imagination. ‘Kids need a balance in life on a daily basis,’ explains Dr Hamden. ‘Everyone needs to spend some time each day at work/school, in recreation/relaxation, with family, and on spiritual growth.’ When play becomes work, that balance gets thrown off and life is neither productive, nor fun.
Even more important is your kids’ relationship with you. If kids feel they can trust you to support them when they fail, they’re more likely to try new things. Likewise, if you give them the room to become the person they want to be, not the person you’ve prescribed for them, they’re more likely to be driven to achieve for the intrinsic joy of achieving rather than to earn your love. You don’t have to enrol them in every class and club that comes along; you only have to give them plenty of choices and support them in what they really want to do. Perhaps the best advice comes from Dr Elkind himself, who simply says parents should chill out a little and let children be children.
The way to play
Experts agree kids need unstructured time to play on their own. Dr Singhania suggests these tips for creating a healthy environment for imaginative play.
• Chill out Unstructured time should be just that – free of rules beyond those of courtesy and safety. Kids should feel laid back and should not feel that you have any requirements of them other than to just have a good time.
• Ditch the TV and computer games Anyone who’s ever seen a kid discard a toy and play with the box it came in knows that sometimes the least expensive toys are the ones that stimulate the imagination the most.
• Supervise without orchestrating Make sure the kids are playing fairly, but don’t stand over them. Keep safety in mind. Older kids will need time entirely on their own, while you should watch that youngsters don’t run into the street or turn on the oven.
• Don’t feel guilty Though it may look like you’re not parenting, allowing your children a safe environment in which to process everything they’ve learned, absorb new information, and apply what they know into their lives is just as important as time spent in a classroom.
• Start early There’s nothing more tedious than a kid who can’t amuse himself. Even small babies benefit from time to explore the world outside the confines of expectation.
• Let the neighbours in Kids enjoy playing with other kids. Imaginative interaction with other kids allows your child to learn how to build relationships and solve problems naturally without an adult putting out every fire and resolving every conflict.
Call Dr Hamden on 04 365 8498 or Dr Singhania on 04 429 8498 for more info. The Hurried Child and its follow-up books Miseducation and The Power of Play, all by Dr David Elkind, are available at Magrudy’s