Here's an interesting article I stumbled across this morning: "I work with kids. Here’s why they’re consumed with anxiety."
The writer is a Baptist youth pastor from North Carolina named John Thornton Jr. who ministers to children from 6th to 12th grades. In investigating why the youth he works with are continually stressed and anxious, he found they are consumed with -- their future.
"I’d heard from parents, teachers, and friends with children that kids today live increasingly busy and stressful lives compared to previous generations," writes Thornton. "I wanted to know not only what that looked like but how the kids themselves felt and thought about it. What I discovered gave me a good deal of pause about the world kids live in today and what it’s doing to them."
Thornton found children are constantly being pushed to "optimize their futures." Rather than experiencing happy-go-lucky childhoods where school is bracketed by play, instead they are being forced to think about their careers at increasingly young ages.
"The kids often used workplace lingo to describe their lives," notes Thornton. "One sixth-grader talked about a school assignment in which she had to develop a life plan that included her future career, which schools she should attend, and what she ought to major in at her chosen university. It was only later that I realized visualizing the future like this meant that every grade, every volunteer hour, every achievement or failure carried the weight of fulfilling that imagined future."
This article gave me pause. To those of us who are now competent mature adults, I think we forget how burdensome adulthood can seem to children -- especially if it's pushed on them at too young an age.
Don (born in 1957) and I (born in 1962) are possibly the last generation who remembers childhood as that mythical happy-go-lucky period. When school let out, kids ran shrieking into the streets, scattering to their homes before re-emerging to engage in ball games, bike races, climbing trees, building forts, reading books while lying in a field, jumping rope, and other decidedly non-academic engagements.
Don was more suburban during his youth, and spent hours each day playing with his friends outside before darkness and empty bellies pulled everyone home. I was more rural, and spent my hours roaming the hillsides around my home, watching the wildlife, until my dad's shrill two-fingered whistle called me home for dinner.
These kinds of non-academic activities allow children to decompress from the stress of school. It allowed them to achieve (pardon an overused term) a work-life balance.
Who has that kind of childhood anymore? Instead, kids are constantly sent to "enriching" after-school activities -- language classes, music lessons, sports, civic organization meetings, and endless other pursuits meant to give them an edge over their peers and, ultimately, impress admissions officials at universities.
...Which accounts for this classic Zits cartoon:
"Kids today live with the baggage of their parents’ economic anxiety," writes Thornton. "Kids today have to constantly consider the perils of work and career with enough specificity to worry about it. At the same time that they stress about the future that’s so very far off, they live with technology that keeps that anxiety consistently in the front of their minds."
What Thornton observed was children being forced to internalize and personalize the economic anxiety of their parents, the Gen Xers and Millennials who came of age during an economic downturn, saddled with massive student-loan debt, poor job prospects, and skyrocketing real estate prices. As one Millennial woman put it, burnout is "the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives."
It's understandable and natural for parents to want their children to do better than them; but at what price? "While many of us who work with kids don’t want to name the likelihood that the generation behind us will do even worse than us, it’s hard not to see that we communicate it to them regardless," says Thornton. "These kids aren’t even being told that the point of all the work and the stress is a better life -- they’re being told it’s necessary just to survive. These kids live with what philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls 'tension without intention.' They’re constantly stressed, and they’re growing aware that there’s no payoff for it all."
Today's children face more than just their parents' economic anxiety. They are being subjected to concepts of breathtaking complexity and maturity, at younger and younger ages. Must a six-year-old pick his gender and decide to take puberty-blocking drugs while opting to amputate body parts? Must a 10-year-old be given a wide variety of sexual practices through every possible bodily orifice to choose from? Must 11-year-old boys dance in drag in gay bars and dress like drag queens? Why do we do this to children?
Why can't kids be kids? Why must they be little adults?
No wonder modern kids are stressed.