Saturday, January 12, 2019

Why kids are stressed

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.


  1. If they studied success instead of failure they might learn something. But frankly there is not a Tocqueville amongst them. I’m out of empathy for their willful ignorance.

    I am sticking to my guns on advice to parents. The two greatest gifts you can give to your child are Jesus Christ and schooling at home.
    Montana Guy

  2. Patrice, I was born in the later 60's and remember the times of which you speak - in fact, I cannot really remember thinking about "adulthood" until well into college.

    That said (and as the father of three), I think the great challenge of the age is that the world is much more global now. As one of my professor stated (and I think to be true) we are now longer on a national basis but competing on an international basis. And this is where, it seems, the US has done in some ways a rather poor job of training our population overall for global competition: we focus on items of social importance but miss the fundamentals that make them competitive in the marketplace. As part of this competition, the push is to start the preparation earlier and earlier.

    We never pushed our children in this regard - but their environment seemed to push them. The whole thing now seems to have legs.

  3. We homeschool, but all of our friends who send their kids to public school are constantly complaining about he amount of homework that is assigned. When I was growing up (in the late 80's and through the 90's) we had homework, but not that much. I played outside and had a great time after school. My kids have friends that (in elementary school) have 4 or more hours of homework a night. That is just insane.

  4. When I was growing up (born in 1951), homework was mostly what wasn't finished at school. Except for mostly English papers and history essays. When my son was in elementary school in the 90's, they determined that the children should receive approx. 1/2 to one hour of homework PER GRADE. Then they wondered why children with no recess and excessive homework couldn't sit still in class. My son didn't start homeschooled but he finished homeschooled.

  5. I see something else leading to all this "anxiety", a word my grandchildren use often to describe what used to be simple living to us. I see an overemphasis on self. Rather than all the enrichment crap in these after school clubs, how about a bit more volunteer work in their church/community? My 14 year old granddaughter claims she can't attend family functions because of her "anxiety issues". Perhaps if she were less sheltered and encouraged to visit the elderly in Nursing homes, the dying in hospice, the poor in shelters, she might appreciate what a lucky duck she is to have family. This whole anxiety paralysis thing I am witnessing is (in most cases, not all) just another millennial excuse not to work hard and fear of having to experience the uncomfortableness of life. Grow up I say.

  6. I showed this article to our 21 year old son, who is now a senior in college. He thinks it is pretty accurate. We live in the country and so he was raised here, but there were no boys (or girls) his age within 5 or 6 miles of us. He'd invite kids from town, but their parents wouldn't let them come out. He'd try to get town kids to do something and found they didn't - outside of competing in video games and texting each other. It wasn't that none liked him - every single kid greeted him in the hallway at school. They all knew him and were pleasant.

    As an adult his social life involves one special interest group he is active with, his classes at school, and pinochle with a group of friends and relatives - age 60 to 86. That range was to 104 only a few years ago.

    A friend of mine recruits for a 2 year college. They are focusing on Jr. High aged prospects. The high school kids all have their colleges and majors picked by the time they are Juniors and are not interested...

    (Of course many get to college, switch majors 3 or 4 times or drop out, but that is another story.)


  7. I am of a similar age to Patrice, and I remember the 'carefree' youth we enjoyed. I raised my kids in the late 80's early 90's, and gave them as much freedom as I could at the time, given we were in a city vs. rural like I was raised. We camped regularly, so they had more freedom in that arena, and learned skills as well. I don't recall any 'pressure' as far as their futures, until they reached HS age, much like we did. I do recall not being able to help them with homework as they were being taught MUCH differently than I was (the changes in math messed with me the most) They were allowed to pick and choose what extracurriculars they wanted to be involved in, but weren't allowed to quit, had to stick with it for at least one season/year (my rule).
    I agree with the previous poster, children are too sheltered today. I can remember, as a young Girl Scout, visiting nursing homes, and coming home crying, because more than one person asked me to promise to come visit them again, knowing I couldn't make that promise (what ten year old can make that promise when they can't possibly get to that place again on their own?) That is one thing I do like about many public high school requirements of community service hours for graduation. The kids hate it, but maybe they make a connection, maybe it makes a difference.
    And I call Bull&*#t on all this 'anxiety' and 'depression' crap in these kids...They don't know real depression and anxiety. They just see the ads on tv for all the 'miracle' drugs. Oh, I need to get off my soapbox, before I start talking about all the crap they eat, how, addicted they are to electronics, etc. Sorry.
    Not enough fresh air, exposure to the earth, not learning to get hurt and walk it off, not learning to fight and get your butt beat and still be best friends with that person the next day...

  8. I'm raising my kids the way I was brought up (more or less-- a few more chores, and yes, I'm afraid to let them out unsupervised for fear some busybody will get the state involved, but periodically we go visit my aunt out in the sticks where I grew up and they can RUN).

    I worry that I'm not giving them enough direction, that I'm not pushing them enough, that all their peers will be ahead of them and they won't "make it." Whatever that means. I keep telling myself that we did fine... but sometimes my mind replies that that was a different time.

    Our oldest is 17. I guess time will tell, and pretty soon at that.

  9. I was fortunate enough to to grow up in the 80s on a small farm. We had chores, but plenty of time to run. Unfortunately, I became one of those overachievers, much to my parents' consternation- I believe I was a huge source of stress for them, taking piano lessons, playing in the school orchestra, playing sports, involved at church, 4-H, you name it. As an adult, I realized that the pressure was self-imposed, but that mom and dad didn't TRY to make me stop and smell the roses. I wanted something different for my kids. My husband and I limited their sports to one per year. Screen time was limited, extracurricular activities were limited. Our three boys were encourage to go and build forts in the woods, fish, go hiking, and smell the roses that I didn't get a chance to smell. We did a lot of homeschooling, and the public school district we used has about 25 kids per grade- mostly from farm families. We also have never pushed 4 year colleges. As a result, we have one certified welder who is doing very well in his field, one Marine serving in Japan, and the most adult 17 year old senior you could ever hope to meet, who plans to become an electrician. They know WHO they are, and HOW to learn, they know how to work, and meet a deadline, how to value people, but they have rarely ever experienced the stress and anxiety most kids do today. It can be done- we just need more people to recognize this epidemic of achievement and slow things down. Half my nieces and nephews are on medication for anxiety and or depression. It makes me so flipping upset for them.

    1. You’re my angel today. I really needed to read that.

  10. I was born in 78 and I remember those carefree days. We were homeschooled and had the run of the neighborhood for endless fun. I look back now and I cringe at some of the things we did that mom didn't know about. Putting things on the railroad tracks to see if they would break, stalking armadillos, skunks and possums, and we were girls! We had a huge range and I don't even remember the instructions on when to come home. But we were very rural. Nowadays, I'm paranoid about child-trafficking and keep a pretty tight leash. But I still want them to have those places where its ok to roam. I finally had my parents move to Idaho from WA(thank goodness) and they have 11 acres, horses and I have 20 goats there. I'm going to give them the rural experience as best I can!

    Redoubt Renee

  11. My Dad would occasionally say .... "Get educated. You don't want to be a ditch digger."
    That was the extent of our career planning.
    Now outside to play dodge ball with the neighbor kids.

    1. Grandma used to say, "Well, I guess you'll wind up a garbage man." Every single time I brought home a grade lower than an A.

      I love Grandma, may she rest in peace, but-- Garbage men get paid pretty well, and people sit up and notice when the garbage men go on strike!!