What kind of adult do we produce when we raise our children the way we do it today? What happens to creativity, initiative, boundaries, etc? As I interact with young adults that are the first products of the crazy busy teenage years, I am seeing a pattern in the struggles that are there.
I am seeing the challenges of knowing how to navigate life when something is not already structured. The unstructured play that is now mostly missing from many children's lives means they are not developing the capacity to create their own structure. Playground ball without referees provided an opportunity to argue about rules and fouls without the presence of an adult to settle things. These arguments are important developmentally to help children learn how to socially interact, figure out structure, lead, and follow. The organized activities of today, whether they are sports and arts programs, planned recess, or video games, all have the structure already in place. As a result, young adults are leaving college with a diminished capacity for holistically shaping their lives. Life continues to be about participating in things rather than figuring out how to make your own thing happen.
An even bigger issue is the question of boundaries. I am seeing youth participate in programs that consist of daily 3-4 hour practices and being gone for more than 24 hours on a Saturday. Many of the youth programs today ask things of our children that we would never put up with in the workplace as adults. What would you do if your boss said you no longer have off for longer than one day on Christmas and Thanksgiving, that you needed to put in 24+ hours of work for six Saturdays in a row, that you have 3-4 hours of work each night from your full-time job, and will need to do an additional side job for another 3-4 hours a day. Would you continue working at a job that is pushing your bodies so hard that injuries are common, injuries that may plague you for the rest of your life? This has gone beyond keeping our children busy and has set them up for a life in which we are teaching them to be workaholics as adults. Are you teaching your son or daughter to navigate healthy family, social, church, and work balance? What will be the effect on their ability to parent and make wise choices for their own children? We live in a world with too many options and one of the greatest skills adult will need is how to say no even when the pressure to participate is intense.
When we cannot say no when the coach, director, teacher or club asks too much from our young people, we are not teaching our children to say no in many other arenas. We are shaping them for a life of binging and enslavement, whether it is with food, sex, debt, Netflix, alcohol, work, porn, relationships, and even oppressive religious structures. And if the trophies and rewards aren't significant enough, they will move on to next thing that seems more promising. Living so intensely for so many hours is not discipline, it's abandoning our children's lives to values and systems that are not God-shaped.
This system is also not preparing our children and youth for new economic realities. The industrial worker who dutifully shows up for work for forty years is no longer a feasible path to success in the future. Economic success will be led by those with great abilities to set boundaries, to think creatively, to shape new directions, and to have a strong ethical core that guides them. Our educational and extracurricular systems are still largely set up to make our children great workers who simply do what they're told. Businesses are experiencing an increasing struggle to find people that make great managers, that think in an entrepreneurial way, that move beyond being a victim of their circumstances to finding solutions.
There aren't easy answers. I'm not advocating dropping out of everything or rejecting seasonal bursts of activity. But when those seasonal bursts become too intrusive or take up the entire year, that goes too far. Tomorrow I'll make some suggestions about some of the ways we can define the center, then put boundaries in place and return childhood and adolescence to its rightful place. I also invite you to give your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
-John M Troyer
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