From the Free Range Childhood to the Pre-Professional Adolescence

[written when I was a senior in high school]

I recently had a college interview with someone who could’ve easily been me if I were born 10 years earlier. He grew up in the same city I live in and went to the exact same elementary, middle, and high school that I’ve gone to. It’s funny — almost the entire interview consisted of comparing the “old days” with today’s environment:

Is it Saratoga still…good?
Yeah, I mean rankings wise it’s up there.
Is [insert notorious teacher] still there?
Haha — yeah, still the same reputation.
Has Saratoga… changed?
Hm.

It didn’t immediately occur to me that life in Saratoga had changed, per se, but as the conversation progressed and I explained the prevalence of college counselors, divided community wide “discussions” on student stress, recent student suicides nearby, he quipped, “Man, if I have kids I’m moving to Montana.” While obviously a joke, in retrospect, the whole Montana thing conjures some stereotypical yet foreign images of a worry-free kid running around and playing outside on a farm for the sake of just being a kid. This got me thinking: why does this type of childhood seem foreign to us in the first place?

My impression is that the traditional unstructured youthhood filled with freedom and discovery is being replaced by some “neoliberal adolescence”: that of overscheduled lives, pre-professional childhoods, and misguided passion-searching. While seen nationwide, this phenomenon definitely is more prevalent and inflated in affluent communities. The current state of student stress, mental health, and the college admissions hysteria is largely a result of a layered progression over the past few decades. At the foundation, the information revolution has caused a shift from a labor based economy to a knowledge and capital based economy. Add on capitalist influences to society, parents, and children, then the pressure to succeed, then college, and we’re off to the races.

The Old Days

The free-range childhood is more or less just a childhood of unstructured exploration. Think Calvin and Hobbes in a sled flying off a cliff, both physically and psychologically exploring the world. Think riding your bike alone into the neighboring town, think climbing the tallest tree in sight and jumping off, think building forts down by the creek and playing war with rocks and sticks — you get the idea.

While on the surface it these might just seem like petty, risky, and borderline stupid actions, it has been shown they psychologically aid a child’s development through exposure therapy. There’s lots and lots of research behind this, and Hanna Rosin’s The Atlantic cover story The Overprotected Kid goes much more in depth on the value of the “free-range” childhood and how our current parenting style now raises risk-averse children.

Overprotecting our children creates a foundational culture that influences parents to become so concerned with their child’s safety that they unintentionally rob their children of the chance to take risks, be independent, and have experiences that help them become successful adults. The decline in freedom in children’s play over the last few decades has led to constantly supervised children, then risk-averse teenagers, then so-called coddled college students, and so on. But why has this happened?

The core reason for this cultural transition is simply the passage of time — look at it from a generational standpoint. Most Baby Boomers and early generation X’ers had relatively free range childhoods, and from this they learned much about the world and themselves (self-discovery and self-awareness). As they grew up, the global economy changed: capitalism triumphed over communism, the world experienced unprecedented economic growth, Baby Boomers largely became successful and affluent, then they started to have kids, and the previously laissez-faire parenting culture turned into a highly risk-averse one. But how?

The neoliberal economic influence on society has affected both parents and youth. With the emphasis on free markets and the American Dream, our desire to excel and succeed is amplified. Parents really want their kids to be successful, and society glorifies the American Dream. Kids internalize their parents’ desires and later get the same impression from society. In order to help their children succeed, parents try to pave a safe path to success for their children to follow. There is no underlying fault behind this; it is synonymous with instinctively protecting your kid from something you know is dangerous and instead guiding them towards something you think is helpful. That only seems logical, right? Instead of letting our kids bike to the neighborhood park to play with friends, we now get in touch with other parents and schedule play dates indoors and in our backyards.

Changing Times

This lack of freedom carries on from childhood to adolescence. As children enter middle school and later high school, teenagers’ intellectual and ideological freedom is limited by no fault of their own. On a personal level, I know my childhood consisted of highly structured piano lessons, soccer practices, closely monitored playdates, and the occasional imaginary role-play in our safe, enclosed backyard. And as I grew older, my parents added more and more things to my plate — Chinese school, then basketball, then volleyball, then chess, then LEGO robotics, programming, etc. The thing is, even though I did hate piano and Chinese, I never really thought I had totalitarian parents who were limiting my childhood (I did enjoy most of these activities). Even today as tiger parenting seems to be on the decline, subtle parenting decisions make a lasting impact on teenager’s worldview.

The pressure to go to college didn’t arise out of nothing — it was the result of mechanical labor replacing human labor and the shift to a knowledge-based economy. No longer are we able to graduate high school and find a job that can support a normal middle-class lifestyle; now a college education is almost mandatory for a economic stability. Inevitably, this led to the inflated notion that we have the go to the best colleges in order to get the best jobs in order to get the best life. It’s easy to say that for all intents and purposes, this is the “neoliberal stairway to success”, influenced by what it means to be successful in today’s capitalist and meritocratic society. A stairway to success is never a bad thing and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive for success, it’s just that in our neoliberal stairway to success there are skewed side influences and misconceptions. One of the biggest misconceptions is that where you go to college defines you, but that’s for another essay.

By the time I got to high school, even though my parents didn’t force me to join anything, I’d already internalized the fundamental mindset that I had to keep myself busy extracurricular wise if I wanted to get into a good college and become “successful”. Even for teenagers without tiger parents, there’s a perpetual feeling of “not having done enough” relative to their peers. Perhaps just one or two extremes (tiger parents or superkids) largely skew the perception of our own accomplishments. I’d seen the student body president, editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, president of the programming club, and especially my older sister, the student lead for the Media Arts Program, all participate in a series of extracurriculars and get into top colleges. Why not just copy something that is proven and worked for them?

This has given rise to what author and former Dean of Freshman at Stanford Julie Lythcott-Haims coined, “The Checklist Childhood”. Parents ask other parents what their kids are doing, students see what everyone else is doing, and eventually a cognitively simple yet physically demanding checklist is formed internally. I imagine my case isn’t so different than many others in top high schools (read: successful parents) around the country. William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and author of The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life, found that nowadays Americans are becoming increasingly focused on short-term solutions like completing homework, winning a competition, or getting a 2400. This — the obsession with short term milestones and their instant gratifications — is the secondary cause (the primary being the pressure to succeed) to student stress, insecurity, and perhaps the tragic student suicides that have gotten quite a bit of attention recently.

The expectation to succeed starts from parents who inherently pass on this ideology to their children at a young age. Much of this is indirect, like choosing to live in a certain community. From there, the parents’ work is basically done — once the children themselves realize they need to be successful, self and peer pressure emerge and become more effective than even the fiercest of tiger parents. This then leaks into schools and back into the community. The kicker is the college admissions process; over time the standard among applicants and sheer number is continuously raised, and this inflates the whole cycle even more.

This sentiment is expressed in an essay on the Harvard admissions website aptly named Time out or Burn out for the Next Generation:

More than ever, students (and their parents) seek to emulate those who win the “top prizes” and the accompanying disproportionate rewards.

With a goal in mind, we’ve put on our horse blinkers and it’s race to the finish line. Parents are focused on getting their kids to the right pre-schools so they go to the right elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. This created the whole college consultants/counseling industry where parents pay thousands of dollars to ensure that their kid goes to a good college. It’s not unheard of for parents to train their kids for an activity with the sole objective of it increasing their likelihood of going to an elite college. I know some parents who’ve moved across the country for their child to join an Ivy-feeder rowing team or a brand name school with a strong golf program in hopes of getting recruited. These are all just short term accomplishments usually done with the intention of getting into college. Community service? Check. National Merit? Check. Prestigious STEM award? Check. Summer internship? Check. Have a passion? Maybe not quite, but it’s on the list, so check. I’m not exactly decrying this; after all, to an extent I’ve also “fallen prey” to many items on the checklist and lucrative Silicon Valley tech internships. It’s a bit grim, but it seems like it’s the only way to compete. I don’t really know who I am or exactly what I want to do, but on the grander scheme of things the herd is already moving, so I’m compelled to join. Who wants to drive against traffic?

Once the risk-averse parenting culture was established, parents instinctively looked to what the prevailing parenting culture was through other parents in their community, parenting books, and seminars. Pair this with the fundamental concept of a meritocracy, which encourages us to “work hard” to be the best. The result? Our workaholic habits end up distorting success, happiness, and our worldview in life. We’re missing the long term why, the introspection, the purpose.

This isn’t to say we should revert back to the 70s. We have to acknowledge that we are currently at an incredible place in all of humanity. As Vernor Vinge noted in his paper on singularity, “We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth.” As the standards of what we do in our adolescence is raised, so is the progress we’re making. High schoolers across the nation are starting profitable companies, programming apps, conducting highly advanced research, and inventing innovative products. If you ask me, the future is looking very bright for us as Millennials and Generation Z’ers grow up. In Matt Richtel’s New York Times article The Youngest Technorati, University of Chicago economist Gary Becker notes, “This surge in youthful innovation and entrepreneurship looks unprecedented.”

Many adults today say that there is no way they would’ve gotten into college with today’s high standards, and I’m wary that I’ll be saying that too when the time comes. The Harvard admissions essay makes an interesting observation of those at the end of the rat race:

“Even those who have won all the prizes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp. Often they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined future goal.”

And as for parenting, Hanna Rosin put it best: “Shift the definition of what it means to be a good parent. Instead of saying what a good parent does is keep your child safe, add to that job description: what a good parent does is create opportunities for your child to think independently or take risks, or build character.” How this is precisely done is out of my scope for now, but I think fundamentally changing the ideology among parents, children, and communities is a step in the right direction.

It’s fascinating — with all these college application essays and interviews, it was only until recently that I’ve really began to think back on my high school experience and childhood. Interestingly enough, many peers who are also seniors in high school I’ve talked to recently have similar thoughts, and in every single one of my college interviews so far the conversation has gone over how adolescence has changed. I’m not quite sure what the future is for the “neoliberal adolescence” or what will happen in 20, 30 years, but I think that’s thinking a little too far as a high schooler right now. After all, we’re still kids. But sometimes I think we need to realize that earlier.

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