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Beat the Clock: How We’re Brainwashing Our Kids that Busy Is Best

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

“I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” My daughter rested her head on the counter and choked out a sob.

It was 7:05 a.m. on a Friday. She was supposed to be headed into school early for extra help with math. But she couldn’t stop crying.

In that moment, I was furious.

Not at her. I’m not a monster.

My instinct at the moment was to wrap my arms around her (I did) and send her back to bed for much-needed sleep, followed by an afternoon binge-watching Only Murders in the Building and eating chocolate chip cookies. (I didn’t. Because that would have only heightened her stress).

Nope, I wasn’t angry at her. Or her anxiety. Or her exhaustion. Or her breakdown.

I was angry at this f-ed up society where we’ve embraced the idea that living in a constant state of overwhelm is normal and expected and necessary if you want to be successful.

A Typical Day

My daughter gets up around 6 a.m. most days. She’s one of the lucky ones. She has an after-school sport, so she doesn’t have to get up “early.” But many sports practice before school, so those kids are up by 4:30 every day.

She’s in school from 7:40 a.m. (will we ever recognize that a start time before 8:00 for teenagers is criminal?) until 2:45. After school, she has a mix of tennis or track depending on the season, flag line, Chemistry Club, SADD, Spanish Club. Students for Charity, Silver Cords, Bocce Ball, Mixed Media . . .

Honestly, I can’t even remember all the things she’s involved in.

Did I mention she’s a sophomore? Some of the more significant commitments don’t even start until junior year.

She also takes dance classes, private tennis lessons, and clinics and only recently gave up piano lessons because there aren’t enough hours in the day.

She’s a straight-A student who thinks she needs to maintain a g.p.a. over 100% to have a shot at life. So, to keep up with increasingly difficult classes–two AP classes as a sophomore!!–she studies well into the night.

Often she doesn’t even get home until after ten p.m. And that’s when the homework starts.

It’s no wonder she’s exhausted. Just watching her makes me exhausted.

Do as I Do

But I can relate exactly to what she’s feeling. I used to be her.

Type A, perfectionist. Needed to get it all done. And look good doing it.

Heck, some days, I still am. (Well, the getting it done part. The looking good part I gave up on a long time ago.) The tasks that consume every moment of my day are different, but they are no less overwhelming.

I know she’s watching me. She’s watching me set my alarm for 4 a.m. to squeeze in my writing before the day starts. She’s watching me work from the sidelines of a football game. She’s watching me schedule appointments from the pick-up line. She’s watching me do laundry or clean floors at 10 p.m. She’s watching me skip dinner to finish work.

I know this is not healthy because she is watching me perpetuate the myth that you have to work around the clock to be successful. Although I’m telling her with my words that she can’t do it all, and she doesn’t have to, I’m showing her with my actions that I’m still trying.

I’m normalizing the overwhelm that she feels constantly. And increasing the pressure, however unconsciously, that she learns to manage her time better.

This burning the candle at both ends mentality is just the norm for our society, especially for women.

Conditioned to Be Busy

From childhood on, we teach kids that life is a race. And that the person who goes furthest and gets the most done in the least amount of time wins.

Think of the number of activities the average child participates in. Many pre-school children go to daycare out of necessity. But they also go to tumbling and dance class and karate and t-ball and art class and Kindermusik. There are few moments in the day to just sit on the floor and play with blocks or be a kid.

School only exacerbates the problem. The learning standards for kids today are exceedingly high. (Some might even say not developmentally appropriate.) To reach these benchmarks, teachers spend more time on academics and less time on social skills and recess during the school day. And they send home lots of homework. One study found that in early elementary school, kids get more homework than recommended by child development experts. In some cases, three times as much.

When schools introduce timed tests, they perpetuate the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing quickly. As early as second or third grade (anybody remember those “Mad-minutes” or “flying facts” that required you to complete a sheet of multiplication problems in a minute or less?), kids start feeling the pressure to perform.

Fast equals good. More equals better. Slow is not okay.

Not surprisingly, this is the same time that kids develop math anxiety.

Beat the clock and other review games where kids must race to get the correct answer reinforce the idea that there isn’t enough time to get everything done. This leads to stress and anxiety and a constant feeling of running out of time.

The Pressure Builds in High School

By the time kids get to high school, they are used to hours of homework piled on from teachers who either can’t communicate with one another or are in some twisted, unspoken competition to prove their class is the most important by giving the most assignments.

Many kids are also used to intense sports schedules. It is not uncommon for student athletes to be away from home until 10 or 11 in the evening.

For high-achieving kids, there is pressure to take the hardest classes, get the best grades, and climb to the top of the class. But even that is not enough. Because college admissions are competitive. If you want to get into the “best” schools, you also need an extracurricular list a mile long.

Our school prides itself on the “AAA” principle. Athletics, the arts, and academics are [theoretically at least] all valued highly, with extra attention showered upon kids who exhibit success in all three areas. I certainly support kids being well-rounded, but the pressure to achieve in all three distinct spheres is overwhelming for kids, and in some cases, impossible. (Incidentally, the order I stated above–athletics, the arts, and academics–is the order the school uses, and it’s not a coincidence that the value of these activities corresponds to their place in the line-up.)

Students are also expected to volunteer and contribute to their community. In today’s economic climate, many kids need to work. They need spending money and money for all those activities. And many are saving for college. But they are still expected to fulfill all of their extracurricular obligations.

No Rest for the Weary

We don’t even give kids the summers off. At least not the smartest kids. The advanced classes all require summer work. (Some very bright kids opt-out of those classes because they legitimately need a break from school). Supposedly, it’s so that kids don’t fall behind. But if that were true, shouldn’t it be the weaker students who get extra practice in the summer?

The kids taking AP and advanced classes are the ones who have spent the whole year obsessing over grades, fretting over the slightest deviations in g.p.a., worrying about failing or being left behind. I recognize that many kids in academic classes experience similar worries as well. But high achieving students often suffer more stress, anxiety, and sadness than other kids.

And many kids refuse to stay home even when they are sick. Missing just one day of school has such enormous consequences that they’d rather just push through. The overemphasis on attendance (perfect attendance awards) and the wrath of teachers who don’t like dealing with absent students, sends the message that dedicated students worth through illness. And yes, this is still true in the midst of a pandemic.

Each year we celebrate the kids who do the most. We read off their list of accomplishments and use them as examples to motivate younger students to work hard and give back. There is no question that your worth as a student, which is so often tied to your value as a person, is measured by how “busy” you are. (Which is an entirely separate essay. I believe all children should be celebrated for their accomplishments, including the C students and the ones who just squeaked by. They deserve our admiration and support, but that’s an article for another day).

Social Pressures

On top of all the must-dos, there is immense pressure to have an active and fulfilling social life.

This is a natural part of growing up. Forming close relationships with peers is part of the preparation for leaving home and venturing out on your own. An active social life is healthy and important. Kids need to relax and have fun. Good friendships are critical for mental health.

But even free time has been complicated by social media.

Kids are constantly privy to everyone else’s social plans. We know this is just the highlight reel, but at the moment, when you are scrolling Instagram in your pajamas, and everyone else is out having fun, this knowledge doesn’t matter.

The fear of missing out is a big motivator for kids. Friendships are fickle in high school; relationships are even more so. Missing a big social event, even one you have no interest in attending, puts you at risk of being cast aside and forgotten.

An active social life demonstrates popularity, social status, and your fun-loving nature. Everyone wants to be associated with these positive attributes.

Proving You Can “Do It All”

Plus, maintaining your social life and your all your other commitments shows that you’ve got your stuff together. You can manage your busy schedule, keep up those grades, be President of Student Council, volunteer at the animal shelter, and still have time to attend the hottest parties.

There’s an unconscious desire to prove that you can do it all.

For many kids, all this doing means there’s not enough time in the day left to eat or sleep, let alone relax, play, or dream.

Practicing for “Real Life”

Much of high school is a complete waste of time. I thought that when I was in high school. And I know it now. My oldest just graduated, and my daughter is thick in the weeds. As I watch all the busy work and nonsense she goes through every day, I just shake my head.

So much of what you learn is inapplicable to the real world. How often do you use Trigonometry in real life? When was the last time you wrote in iambic pentameter? Have you written a traveler’s check lately? Or used the names of Egyptian pharaohs (in correct chronological order) in conversation?

Ironically, it might be the most unhealthy lesson, the one that isn’t even part of the curriculum, that is the most relevant to the real world. All this training in how to occupy every minute of the day, sacrifice sleep, maximize productivity, and live in a perpetual state of anxiety is the one thing that is preparing kids for life after high school.

Work Equals Worth

In today’s world, your success and worth as a human being are often measured by your work. Schools contribute to this attitude by pushing college on all kids. The message from the time they are in elementary school is that if you want to be successful, you must go to college after high school. Not only is that a load of bull (and not in many kids’ best interests), but it is also dangerous for society. We are running into a shortage of electricians, plumbers, carpenters, truck drivers, and other tradespeople. We are already feeling the effects of this shortage.

Nonetheless, in the U.S., we measure human value by our work. Think of the negative stereotypes associated with people who don’t work “enough.” We call them “lazy,” “bums,” “freeloaders,” just to name a few. There is an elitist attitude by those who work a lot that everyone should value the same things they do.

The vitriol toward people who aren’t employed is at an all-time high. As the economy struggles to recover after pandemic shutdowns, we face a labor crisis in the U.S. Many low-wage positions remain unfilled. The people inconvenienced by these vacancies blame those who haven’t yet returned to the labor force. They do so without knowing anything about them or the reasons why others have chosen not to work.

But because work is such an important symbol of social status, we have internalized this measure of worth. Our identities are tied up with our jobs. And so, to gain favor or higher social esteem, we continue to work harder and longer, often at the expense of everything else in life.

It’s Not About the Money

Interestingly, the work doesn’t have to be paid for it to become all-consuming. Consider stay-at-home moms (SAHM). As a former SAHM, I despise that label because, trust me when I tell you, a SAHM is rarely home. Although looking back, much of this endless running was just an attempt to prove myself as a SAHM.

These women have made child-rearing their job. They bustle from one activity to the next. Sign up for every PTA committee. Organize class parties. Chaperone field trips. Run the neighborhood carpool. Bake carrot muffins. Shuttle kids to after-school activities. Cook well-balaned meals. Keep a pristine home. Update their annuals with each season.

And record every second of it on Facebook so everyone else can see what a great job they are doing.

Although they don’t earn a wage, they are as overworked and exhausted as people who do. Because their sense of self-worth, the one that society has been feeding to them for the last twenty years, is tied to being the “best mom possible.” Perhaps they feel this pressure even more strongly because they have chosen not to be part of the workforce. They feel they have to prove that they are still valuable human beings.

It’s not healthy. In some cases this overwhelming pressure leads to depression.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was a child, my mom was a SAHM. But she didn’t play with me all day, or bake homemade bread, or run me to 54 activities. I have vivid memories of her reading her book on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. Or watching As the World Turns. And the world kept turning (pun intended).

Busy Isn’t Best

And it doesn’t have to be this way now.

We don’t have to accept this definition of success. We can stop measuring human worth by how much we are willing to work.

And an excellent place to start is with our education model.

We need to give kids more time to just be kids. We need to relax the standards and make them more developmentally appropriate. We need to reduce homework and make sure that assignments are relevant to 21st-century life.

We need to recognize that not every child needs, nor wants, to go to college. We need to provide alternative opportunities and not present those opportunities as “less than” a traditional college education.

We need to train guidance counselors to help students identify their strengths and make decisions that are best for them. We need to stop measuring schools by how many of their students attend four-year colleges.

We need to celebrate the intrinsic value of human beings, whether they work 40 hours a week or 80 or 20. We need to respect different definitions of success.

We need to stop judging people who would rather have Saturday afternoons off to coach Little League, hike in the woods or just lie on a beach than move up the corporate ladder.

We need to accept that there are other ways to work today. You don’t have to trade your time for money and stay with the same employer for forty years.

We need to incentivize the low-wage jobs that need to be filled. We need to make this work more attractive to people, and more respectful of their lives.

We need to make it possible to enjoy the present. Rather than looking forward to two weeks of vacation every year, or the day when you can finally retire, the time to enjoy life is now.

But mostly, we need to eradicate this myth that busy is best. And that the only way to succeed is to work yourself to death. Because we aren’t doing ourselves, or our children, any favors.

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Lisa Walton

Lisa Walton

Lisa Walton is a storyteller, content strategist and book coach who believes the right words can change lives. She’ll help you find those words. lisamwalton.com

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