Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Happy and busy?

We recently stumbled across a Wall Street Journal column titled "The Myth of the Overscheduled Child," which sought to expose society's misguided worries about children with too much to do. In the author's (Laura Vanderkam) view, "most children are not at risk of being overscheduled. They're at risk of having too little to do with their time and thus never learning the joy of being...happy and busy."

As George Will might say...Well.

Ms. Vanderkam's thesis is that since children today spend much of their free time watching television or eating junk food, they would be better off joining the glee club, or learning Russian, or taking AP Physics, etc. Essentially, she claims kids with more to do are likely to be happier and in better shape, while those with too much free time (i.e., most of them) simply fritter it away.

As an example, Ms. Vanderkam cites a 17-year old high school junior named Erika Debenedictis. Ms. Debenedictis has a jam-packed school schedule that includes several AP classes taken concurrently with a "multivariable calculus" class, while in her spare time she works on computer-programming projects for science fairs, takes piano lessons and sings in a choir.

According to Ms. Vanderkam, this is an unalloyed positive. "So is Ms. DeBenedictis facing a nervous breakdown as she enters her senior year? Hardly. 'I'm very happy when I'm busy,' she tells me. It's when she doesn't have enough to do that she starts 'moping around.'"

Ah - now we are getting somewhere! The question, of course, is does Ms. Debenedictis feel good because she is busy, or does she keep busy in order to not feel bad? These are not the same thing, and the distinction is, in our mind, critical. Indeed, we wonder why Ms. Vanderkam does not ask what seems to us the obvious question - namely, why does Ms. Debenedictis "mope around" when she has nothing to keep her occupied? What is so bad about having nothing to do?

But such questions rarely get raised in our accomplishment-obsessed society. Rather, it is taken as a given that more is always better, despite the fact that vast numbers of highly-educated, well-paid professionals are miserable in their lives (and have no clue why). Indeed, the increasing volume of data on school "effectiveness" almost always focuses on the difference in earnings between those with different levels of education, as opposed to whether people with more education lead happier, more fulfilled lives. (This is more difficult to quantify, of course, which makes it far less appealing to researchers.)

The question we would ask Ms. Debenedictis is why she feels so miserable when she has nothing to do. To us, that is the real issue. Ms. Debenedictis (and Ms. Vanderkam, for that matter) is just pushing her rock like the rest of us. But, unlike the absurd man, she is perpetually mystified when it rolls back down the hill.


  1. Great point. To me overscheduling seems like a form of misguided tyranny. Do they ever take time to actually understand who their child is, what his or her desires are etc. and then allow her to experiment and playfully discover what makes her most happy.

    Getting drown into procrastination and obsession with TV or junk food just seems like another side effect of bad parenting as it seems to reflect a kind of aimlessness and could be signs of their will and enthusiasm being killed. Who killed it and how would be the great question to ask.

    But it's such a complex topic. Back in 1992 however an award winning professor John Taylor Gatto wrote some hints in his article: "The 7-Lesson Schoolteacher" - http://www.newciv.org/whole/schoolteacher.txt

    And that's just a tip of the iceberg.

  2. Excellent points. The criticism of how children spend their free time ignores why this is the case - the author simply assumes all children would be lazy sloths if left to their own devices, rather than questioning whether it is in fact our educational and social system that crushes their enthusiasm.

    Agree it is a hugely complex topic - we plan to return to it in future posts to cover ideas such as "unschooling." We also agree on Gatto - his book "Dumbing us Down" is one of the best we have read on the subject.

  3. "despite the fact that vast numbers of highly-educated, well-paid professionals are miserable in their lives (and have no clue why) "

    I would tend to agree, but on what do you base this "fact"?

  4. Alexandra-

    We do not have any data to "prove" this, if that's what you mean. But we certainly have some broad anecdotal experience (as we assume you do, from your comment). To cite one of countless examples, we once attended an engagement party attended almost exclusively by Ivy League law and business school graduates (i.e., some of the most sought-after employees in the world), and overheard the following exchange:

    "How's your new job?"

    "Well, I don't hate it."

    [Nodding, along with the rest of the table] "Yeah, that's about the best you can hope for."

    But the broader point is that most people who pursue high-paying professions do so because they expect making more money (and accumulating more things) will make them happier, a premise we reject. This does not mean, of course, that many highly-educated and well-paid individuals are not happy (we count ourselves among this group), but we feel quite comfortable in saying there are enormous numbers who are not.