11/09/2011 04:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

Let Kids Be Kids

A's in school. Elite sports teams. All-year sports. Weekend sports games. Weekend music rehearsals. Evening play rehearsals. First chair in orchestras and bands. National competitions in academics, sports and the arts. Hours of homework each night. State testing. School tests and projects.

This is our kids' life.

If you don't want to believe it's just your kids, just sit at any cafe listening to other parents talk about their kids -- or watch the recent episode of Private Practice where parents gave their very normal 3rd grade son Ritalin so he could "get ahead" and "get better grades" to "get into the right school someday," like his older brother who did have ADHD and needed Ritalin and ended up getting into Stanford. This kiddo's grades were evidently in B-range, which is interesting by itself since most 3rd grade programs don't grade kids with letters. The episode is worth watching. You'll either see yourself in it, your neighbors, or your relatives -- but, I promise you, you'll see someone you know!

To get an idea of what are kids are doing compared to what they should be doing, let's pause a moment and play that game our kids used to play eons ago when they would watch Sesame Street. Remember the "One of These Things Doesn't Belong" song? Check out these 4 pictures. Which one doesn't belong?


If you picked the boys hanging under the tree, give yourself a hug. You're right! But, do you know why? Is it because they are "doing nothing" or "wasting time" or "not busy enough"?? Hold that thought. I'll come back to this in a few minutes.

Being busy is fantastic for our kids. I've been saying for years that "busy teens are teens out of trouble." But, busy has to be balanced with not busy and that's what our kids' childhoods are currently lacking. We know this from past experience with kids in multiple settings, clinical observations and research. In fact, research in this area has yield two important conclusions:

1. Unstructured time and play time are important for our kids' developments.

2. Over-specialization during childhood doesn't give our kids any edge whatsoever for future success -- in sports, in music, in anything.

Childhood is the beginning of our kids' life's journey -- not the destination. They don't need to have it all figured out by the time they leave high school. What they need by graduation day is confidence to try new things, to fall down and know they can get up again, and know that "success" isn't defined by just a grade and GPA. Ask yourself... are your kids achieving these goals right now?

Flash forward a few years in your mind's eye. Think about what your kids and the kids you know will be doing in college and beyond. Will they be participating in the activity they have spent the majority of their childhoods specializing in?? The odds are truly against that, not just for being able to if they want to because of the competition for those coveted spots but because typically kids develop different interest as they become young adults and adults.

There are endless stories of kids pushed to the extreme in sports and music to either not make it or toss it aside. What's sad about these kids is they lost precious time in childhood where they could have not only have had fun but, very likely, developed other interests.

Similarly, there are even more stories of kids going on to become amazing adults doing incredible things in all sorts of career paths, in ways no one could have predicted when they were younger.

The first 18 years of a person's life are really just the appetizer for an endless array of courses that will get served up over their entire lifetime. Some courses will be bland, others spicy. Some will be predetermined by a career path and others emerge rather unexpectedly. What the first 18 years allows our children to do is learn important skills to be able to move to the next stage of their lives on their own and a major skill set they need to master includes flexibility, the ability to dream, and a willingness to try new things. If your children's lives have these elements, fantastic. If not, there's no time like the present for a redirect.

Back to our earlier picture of kids. So, why is the picture of the boys sitting under the tree the outlier? Because it's the only one that truly represents what our kids should have most in their childhoods -- time to be unscheduled, with or without friends.

So, what should our kids' ideal childhoods look like if put in pictures? Something like this:


Being a good parent isn't about providing every experience in the world before your kids are off to college. Being a good parent is about recognizing your kids are kids... and letting them exercise those muscles, at much as possible.