How Much Is Too Much?

A discussion seems to be going on in educational circles about whether kids today are experiencing too much pressure – with particular reference to homework.  There appear to be conflicting ideas circulating about appropriate expectations of young people and whether they are being subjected to excessive pressure and stress.

On one side, we hear about “race to the top” as creating too much emphasis on tests and leading teachers to “teach to the test”, rather than educating in a meaningful way.  On the other hand, we find articles (I discussed one recently) bemoaning the fact that children are being overprotected from anything stressful and as a result are not developing the ability needed to overcome difficulties and frustration in reaching desired goals.

Now a newspaper article reports on “elite” schools concerned about the detrimental effects of over programming students, rethinking their demands about tests, papers and homework assignments. Parents seem to be of two minds about this.  Some parents see hard work in school as essential to making their children competitive.  A father is quoted saying it was unlikely that parents in India and China were fretting about overwork.

Other parents feel it is counterproductive for their children to be up half the night studying, expressing concern about the health effects of stress and sleep deprivation.  Another father is quoted as saying, “There’s no value in stressing kids out.  You are robbing them of their childhood.”

One of our own readers commented, “It’s good to get kids into the habit of devoting some time to study each day, even from an early age.  But it seems we are overloading them already with too much expectation. . . . . Some is good, but how do you decide what is enough?”  This question is so important and really gets to the heart of the matter, because a question relating to expectation speaks to so many issues in raising our children.  

All along the developmental road we are always asking how much is reasonable and how much is too much to expect.  Is it too much to expect her to dress herself, to come into meals when called, to go to bed without a fuss?  Is it reasonable to expect him to share his toys, to stop hitting his brother, to clean up his room?  Later on these questions get raised about watching TV, about time spent on Facebook, and about doing homework, among other things.

I confronted the complexity of this question recently as it was raised by parents of an eight year old who had started in a new school.  The teacher, who seems excellent in many ways, has high expectations and uses several strategies in getting children to meet them.  One of these is having children miss recess or snack time to complete work not finished during class time.  The parents were concerned because the child, who is very bright, also has been found to need more time to complete some academic tasks even when applying herself appropriately.  This kind of difficulty is well-known enough so that there is actually a school procedure in place for allowing more time in test situations.

The parents felt that the child was in effect being punished for a real difficulty and that this might have an effect on her feelings about school, about learning, and about her own abilities.  On the other hand, this child had progressed by leaps and bounds since being in this class, was making new friends, and seemed very interested in everything new she was learning.  She did not enjoy missing recess and snack a few times, but she did not seem unduly distressed about it.  The question was, did the child make the kind of strides she clearly had made because of the teachers expectations and methods of implementing them, or in spite of them?

This is the question educators and parents struggle with.  So you have the Tiger Mom approach on one side, and a different kind of concern about children’s develpment on the other.  Which leads back to the reader’s question, “How do you decide what is enough?”  Does it have to be either extreme, or is it possible to find some balance between the two?

In this, as in so many other situations that involve our children, there is no way of knowing with certainty what the “perfect” or right approach is for each child.  In the example I gave, the teacher’s method was not one the child had been exposed to before.  Yet whatever one thinks of her method, the clarity and consistency of her expectations seemed to have a positive effect on this child’s learning and overall adjustment.

Ultimately, to answer questions about expectation we have to use what we know about our own child.  We have to learn what we need to know from our children’s reactions and behavior.   And then, without being too readily put off by a negative response, be willing to adjust our expectationsaccordingly.

Answering how much is too much is a work in progress.

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