(MONEY Magazine) – Lillian Micko had a vision. It was around five o'clock one evening last spring. She was pulling out of a McDonald's drive-through in her hometown of Mount Laurel, N.J. with her boys Danny, 11, and Matty, 10, and heading home after an afternoon spent shepherding Danny to voice and violin lessons and Matty to Hebrew school and baseball. Through her windshield she spotted another mom whizzing by. "In the back of her van, her daughter was changing from ballet clothes into soccer shorts, shin guards and cleats," says Micko. "All of a sudden I saw millions of cars and vans across America, filled with frenzied parents, grandparents and babysitters, all rushing around making sure their overscheduled kids arrived at one activity or another."

Micko wasn't dreaming. These days any suburban parent can tell you that kids are busier than diplomats during a Mideast crisis. First there's school, then a round of classes and clinics in computers, swimming, soccer, ballet, music and foreign languages. Fifteen years ago, psychologist David Elkind in his book The Hurried Child saw this kiddie rat race as a sign that youngsters were coming under "too much pressure to achieve, to succeed, to please." If anything, that pressure has gotten worse. Says Elkind today: "Parents used to emphasize behavior. When you got home from a party or school, they asked if you had been good. The question parents ask now is: 'Did you win?'"

The stress placed on winning is harmful for many reasons--not the least of which are financial. For one thing, many parents are spending well over $10,000 a child a year to produce today's superkids, often with money that might be more wisely invested in, say, a college savings fund. What's more, not only is the money spent instead of saved; it's often wasted on activities that have no discernible payoff.

Then there are the social consequences. Many hard-driving parents appear to be confusing the normal desire to raise a world-ready kid with an abnormal urge to ensure that their offspring grabs every reward, whether fully earned or not. Inevitably, some of these pressured children who once might have learned that hard work carries its own rewards are now looking simply for ways to win. What does this new all-or-nothing ethos mean to our society? The question is profound; the answers, often disturbing.


For most of us, pushing our kids even a little reflects terrible anxiety about our children's future. We fear that if they are not among the few big winners in society they will end up with the many losers. "What's driving it are the economic realities," says Gerald Coles, an educational psychologist at the University of Rochester. "Downsizing, the export of jobs overseas, global competition--it's all in the air." The fallout from this restructuring economy is what co-authors Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook call the winner-take-all society, which is also the title of their book. This is a world where tiny elites of top performers--CEOs and heart surgeons as well as movie stars and basketball players--earn increasingly disproportionate shares of money, power and fame.

The job for parents--some seem to think--is making sure their kids wind up in that ever-elusive winner's circle. So they press their children hard to cultivate their native talents and shape every childhood activity toward some immediately tangible success.

Linda Sweeney, 40, a trial lawyer in Lancaster, Pa., married to Joe, 43, a consultant, are a fairly typical couple. Their kids Maggie, 7, and Joseph, 6, have full afterschool schedules. (For a glimpse, see the photos that accompany this article.) Are the kids pushed too hard? "I think kids have a natural need to be occupied with something," Linda says. "And if it's not going to be TV, then you have to think about what it is going to be."

We all know parents who we think have crossed the line: There they are drilling babes in the crib with flash cards, prodding three-year-olds to read and elbowing eight-year-olds into career choices. But all of us--even the least competitive--have trouble resisting the trend. The mother of two adolescents says plaintively, "You see your child's friends going to special schools and classes, and you get caught up in it all. It seems outrageous, but sometimes you worry that your child might be losing an opportunity."

Since no parent would knowingly place his or her kid at a competitive disadvantage, the results are predictable:

--Parents are spending heavily to make sure their kids aren't left behind. Exactly how much is anybody's guess--and so is the payoff. According to a Department of Agriculture study in 1995, the average American family with an income of more than $56,700 spent $11,320 to $12,550 a year per child--including clothing, schooling and food--depending on his or her age. That's plenty, but many families shovel on more. Private preschool enrollment is up 37.5% in the past decade, and parents are footing tuition bills of $3,000 to $13,000 a year or more for all grades.

--The increased pushing--particularly at the youngest ages--has diminishing returns. For starters, there's scant evidence that the special schools, classes and toys produce productive or happy adults. What's more, programming every last minute can tire children and rob them of the invaluable experience of exploring on their own. Says Harriet Egertson, director of Early Childhood in Nebraska's Department of Education: "Most kids learn plenty watching a bug crawl up a tree or throwing snowballs in a puddle to see how fast they melt." Worse, flinging kids into adult activities prematurely can be dangerous. Who can forget seven-year-old Jessica Dubroff, who died last year in a plane crash trying to fulfill her parents' dream that she become the youngest pilot to fly across the continent?

--Kids are no longer expected to compete on merit. In schools across the country, more and more parents are trying to rig the game. Mom and Dad reckon that Scott and Sarah will have an edge if they are withheld from kindergarten for a year so they ultimately enter bigger and more mature than their classmates. Or maybe Sarah can be classified as gifted--or Scott as learning disabled--so they can be enrolled in special programs. Current research says that 10% to 15% of public school children are classified as gifted, vs. only 3% decades ago, while the number of kids diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and prescribed Ritalin for it has gone up 2 1/2 times since 1990 to 1.3 million. But many of the kids are neither, says Gerald Coles. He adds: "Shoehorning kids into programs where they don't belong never really works out well."


Some parents start spending on their kids' education early--very early. A couple of years ago, Newark Community School of the Arts in N.J., for example, offered a $70 music course for babies still in utero. The belief, fostered by several early-learning gurus, is that fetuses exposed to classical music will turn into children who excel academically. Pregnant mothers sat in a classroom listening to music so that fetal ears could pick up strains of Mozart and Vivaldi.

For most parents, though, the first big expense is nursery school. The Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mass. charges--try to keep your pulse steady--$8,600 a year for its half-day program for toddlers, and $11,000 and up depending on the grade the child is in. Now you'd think the school would have to accept any child whose parents could present a check that didn't bounce. No way. Parents must fill out a four-page questionnaire, produce a written evaluation for the kid from a previous teacher or caretaker, submit to an interview and bring the little scholar in for a group session to see how well he or she gets along with others.

To compensate for any deficiencies in the kids' educational experience, parents also enroll them in afterschool classes. Take the Sweeneys. Every day Maggie gets out of first grade at 2:30 p.m. On Monday, she goes to catechism from 4:00 p.m. to 5:15 p.m.; on Tuesday, tennis; on Wednesday, an hour of ballet; and on Thursday a 30-minute piano lesson, which Linda sometimes attends with her. Later that afternoon is gymnastics. "Maggie has Fridays off," Linda says. As for Joseph: Kindergarten classes are followed by tennis on Tuesday, gymnastics on Thursday and soccer on Saturday.

The kids' program is costly even for parents with the Sweeneys' comfortable six-figure income. On top of the $7,000 in fees for the children's Montessori school, Maggie's ballet runs $350 a year, piano $350, tennis for her and Joseph $570 and gymnastics for both $840. Joseph's soccer costs another $200. And that's not even counting the $19,000 or so the Sweeneys pay their nanny Mary McClune, who ferries the kids from one engagement to another. Linda is philosophical about burnout: "Our job as parents is to provide them with exposure, and their choice is to continue or not. In the process if the kids burn out, at least they'll have developed their talents. They'll be able to say, 'I did that. I had that experience.'"

For families with tighter budgets, though, nurturing those talents can be a strain. Judith Green and Jeremiah Schwartz of Bellingham, Wash. are determined that their daughter, Sadie, 10, should have a stage career. "When Sadie was only four months old, she was so social," her mother recalls. "She would look to catch someone's eyes and flash a big smile." That engaging quality, and the compliments it garnered, was enough to convince her parents to get Sadie a talent agent when she was only four.

Today Sadie is enrolled in piano and flute classes, which together cost about $1,000 a year--a stretch since Schwartz's income as a psychologist has been significantly reduced owing to cost cutting by managed-care programs. Mother and daughter invested $700 in a trip to Los Angeles last year for "pilot season," an annual round of auditions for new TV series, commercials and movies that attracts thousands of child actors. Alas, no jobs for Sadie. The little girl took the setback like a trouper, however: "I was a little disappointed," she said, "but there are a lot more years to go."

Parents would not mourn the expense if they could be sure of the results. But it's unclear exactly what sort of activities (and outlays) actually enhance cognitive and emotional development.


Encouraging kids to explore an interest by reading about it, taking an occasional class or going on a field trip with a parent makes perfect sense. But turning that initial enthusiasm into a career path or goal early on can have disastrous results. The nation is still shuddering over JonBenet Ramsey, 6, the pint-size beauty pageant winner who was found strangled in her Boulder home. Patricia Ramsey, JonBenet's mom and a former Miss West Virginia, is reported to have insisted that she and her daughter shared the desire to compete in beauty contests. Yet at age three or seven or nine, few children have more than a passing enthusiasm for any career or field of study.

The headlong drive to develop one talent may inadvertently squash another. Under the tutelage of her father Sa Ho, a research scientist for Monsanto, Mai-lan Ho, 13, excels in math and science. The Ladue City, Mo. eighth-grader recently competed on the winning team in her state's Science Olympiad. But that's not all. She takes violin lessons (at a cost of $2,160 a year), serves as concertmistress in the junior high school orchestra and studies karate, which costs another $2,040 a year. These days she's getting really serious about her music. So last year her parents upgraded her to a violin that was a copy of a Guadagini. The cost: more than $9,000.

Mai-lan likes to write and draw, but her father would rather she focus on his love, science. When his daughter was in the fourth grade, Sa recalls, she spent the entire summer reading fiction. "We had to pull her back for discipline...[because]...she was very distracted and daydreaming," he says. Now her parents allow her to read only science books, and when she wants to draw, they tell her to settle down and do her homework. How does Mai-lan feel about these restrictions? "I was upset at first, but when I started reading science books--it was really interesting and opened up a new world for me. Now I read them on my own."


Parents' insistence on achievement is also transforming sports from fun to work for many kids. Exercise and learning athletic skills do all children a lot of good, especially couch-potato TV addicts. But pickup ball games are turning into parent-coached soccer, ice hockey, basketball and T-ball teams with members as young as four competing against one another in townwide leagues. Older kids vie for places on travel squads that play against neighboring cities. Beyond the personal pressure, participation can be costly for the family. According to Georgia Youth Soccer, a state federation of teams, parents of the average six-year-old spend $480 a year on registration fees, cleats, driving expenses and meals eaten out because everybody is too busy to cook. Traveling team members spend $3,365 more, mostly on hotel bills for players and families.

The return on the financial outlay may be less than parents expect. Children should be able to enjoy sports throughout their lives. Instead, says Vern Seefeldt, professor and director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, about 75% of kids drop out of team and individual sports by age 15. It's not that parents and coaches browbeat players or emphasize winning at all costs--though "there's still a lot of that," reports Art Taylor, associate director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University and an educational adviser on the movie Hoop Dreams. He believes that structured teams, particularly for children under age eight, inhibit athletic development and rob them of the fun. "Once there's a coach and playing strategies, kids get typecast into particular positions prematurely and don't learn new skills," Taylor says. Stellar players have another problem, says David Janda, an Ann Arbor orthopedic surgeon: injuries. Most bruises, fractures and sprains come from intensive play that's too much for young bodies. Says Janda: "I often look in a child's eyes and see something there, so I send his parents out of the room. The child usually confides that he or she wants to quit." Quitting, however, is not always easy. Says Taylor: "Some parents get angry because they're counting on the kid to get an athletic scholarship to college."

Parental anxiety about raising losers in a zero-sum economy is also changing the way kids learn. During the past decade, nursery schools and even day-care centers have become much more academic and "increasingly inappropriate," says Michael Meyerhoff, a Wellesley Hills, Mass. psychologist. "There's a strong emphasis on learning numbers, letters, colors and shapes before kids are ready. The classes are highly structured, and three-year-olds get in trouble if they don't sit still in circle time." Kindergarten has similarly turned into what some educators call "academic boot camp." One mother of two sons, 12 years apart in age, recalls that when the older boy was in kindergarten in 1978, he had half-day classes where the kids learned about measuring from water tables and sat on the floor listening to stories. At the same school in 1990, the younger child was in class from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., perched behind a desk laboring over his letters. Then, his aghast mom discovered, he had homework.


Because restless tykes have to sit still for long periods, preschool teachers discourage parents from trying to enroll children who aren't "ready." As a result, going to kindergarten at age five is no longer taken for granted. And some parents, anxious to have their kids shine, "redshirt" their five-year-olds in preschool for an extra year--much as college coaches keep freshman players on the bench for further seasoning. The practice is epidemic in middle-class neighborhoods. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 1972 only 5.8% of all kindergartners were six or older. Now more than 13.2% are. Boys are much more likely than girls to be redshirted because, educators say, they learn to sit still later than girls do.

Redshirting keeps parents on the hook for preschool expenses for an extra year and often produces little in the way of lasting benefit. Lorrie Shepard, a University of Colorado education professor, conducted several studies of children who were older than their grade. She discovered that any advantage in academic performance conferred by the practice disappears by third grade. And who's to know whether unreadiness isn't garden-variety rowdiness?

Ellen Prichard, 40, a Vancouver, Wash. cost analyst, says that she and her husband Patrick, a mail carrier, agonized about sending their second son Kyle, now 8, to kindergarten on time. "I wanted my child to be successful in school," she says. Although Kyle had no learning problems, he didn't like to settle down and follow directions. So Prichard redshirted him, a decision that cost her $3000 for an extra year of preschool and babysitting. The delay changed nothing, however. When he finally got to kindergarten, Kyle "would yawn really loudly or make rude noises and wouldn't always do what the teacher wanted," his mother recalls. Now in second grade, he behaves exactly the same. "I've decided that's just his personality," she says with a laugh.

Once kids are in school, parents jockey to get their scholars special attention. Under parental pressure, classes for gifted students, originally designed for prodigies, now accommodate the above average. Doubts about the validity of IQ tests led state governments to broaden the definition of gifted from academic proficiency to include creativity, leadership and even athletic ability. That's why "gifted" schoolchildren are becoming as common as measles.

In most districts, according to Joseph Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut, gifted kids don't get much extra--usually schooling in a special, innovative classroom for a few hours a week. But parents worry that without that extra attention, their kids will never succeed. Little Dylan Niadna, 4 1/2, scored in the 99th percentile on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, so now his mom Carol, 36, the owner of two beauty salons in Ray, Mich., is shopping the Talented and Gifted programs in nearby public schools.

The problem is, the Stanford-Binet was not meant to assess intelligence in preschool children. It was designed for school children. "Dylan's much too young for it to be reliable," says Manhattan psychologist Dennis Shulman. "Maybe he's gifted, maybe he isn't." If Niadna really wants to find out, she should take Dylan when he is at least six years old to a psychologist for a battery of tests. That would cost between $200 and $600 depending on the area of the country and the extent of the tests.

Sadly, some parents are almost as eager to get their kids classified as learning disabled. A diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, for example, brings some benefits: special attention and resources in class, and, more recently, expanded time limits on SATs and other standardized tests. But the advantages can be canceled out by the bills parents may ultimately have to pay for treatment. Says David Elkind: "A good portion of my caseload is now comprised of kids who were misdiagnosed as ADD."

Enough with the hand-wringing, you say? If pushing kids makes them more formidable competitors in a dog-eat-dog world, so be it. Trouble is, making your children high achievers by no means assures them a successful or enjoyable adulthood--and may rob them of their childhood. Bret Wood, 28, says, "When I graduated from high school, my classmates made me a special award--'most likely to win the Nobel Prize.'" Urged on by his mom and dad, he played the trumpet in school bands, ran for school offices and wowed his parents' friends with his knowledge of science and math. "They would ooh and ah, and I felt like a million bucks," he says. In his second year at M.I.T., however, he sank into a profound depression that lasted for years. He eventually graduated and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in chemistry at the University of Oregon, but, to his mind, he has not realized his early potential. "I never learned to be happy unless I was the very best at what I was doing," he says.

Is that the future you want for your child?