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The Organization Kid - Page 2
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Illustration by Tim O'Brien
The Origins of the Organization Kid

o understand any generation, or even the elite segment of any generation, we have to keep reminding ourselves when it was born and what it has experienced. Most of today's college students were born from 1979 to 1982. That means they were under ten years old when the Berlin Wall fell, and so have no real firsthand knowledge of global conflict or Cold War anxieties about nuclear war. The only major American armed conflict they remember is Desert Storm, a high-tech cakewalk. Moreover, they have never known anything but incredible prosperity: low unemployment and low inflation are the normal condition; crime rates are always falling; the stock market rises. If your experience consisted entirely of being privileged, pampered, and recurringly rewarded in the greatest period of wealth creation in human history, you'd be upbeat too. You'd defer to authority. You'd think that the universe is benign and human nature is fundamentally wonderful.

But the outlook of these young people can't be explained by economics and global events alone. It must also have something to do with the way they were raised. As the University of Michigan time-analysis data show, this is a group whose members have spent the bulk of their lives in structured, adult-organized activities. They are the most honed and supervised generation in human history. If they are group-oriented, deferential to authority, and achievement-obsessed, it is because we achievement-besotted adults have trained them to be. We have devoted our prodigious energies to imposing a sort of order and responsibility on our kids' lives that we never experienced ourselves. The kids have looked upon this order and have decided that it's good.

Childhood is indeed a journey, a series of stations on the way to adulthood. Snapshots of a few of the stations of contemporary childhood will show how the Organization Kid came to be.

Infancy.We used to think that children were shaped by God, or by dark oedipal impulses, but as the twenty-first century dawns, we know better. We know that children are shaped by the interaction of their DNA and their environment. In the books and magazines that cater to parents, children are described neither as mysterious creatures, driven by the sort of subterranean passions with which Freud concerned himself, nor as divine innocents. Instead biology has displaced psychology and theology: there is a scientifically discernible structure to human life, and it is inscribed in our genetic code. If something goes wrong, it is because there was a genetic flaw, or because the synapses were not cultivated properly. In either case we may be able to supply a remedy.

"If you're a new parent," begins the introductory essay in a Newsweek special issue on children, "your baby had the good fortune to be born at a truly remarkable moment in human history, when science has given us extraordinary new tools for understanding what kids need to thrive physically, emotionally and intellectually." The issue is a survey of recent literature and offers an encapsulation of the ethos of contemporary child-rearing. The essay continues,
At the dawn of the 21st century, we no longer have to guess about the best way to raise a child ... researchers studying cognitive development have used sophisticated imaging technology to track the constant interplay of genetics and environment. Though they still have much to learn, they have laid down the basic building blocks of a comprehensive understanding of how experiences shape growth. It turns out to be something like the way a sculptor chips away at a block of marble; you have to work with what you've got, but skill, patience and persistence make all the difference.
Your child is the most important extra-credit arts project you will ever undertake. The Newsweek special issue provides information about the creature parents will be sculpting. It describes the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, and the motor cortex; accompanying diagrams show the locations of different brain activities. There are intimidating warnings: for example, although each baby develops trillions of synapses, about half of them have died off by adulthood. Even before birth children need stimulation and feedback if they are to build a strong web of brain connections. The pressure is on.

If you walk through the parenting section of your local bookstore, you'll find such titles as Building Healthy Minds, Baby Minds: Brain-Building Games Your Baby Will Love, and Right From Birth: Building Your Child's Foundation for Life. If you go to an upscale toy store, in addition to innocent playthings you will find sophisticated development tools designed for fetus and infant cultivation. Even parents who didn't buy WombSong Serenades, a musical collection designed to stimulate babies' fetal brain activity, can probably still raise a perfect child if they fill the first weeks of his or her life with full doses of Mozart. My local Buy Buy Baby, the infant-oriented megastore, offers at least half a dozen selections, including Mozart for Babies' Minds (featuring the Violin Concerto no. 3), Mozart Playtime (with the Minuet in F Major), the Parents Magazine Classical Music for Baby Mozart collection (Serenade no. 13 in G Major), and Mozart for Toddlers (Symphony no. 35). Parents just have to choose which one will produce the best synaptic responses in their child's cerebral cortex.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Digital Culture: "Use Technology to Raise Smarter, Happier Kids" (January 7, 1999)
Behold the toys of tomorrow. By David Shenk
They can continue their baby's mental development with other brain-enhancement products. For example, the Tiny Love Gymini 3-D Activity Gym (a 1996 Parenting magazine Toy of the Year) offers high-contrast graphics to stimulate sight and pattern recognition. Car Seat Gallery flash cards can be slipped into clear-plastic pockets to stimulate brain activity during those minivan rides. Babies can move on from there to the Playskool Kick Start Busy Crib Center, which utilizes natural kicking movements to activate music, other sounds, and blinking lights, and the Lamaze Infant Development System, which features a series of devices, including stacking rings, for various phases of infant development.

Slightly older kids can move up to Sesame Street's Elmo Picture Quiz, because it's never too early to work on test-taking skills, and the Fun & Learn Phonics Bus, with interactive animals to help with letter recognition. The Skidoo 'n' Learn Solar System might be next on the curriculum, followed by either Language Little Dolls—bilingual dolls that speak English and Spanish, French, Italian, or Mandarin Chinese—or the Growing Smart "laptop computer," which improves numeric, color, and spatial-recognition skills.

All of the literature is studded with reassurances for parents whose babies are not clearing developmental hurdles ahead of the other infants in the day-care center. Childhood is a journey, not a race, the experts say. That, say the parents of the coming elite, may be fine for future Piggly Wiggly clerks of America. Moms and dads who want the best and the most for their precious children know better. They know they must construct proper environments and experiences if they are going to get the most out of their child's genetic stock. The time for molding that little burbler is now. Accomplishment begins with the first breaths of life.

Elementary School. No one has done a meticulous scientific study of the subject, but my impression is that the big-backpack era began in the mid-1980s. Kids began carrying larger and larger backpacks to school every year; by the early 1990s I saw elementary school students lugging storage containers that were bigger than they were. I'd watch them trooping into the school yard and wonder what would happen to a kid who lost his balance and tipped backward onto his pack. He'd lie there like a stranded beetle, face skyward, arms and legs flailing in the air, unable to flip over again. Would he simply be stuck, pinned to the pavement by the weight of his mathematics texts, until someone came to the rescue?

Perhaps the most important event in ushering in the big-backpack era was the release of the report A Nation at Risk, on April 26, 1983. Commissioned by Terrel Bell, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Education, the report decried the "rising tide of mediocrity" plaguing American schools and it caused an immediate sensation. The problem, it said, was that schools had become too loose and free-flowing. Students faced a "cafeteria style curriculum" that gave them too many choices. They were graduating from high school having spent much of their time in elective gut classes. They didn't do enough homework. They weren't given enough "rigorous examinations" and standardized tests, nor were they forced to meet stringent college-admissions requirements.

The report represented a rejection of an era that celebrated "natural" education, student-centered diversity, and spontaneity, and that cultivated creativity over discipline and nonconformity over conformity. A Nation at Risk bid farewell to all that, and said it was time to reassert authority and re-establish order. Schools needed to get back to basics.

From the archives:

"The Other Crisis in American Education" (November 1991)
A college professor looks at the forgotten victims of our mediocre educational system—the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago. By Daniel J. Singal

"The Case for More School Days" (November 1990)
Call it Huck Finn's law: The authentic American flourishes in spite of schooling, not because of it. As applied, this has meant that American kids have one of the shortest school years in the Western world. It shows. Today what Huck Finn didn't know would hurt him. By Michael Barrett

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Hard Lessons" (November 1, 2000)
Diane Ravitch, author of Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms, argues for a return to academic rigor in our nation's public schools.

Sage, Ink: "Drug Administration" (March 23, 2000)
A cartoon by Sage Stossel.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Our Children on Ritalin (The Detroit News, 1998)
A series of articles about the medical and ethical implications of the increasing use of Ritalin in children.

The message took, and the effect has been dramatic. During the 1960s and 1970s schools assigned less and less homework, so that by 1981 the average six-to-eight-year-old was doing only fifty-two minutes of homework a week. By 1997 the amount of homework assigned to the average child of the same age had doubled, to more than two hours a week. Meanwhile, the school day, which had shortened during the sixties and seventies, has steadily lengthened since, as has the school year. Requirements have stiffened. Before 1983 the average school district required one year of math and one year of science for high school graduation. Now the average high school calls for two years of each. The culture of schools has tightened. In the 1970s, rebelling against the rigid desks-in-a-row pedagogy of the 1950s, schools experimented with open campuses and classes without walls. Now the language of education reform has changed, and the emphasis is on testing, accountability, and order.

Especially order: increasingly, and in surprising numbers, kids whose behavior subverts efficient learning are medicated so that they and their classmates can keep pace. The United States produces and uses about 90 percent of the world's Ritalin and its generic equivalents. In 1980 it was estimated that somewhere between 270,000 and 541,000 elementary school students were taking Ritalin. By 1987 around 750,000 were. And the use of the drug didn't really take off until the 1990s. In 1997 around 30,000 pounds were produced—an increase of more than 700 percent over the 1990 production level.

Far from all of that Ritalin goes to elementary school kids, but the Ritalin that does is prescribed most frequently in upper-middle-class suburban districts—where, one suspects, the achievement ethos is strongest. Some physicians believe that 10 percent of all children have the sort of conduct disorder—attention-deficit disorder, oppositional defiant disorder—that could be eased with Ritalin or some other drug. It is stunning how quickly we have moved from the idea that children should be given freedom to chart their own learning to a belief that adults have a responsibility to reshape the minds of kids whose behavior deviates from the standard. As Ken Livingston wrote in The Public Interest in 1997, "In late twentieth-century America, when it is difficult or inconvenient to change the environment, we don't think twice about changing the brain of the person who has to live in it." And as Howe and Strauss wrote in Millennials Rising, "Ironically, where young Boomers once turned to drugs to prompt impulses and think outside the box, today they turn to drugs to suppress their kids' impulses and keep their behavior inside the box ... Nowadays, Dennis the Menace would be on Ritalin, Charlie Brown on Prozac."

The end result of these shifts in pedagogy and in pharmacology is that schools are much more efficient and productive places, geared more than ever toward projecting children into the stratosphere of success. Authority and accountability have replaced experimentation and flexibility.

Playtime. I suspect that before long, law schools will begin sponsoring courses in the new field of play-date law. A generation ago, of course, children did not have play dates; they just went out and played. But now upscale parents fill their kids' datebooks with structured play sessions. And they want to make sure not only that the children will be occupied at somebody's house but also that the activities undertaken will be developmentally appropriate, enriching, and safe. Parental negotiations over what is permissible during these sessions can take on a numbing complexity. Americans being Americans, surely it won't be long before such negotiations end up in a court of law.

Many of the disputes in these talks revolve around what future lawyers will call VSIs (video-screen issues). Should there be a complete ban on using the computer during play dates, or should kids be restricted to didactic video games, such as the programs that enhance typing skills? What about Nintendo and PlayStation? Other disputes involve homework rituals, anxiety about pets, and sibling-control measures. But the most-heated talks usually revolve around safety issues.

From the archives:

"Children's Products and Risk" (November 2000)
The Consumer Products Safety Commission was created to ensure the safety of products for infants, among others. But it can't. By E. Marla Felcher
Will the nanny or parent transporting the children be using a cell phone while driving? Have all the child-safety seats recently been checked by a certified safety-seat professional? Are electrical outlets in the home protected by childproof covers? Do the oven controls have kid guards? Is there a foam bumper pad around the stone fireplace (such as the kind available through the Right Start catalogue)? What about the toilet—has it been lid-locked so that children don't accidentally fall in and drown? And the yard—has it been aerated to make the ground softer in case of falls? Is there enough soft rubber under the outdoor play equipment?

No candy will be permitted, obviously. Sneaking chocolate into the diet in the form of a chocolate-chip granola bar is dubious. Mini-carrots are usually acceptable, though they can present a choking hazard. Sugar and refined wheat should be avoided for kids with food-related hyperactivity triggers. Most organic vegetables are acceptable.

Other cultures controlled behavior by citing divine commandments. We control behavior by enacting safety rules. And we've all noticed that these rules are growing stricter and stricter by the year. Not long ago young kids bounced around in the back seat of the family sedan; nowadays any parent who allowed that would be breaking the law and would be generally viewed as close to a child abuser. Not long ago kids rode bikes unencumbered. Now a mere scooter ride requires body armor, and in many families kids aren't permitted to ride out of sight of the house.

A few years ago, while researching a magazine article, I visited the camp where I had spent summers as a camper and a counselor from 1969 to 1983. When I was a camper, roughhousing was part of life. Counselors would pound us on our chests and we'd feel privileged to have their attention. Dead arms and Indian belly rubs filled our ample free time. Now the state's health authorities have tightened the definitions of physical abuse and sexual abuse, so noogies and wedgies and all that pounding are impermissible. Every year a psychotherapist visits the camp to brief the staff on child abuse. When I was a camper, only nonswimmers wore life preservers on the lake. Now everyone does. Then there were no fences around the beaches. Now the state mandates barriers in front of the swimming areas (although the other two miles of lakefront are still open). Now camp authorities must fill out an accident report after each injury, in case of future litigation, and the director must attend risk-management seminars in the off-season. Staff life, too, is different. Two decades ago staff parties were held every Saturday night, usually with beer. Now those are outlawed: too risky.

Reading magazines published for camp directors, I found that my camp was still on the permissive side. A Florida law requires background checks on all camp counselors. The American Camping Association's magazine is full of safety advice: "For most drills, [tennis] balls should be fed across the net," writes Robert Gamble, the tennis director at a New Hampshire camp, in a typical piece of risk-reduction advice. "This protects the instructor should a camper lose control and overhit."

Presumably, parents in the past cared as much about their kids' safety as parents today do. But they took far fewer precautions than parents today, and exerted far fewer controls over kids' behavior. Perhaps they thought it was important that children learn to take risks in order to develop courage. Or perhaps they thought that getting into scrapes is part of childhood, and that parents have no right to let their own worries dominate their children's growth.

Adolescence. Adolescence is a complicated time, and maybe no single snapshot can sum it up. But reading through some of the best recent literature on the subject—Patricia Hersch's A Tribe Apart, Kay Hymowitz's Ready or Not, Thomas Hine's The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager—one is struck by how many people are grappling in different ways with a common quandary: too much space. At some point in the past sophisticated parents cottoned on to the idea that rebellion and experimentation are part of the natural order of growing up, and that parents of teenagers should therefore give their kids enough freedom and space to explore and define themselves. But these new books and a shelf's worth of foundation reports now assert that kids today do not seem to want as much freedom and space as they have been granted. So the task for parents is to define boundaries for their adolescents, to offer continual guidance and discipline. Two decades ago parents were advised to withdraw from their teens' lives as those teens flew off to adulthood. Now they are advised to serve as chaperones at all-night graduation parties.

The U-turn is dramatic. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court heralded the liberationist age with its decision in the Gault case. The Court held that students have the same due-process rights as adults. That decision restricted the ways in which schools could assert paternalistic authority, but it was also a sign of the times. Children and teens should be left free to be themselves. As the legal scholar Martha Minow summarized it in an essay in From Children to Citizens (1987), the decision was part of a cultural and "legal march away from the conception of the child as a dependent person." Many high schools in the seventies and eighties adopted open-campus policies. Students had to show up for class, but beyond that they were free to come and go as they pleased; the high school was essentially turned into a college campus. The Emancipation of Minors Act, passed by the California legislature in 1982, enabled teenagers to sign contracts, own property, and keep their earnings. It transformed them into quasi adults.

The prevailing view today couldn't be more different. The 1997 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health emphasized that the most powerful factor in determining the well-being of young people is the presence of parents and adults who are actively engaged in supervising and setting goals for teenagers' lives. A 1993 study, Talented Teenagers, found that teens need security and support if they are going to explore. Hersch's highly acclaimed A Tribe Apart is an angry rebuke to parents who have given their teens too much space. Hersch writes,
The lives of the kids in this book illustrate in subtle and not so subtle ways the need for adult presence to help them learn the new lessons of growing up. Kids need adults who bear witness to the details of their lives and count them as something. They require the watchful eyes and the community standards that provide greater stability ... The kids in the book who do best are those who have a strong interactive family and a web of relationships and activities that surround them consistently.
o when we survey American childhood today, we see that a quiet revolution has taken place. The Romantics—and the neo-Romantics of the 1960s and 1970s—thought that children were born with an innate wisdom and purity. They were natural beings, as yet uncontaminated by the soul-crushing conventions of adult society. Hence they should be left free to explore, to develop their own creative tendencies, to learn at their own pace. Now, in contrast, children are to be stimulated and honed. Parents shouldn't hesitate to impose their authority. On the contrary, it is now pretty widely believed that the killings at Columbine and similar tragedies teach us that parents have a duty to be highly involved in the lives of their kids.

Today's ramped-up parental authority rests on three pillars: science, safety, and achievement. What we ambitious parents know about the human brain tells us that children need to be placed in stimulating and productive environments if they are going to reach their full potential. What we know about the world tells us that it is a dangerous place: there are pesticides on our fruit, cigarettes in the school yards, rocks near the bike paths, kidnappers in the woods. Children need to be protected. And finally, what we know about life is that sorting by merit begins at birth and never ends. Books about what to expect in the first year lay out achievement markers starting in the first month, and from then on childhood is one long progression of measurements, from nursery school admissions to SATs. Parents need to be coaching at their child's side.

Imagine being a product of this regimen—one of the kids who thrived in it, the sort who winds up at elite schools. All your life you have been pleasing your elders, performing and enjoying the hundreds of enrichment tasks that dominated your early years. You are a mentor magnet. You spent your formative years excelling in school, sports, and extracurricular activities. And you have been rewarded with a place at a wonderful university filled with smart, successful, and cheerful people like yourself. Wouldn't you be just like the students I found walking around Princeton?

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Illustrations by Tim O'Brien.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2001; The Organization Kid - 01.04; Volume 287, No. 4; page 40-54.