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Helping Kids Handle Pressure

Vivek Rao

For those of you who missed it, this past weekend witnessed the professional debut of 14-year old soccer sensation Freddy Adu. Originally hailing from Ghana, the young and sublimely talented Adu has been widely anointed as the United States’ savior of soccer, with the ability to transform his sport into the American craze it has always puzzlingly failed to be. Adu, who already earns the highest salary in all of Major League Soccer, faces a burden of pressure seldom placed on someone his age.

Yet Adu’s case reflects a growing trend in our society, with more and more teenagers and children being thrust into adulthood. Faced with responsibility that belies their age, young people today seem to spend a lot less time enjoying the innocent years of youth, a phenomenon that at very least deserves our attention.

Perhaps the most publicized example comes in the person of LeBron James, the basketball superstar who at the tender age of 16 was already drawing comparisons to legends like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. James has since made the successful transition from the high school ranks to the National Basketball Association (NBA), but how he holds up against the pressure, hype, and attention that will undoubtedly accompany him throughout his potentially illustrious career remains to be seen.

Dianna DeGarmo is another young phenom who finds herself in the national spotlight. The 16-year old Georgian is one of the finalists on “American Idol 3,” and singing performances reach the ears of millions of people every week.

The issue of young people facing daunting pressure is hardly limited to the exquisitely talented, however. Consider the growing obsession with college admissions. Every year, high schoolers across the country struggle through the grueling process, and the pressure they face from their school, their parents, and themselves is rampant. Middle schoolers are enrolling in SAT prep courses and the parents of elementary school children are worrying about whether their kids engage in enough extracurricular activities to satisfy the Harvards and MITs of the world.

The fact is that kids these days are growing up faster than in recent memory. Levels of pressure and demands for performance once reserved for adults are now extending to younger and younger children. What’s ironic about this striking trend is that our society has simultaneously grown more and more conscious about issues like stress, parental pressure, and child development.

The continued increases in pressure on modern youth in spite of growing awareness that such pressure may be detrimental proves puzzling. Why do we encumber our children with more and more strain and responsibility? Why do cases of adult rage and overinvolvement at youth sports events grow increasingly common even as more and more experts openly condemn such acts? Why do parents grow ever more obsessed with grades and admissions, despite the frequent objections of counselors and psychiatrists?

My solution to these discrepancies is hardly some sweeping condemnation of pressure on youth. Such a prescription would be both naive and unrealistic. Instead, the better approach would seem to involve some lessening of the double standards that face children in modern American society. While the pressure they face in certain walks of life grows by the year, they are still carefully hidden from R-rated movies (and, of course, the Janet Jackson tape) and elementary school education tends to be rather slow and simplistic. Though the sex, drugs, guns, and alcohol have continued to affect younger and younger cohorts of children, parents remain overly conservative when it comes to discussing such issues, often leaving kids unprepared for the realities of the world in which they live.

The bottom line is that modern society places greater pressure on its children (certainly not in all areas, but in most), and that is a situation that’s not likely to change anytime soon, regardless of whether people like it or not. However, the time has come for adults to accelerate the social, emotional, and even academic education of the nation’s youth, enabling children to keep pace with the world around them.