The Smorgasbord Generation

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When Steven Nock moved with his family to Charlottesville ten years ago, they bought a house just outside the Jeffersonian city. "Right next to where we moved, there was a beautiful park," says Nock, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. These days, when Nock drives home from town, he sees the park gridded into playing fields,

"with tons and tons of kids playing soccer, with adults lined up on both sides of the fields."

The transformation of the park-wide open, free of rules and boundaries-into a carefully structured world presided over by adults has been nagging at Nock, who specializes in the sociology of the American family. "My perception is that children's lives more and more are structured by adults. That troubles me. A healthy childhood has lots of time spent negotiating rules with other children, learning how to bargain, how to accept defeat, without an adult present."

But the days when Mom would flick off the TV and command her kids, "Go outside and play!" are gone.

A study released last November by the University of Michigan on how children 12-and-under spend their time each day-the most authoritative study of children's time ever undertaken-confirms Nock's hunch. One of the most significant changes over the last 20 years is that American children spend more time in supervised, structured settings. Children today have 75 percent of their weekday programmed: in 1981, 40 percent of a typical kid's day was free time, 9.5 hours, compared to today's 6 hours.

"Mom is working outside the home," says Sandra Hofferth, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and co-author, with Jack Sandberg, of "Changes in American Children's Time, 1981-1997." "That has greatly changed family life-just as dads starting to work outside the home 100 years ago changed family life. It's a revolution." Census Bureau statistics bear this out: 62 percent of mothers with children under 3 are now in the work force, up from 44 percent in 1981.

"There is a time crunch in families," says Hofferth, and that crunch, along with changes in family structure, is affecting the way kids live. Children in families where both parents work, for instance, or where there is a single parent who works, spend at least two hours less in unstructured play per week than those in two-parent families in which only the father works. Kids with two working parents also spend less time in front of the television-about an hour a week.

In both cases, Hofferth explains, the children are simply home less. Overall, children ages 3 to 11 now spend about six hours a day in preschool or school, a two-hour increase since the early '80s. Even children under age 3 now average two hours a day in some kind of organized daycare or school setting.

Hofferth is careful not to make judgments about the changing pace of life for kids. But her study supports the impression that kids are leading much more hectic lives, their time carefully parceled out among school, after-school care, soccer, ballet, karate, piano, horseback riding, and "play dates," with less time not only for pure play but also for family meals (down about 20 percent on weekdays) and even simple conversation within families (half what it used to be, even on weekends).

Changes at all kinds of other institutions buttress the discoveries made in the study. In 1981, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, for example, which provide mostly after-school programs, served 1.2 million kids. By 1998, that number had jumped to 3 million, a 150 percent increase. (During that time, the number of U.S. children 12-and-under increased 17 percent.)

In 1981, the U.S. Youth Soccer Association had 810,800 registered players; in 1998, it had 2.9 million, more than a three-fold increase. In fact, children spend more than 50 percent more time playing organized sports than before, the study reveals, with boys spending nearly double the amount of time on sports as girls on the weekends.

Not only are kids' days more organized, but they are tightly sequenced-with one activity starting almost as soon as the previous one ends, often to provide continuous supervision until parents finish work.

The successful sequencing of kids' activities is so critical to the smooth operation of families in which parents work, says Cathleen Zick, chair of the Family and Consumer Studies department at the University of Utah, "that moms and dads spend a lot of time worrying about sequencing-about what happens if a meeting runs long, or if they miss Johnny's soccer match, or if they are late to pick up from ballet. Sequencing of activities is important to whether they get everything done in the day."

In the decades after World War II, kids' lives seemed sheltered from the everyday concerns and pressures of the grown-up world. Now, kids' lives reflect the impatience of the rest of American society.

"'Busy' has become our culture," says Rachel Geller, chief strategic officer of The Geppetto Group, a firm specializing in kids marketing and advertising. "Sitting and talking to each other is not considered an activity."

"Kids are being raised to sample everything," says child psychologist and researcher Gar Roper. "I think of them as the 'smorgasbord kids,' living life on the buffet line. You also see quick boredom. If they aren't programmed, they feel bored. 'I have nothing to do, what am I supposed to do now?' "

Roper, who spent 20 years in private practice and now does consulting for companies like Disney Adventures magazine, Wendy's, and Crayola, owns and runs a kids' summer camp with his wife in Poland Spring, Maine.

These days, says Roper, "kids are much less able to find delight in being kids, in just doing stuff. They are always surprised when they find it's fun to take a hike, or to build a bridge across a stream-to put a bunch of crummy logs across a stream to cross it. They say, 'Wow!' "

So dramatically has the environment of children changed in the last two decades that there remains a significant gap between reality and scholars' understanding. "What is it about time-use that matters with kids? That's the question," says Zick. And it's a hard one to answer. "It's not just the amount of time kids spend doing something, or whether parents are present or not. It's whether activities are interrupted, whether kids have large blocks of focused time to do something, where that activity occurs, whether there are siblings, and so on."

Mavis Hetherington, a psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia who has spent her career studying children and families, has a strong sense that in many families today, "Parents essentially regulate all of their children's activities."

The general perception of life in the '60s and '70s is that kids came home from school, had a snack, did their homework, and went outside to play. They rounded up their own friends, they organized their own games and activities.

Today, Hetherington says, most of those activities are not only administered by parents, but run by adults as well. "The soccer coach, the dance instructor, the piano teacher, teachers in the after-school class. Parents end up as bureaucrats, coordinating how other experts take care of their kids."

As a result, she says, there could be profound changes in the way these "smorgasbord kids" approach the world as they grow up.

"Part of the development of conscience and self-control is related to making decisions, some good, some bad, and learning from those decisions," Hetherington says. "When children are not making many of these decisions, I think they'll have more trouble developing a code of social responsibility and self-regulation."

As troubling as the over-scheduling, Hetherington says, is what's missing from the relentless round of daily activities: open play time. "We know fantasy play is very important for kids, that it's correlated to cognitive ability and problem-solving ability. When everything is structured, when you're watching TV, you're not imagining yourself in a castle, with your prince coming. You lose a lot of creativity."

On weekdays, in fact, the number-one activity for American children after sleeping and school is watching television-consuming as much time each day (about 90 minutes) as studying, reading, visiting and household conversation combined.

The framework of a day's activities, says Hetherington, could also mean we have people who are more willing to take instruction or direction, because that's what they've been doing since they headed off to daycare at age 2, or 6 months.

"What troubles me," says sociologist Steven Nock, "is it's a change. And we're not paying that much attention to it."

One group, however, has definitely noticed. Gar Roper says his research, on everything from why children read magazines to how they play, shows they are looking for ways to unwind. "To my utter amazement, kids now view the shower as a place to reduce stress. Kids are seeking time to relax. We've had little kids say, 'My days are just awful. I gotta unwind in the shower.'"

ow children spend their time is revealing not only in terms of their future development, but also because children have such a dramatic impact on the U.S. economy.

By 2001, children under 12 may well be spending about $35 billion a year of their own money-allowances, gifts, earnings-according to James McNeal of Texas A&M University, up from $24.4 billion in 1997.

And that's just for the stuff they stash in their own rooms. McNeal estimates that kids under 12 influence about $300 billion in family purchases a year, from brands of breakfast cereal to styles of minivans.

That kind of influence is likely to keep growing, if children's time-use trends continue. According to Hofferth's study, one result of the working-family time crunch is that the amount of time kids spend doing household chores and errands with their parents doubled between 1981 and 1997. And when kids go along to the supermarket or the department store, they have an impact on what goes into the shopping cart.

Children's increasing familiarity with the adult world of consumption is just one example of a fascinating set of contradictions that characterize what it is to be a child today: Kids seem more adult-like, but they are actually less autonomous. They can navigate a busy schedule, but they don't know what to do with free time. Even as the world has become a less trustworthy and secure place, children have more figures of trust and security than ever before, from daycare providers to more attentive daddies.

Geppetto Group's Rachel Geller has noticed a revealing trend involving children and sleepovers, for example. "It used to be, the age at which kids could do a sleep over was about 9 years old," she says. "A generation ago, if they were younger than 9, the kids would go to the house, have a nice evening, get all tucked in and ready for bed, and then they'd just get too anxious, and have to have someone come pick them up and take them home. They couldn't make it all the way. Now, the age for sleepovers is getting younger and younger. Kids are going to sleep-away camp at 6."

The reason, says Geller, is that these days, children often have many people who take care of them, all of whom they grow to love and trust. "Think of all the caregivers who surround a child's life: father, nannies, grandparents, neighbors, daycare providers. Kids see the world as more balanced-there are lots of places to go for safety and security.

"It's a very strong positive thing from the women's movement," Geller says.

The new structure for kids does more than reflect the schedules of their parents, she adds. It also reflects an ever-more-intense focus on success, on giving children every competitive edge as they become adults.

"Parents don't think of 'play time' as having a measurable success quotient," says Geller. "Having your child talk to his buddies while throwing a ball or playing street hockey-that doesn't feel as if you're doing as much for your child. It's not like being enrolled in a program to improve his batting, for instance."

Given the changes in American. society over the last 20 years, though, Steven Nock says the Michigan study is perhaps more reassuring than upsetting. "If you take the dramatic increase in women's labor force participation, the stable high levels of divorce, the high rates of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing-all those trends have been alarming. What [Hofferth's] data suggests to me is that there have not been as many changes in how children spend their lives as many people worried about. I think, in general, it's good news."

And Cathleen Zick of the University of Utah notes that simply because children are in structured environments more often than in the past does not necessarily mean their time is more structured. "Some very good childcare situations involve a lot of unstructured time, with some minimum level of adult supervision, necessary to insure the children's safety. They may not be home environments, they may be more institutional environments, but whether they are more or less structured is still a question."

Sandra Scarr, retired professor of psychology at Yale and the University of Virginia and former CEO of KinderCare Learning Centers, the country's largest childcare company, cautions against romanticizing the past too much. "Children who were at home with their mothers often found their mothers paid very little attention to them. Their mothers spent time on the phone, watching TV, doing chores. The actual amount of interaction with the children was often very little."

One change that the Hofferth study uncovered does trouble Scarr, however: the drop in time spent together for family meals. "Family communication, and family closeness, seems to be getting downplayed, and the role of activity participation has gotten amplified," says Scarr. "I'm not sure why. But it's the same parents who are hanging mobiles for their little children, and flashing alphabet cards at infants-they are trying to produce great kids while working.

"I think it's about parents trying to give their kids everything they can, and helping them to find what's fun and interesting-without valuing their own relationship as parents with their kids," she adds.. Giving them everything, that is, except themselves, and their time.

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