An Interview with Betsy Taylor
by Mara Peluso
What is different in our society for children growing up
today that earlier generations did not face?
In the past ten years, the number of preschoolers
taking ADD/ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder/Attention
Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) drugs has tripled;
the number of school-aged children taking the drugs
has multiplied by 20. Currently, more than two million
American children are prescribed drugs for ADD/ADHD.
-From "A Drug Kids Take in Search of Better Grades,"
by Rebecca L. Weber,
Christian Science Monitor
November 30, 2004.
The Economic Policy Institute reports
that, in the past decade, white, middle-class, family
working hours increased by 246 hours to 3,885 hours
per year. African- American middle-income families'
working hours saw a 500-hours-per-year increase
to 4,278 hours per year. The typical suburban mom
now spends almost three times as many hours in the
car as she did just 15 years ago.
-From "The Politics of Time: Why School Reform Should
Put Less Stress, Not More, On Children and Families,"
by John Buell,
2001 (full text available at
and "Economic Indicators," compiled by the
, 2001 (available at
Almost everything. One major difference is that children
today are being saturated with the effects of media and
electronics. They are spending more and more time in front
of electronic screens and with electronic equipment. They
are surrounded by commercial messages. They are seen as
a market segment that has potentially huge financial benefit
for sellers and corporations. As a result, children are
being bombarded with messages that they are going to find
happiness, friends, and excitement through buying stuff-which,
increasingly, is electronic stuff. Marketers are now targeting
children as young as one year old to get them to buy electronic
toys and brand-name products. Advertising comes at kids
through television, computers, radios, magazines, and even
in school. In schools, children's food products and sports
equipment are often labeled with corporate brands (such
as Coca-Cola and Nike).
major difference is that children today have less leisure
time than children of previous generations. Seventyfive
percent of a child's time on weekdays
with school and other structured activities; that is almost
double the hours children's time was scheduled in 1981. Kids
today spend 29 hours a week in school-that's eight hours more
per week than in 1981. Children's overall leisure time dropped
from 40% of their day in 1981 to 25% of their day in 1998-and
what's considered "leisure time" includes things like getting
dressed, sleeping, eating, and personal hygiene. Children
have very little free time.
your child doing too much?
Does he act grouchy, mopey, or
Can she fall asleep at bedtime?
Are his grades slipping? Does he
finish his homework?
Has she started overeating?
Does he zone out in front of the
Is she complaining of stomachaches,
headaches, or mysterious illnesses?
Does he grumble about being bored?
Is she over-anxious about getting
approval from authority figures?
When you're heading out the door,
does he throw a tantrum or lose equipment?
Does she pick fights with her siblings
or complain you don't love her as much as them?
Can he keep track of where he's
supposed to be?
Is her schedule draining you or
your family members?
There may not be a "right" number of activities for
every child, but you can ask yourself these questions
to help determine whether your child is getting enough
If your child exhibits three or more of these behaviors
on an ongoing basis, you may want to re-examine his/her
-From "Overscheduled Kids! Heed these 12 signs that
your child is doing too much," MSN Family. (Available
children today are dealing with huge amounts of advertising
aimed at them, while at the same time leading more structured
lives, spending more time in school, and having more homework
than previous generations. Many children living in urban
neighborhoods can't play outdoors freely because their parents
are afraid of what could happen. All of that adds up to
a profoundly different experience than children had in earlier
How does that affect children?
Evidence shows that it's not making them happier. The number
of kids on medication to help them cope with depression,
anxiety, or hyperactivity is startling. Children are becoming
extremely materialistic; they are gaining their sense of
identity through their activities and material things. At
the Center for a New American Dream, we conducted a poll
of parents and half of those in the sampling said their
children get their primary sense of self-worth through material
I wrote my book, we did a survey asking children what they
really want that money can't buy. What amazed me was the
number who said they wanted time simply to be a kid. Because
of everything they are inundated with, most children today
don't have time to experience the natural rhythm of life-in
a relaxed way that is not highly structured. Parents are
always overscheduling their children's time and pushing
them to do more.
living in an insecure, fear-based time. Children are told
that they need to be king of the mountain, that they better
stay ahead of everybody else; there is tremendous competition
within the school system. We don't make time to do the things
that human beings have done for tens of thousands of years,
like sit around the fire, hang out with Grandma, or pursue
something for the pure pleasure of pursuing it. Instead,
we have to achieve something or impress somebody.
What advice do you have for parents raising children in
First, there is no substitute for communication between
a parent and a child. Beyond that, my main advice for parents
includes the following:
your children's exposure to advertising
-not just to
the materialism found in advertising (the kind that pressures
high school kids into feeling that they need $500 handbags),
but also to other content in advertising and, generally,
in the media, such as violence and sexuality. That can have
a very detrimental effect. You need to really limit the
amount of time your children spend in front of electronic
to your children about advertising while they are still
. If you haven't done this and you have teenage
children, set aside a couple of weeks or a month to have
your children analyze advertising with you. Help them see
what advertisers are trying to sell, through media such
as magazines, billboards, and television. You can turn it
into a game. When you're watching television with your children,
ask them, "What are they trying to sell and how are they
trying to sell it?" Have a conversation about it. (Don't
do this for too long, though, or it will get tiresome for
you say no to something, say yes to something else
majority of American youth buy things in an attempt
to improve their self-esteem. More than half of those
surveyed (53%) say that buying certain products makes
them feel better about themselves.
Twelve and thirteen-year-olds are
particularly vulnerable. More than three in five
(62%) say that buying certain products makes them
feel better about themselves.
Among the vast majority of kids
(81%) who ask their parents for money or permission
to buy a product, 4 in 10 say they know in advance
that their parents will disapprove of the purchase
before they even ask. And nearly 6 in 10 keep nagging
-on average 9 times-in the hopes they can get their
parents to give in.
This "keep asking strategy" is paying
huge dividends for kids and marketers alike: 55%
of young people surveyed say they are usually successful
in getting their parents to give in.
-From a poll commissioned by the Center for a New
American Dream and conducted in May, 2002 by Widmeyer
Communications. Based on a nationally representative
telephone study of 750 American youth, ages 12-17.
The margin of error is /- 3.5%.
key is to ask yourself, "What do my children really want that
money can't buy?" The number one thing children say they want
is time. They want time with you when you're not multi-tasking
and are really talking to them. If you say no to television
or a shopping trip, then say yes to Scrabble, or to making
a pie, or to learning how to play Ultimate Frisbee-even if
you don't really want to. Think about what gave you a sense
of magic in your own childhood. Your teenage children may
say they would rather go to the mall than go camping with
you, but just try it! If they've never been, how would they
know? Let them each bring a friend or turn the camping trip
into a party and bring a few other teens, and it will be an
experience they'll never forget.
your children connect to others.
When there are opportunities
for your children to make connections with extended family
or with other support systems beyond your immediate family,
take advantage of them. For example, if there is a family
reunion, be sure your kids go, even if they say they don't
want to. It's very important for young people to know that
they have an extended support system.
your children become engaged in making the world a better
Children say they want to help make the world
a better place, but often, they feel they can't. Parents
can help children learn how to volunteer and be more engaged.
Children whose parents are trying to help solve societal
problems will feel more optimistic about the future.
What can children themselves do about the pressures they're
I think it's important for parents to help kids take a break
and just stop sometimes. Because children are on an ever
faster-moving machine, the most radical thing they can do
is just stop. I recommend that parents build in "days of
rebellion"-I think it creates good habits. Once or twice
a year, when I can sense that my children are getting worn
out, I take them out of school and we play hooky. Sometimes
it means just spending the day together at home baking bread
or reading a novel-just not doing anything that we
all, help your children learn not to overschedule. Children
are under tremendous pressure to always be doing more. Parents
need to understand that their children will be O.K. if they
don't have the "right" lifestyle. We do have to attend to
their security, but do they really need to be a part of
the rat race to the Ivy League? We as parents need to start
saying no to
-more stuff, more activities, more
accomplishments for their résumés. Universities are starting
to send this message, too. I recently heard an admissions
counselor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
(MIT) say that students are coming into their freshman year
exhausted. The kids are brain-dead from trying to build
the appearance of being ready for the Ivy League.
to stop and take time to ask ourselves, "What really matters?"
If we knew we were going to be in a car crash six months
from now, would we continue in this rat race? Or would we
want to be having a potluck with our neighbors, playing
Capture the Flag with our children, or gazing up at the
stars? What really matters most?
Taylor is the president of the Center for a New American
Dream, a nonprofit organization that helps Americans consume
responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality
of life, and promote social justice. Her two decades of
experience in the nonprofit sector include serving as executive
director of the Merck Family Fund and vice chair of the
Environmental Grantmakers Association. Ms. Taylor is the
What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy
(Warner Books, 2003, 2004) and co-editor, with Juliet Schor,
Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the 21st Century
(Beacon Press, 2002). She appears frequently in the national
media and served as a member of the Population and Consumption
Taskforce for the President's Council on Sustainable Development.
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