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Get heave weight off children’s backpacks and lives (Scripps Howard News Service) June 5, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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Proving that nothing is too small or personal to be regulated by government, the California Assembly recently passed a law requiring school boards to reduce excess weight in student backpacks.

It turns out that kids’ backpacks are not that small, sometimes hauling up to 40 pounds of books and sending 5,000 students a year to emergency rooms nationwide. But as a parent and an educator, I wish the legislators had bothered to look inside the backpacks.

In a classic case of treating the symptom and not the disease, the California Assembly focused on the “what” and not the “why.” Sure we are concerned about heavy lifting, like the 92-pound 8th grade girl who carries around a 21-pound backpack and a 14-pound saxophone all day. But the real questions are: “What is in that backpack, who put it there, and why?”

The answer is that we are packing our children’s days with so much homework and structured activity that their backpacks, schedules, and lives are full to overflowing.

Like most parents, I work for my employer by day, but for the school nights and weekends as my children’s homework monitor. With three children and two-three house of homework per child per night, you get the picture. Or maybe you don’t, since that does not include sports teams, music lessons, tutoring, after-school jobs, or any of the rest of it. My wife specializes in carpooling and the arts, while I handle social studies. With advanced sciences and the new math, the kids are on their own.

Parents across the country report loss of family time and student sleep. It is not all rare for our 11th grader to be up after the rest of us go to bed and also before we get up. By some accounts homework has tripled in the last couple of decades, and by any count, it is at an all-time high. Over that same period, a study shows our kids have lost about four unstructured hours per week.

The title of the book says it all: “The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learing.” Its coauthor, John Buell, says: “Family time is increasingly cramped and limited….It’s a shame that it has to be spent supervising somebody else’s agenda.” It was news earlier this year when a New Jersey suburb announced Family Night, when homework and structured events were banned. Of course that was one night out of the year.

How did children’s backpacks get to heavy and their lives so full? Ironically one of the causes of the increase in homework and structured activity is the parents themselves. A society obsessed with whether their kids get into Harvard or Stanford has placed tremendous pressure on both their children and the schools to stay ahead of the pack.

Then, too, schools have taken on so many new responsibilities – social, disciplinary, guidance, tutorial, recreational – that they feel obliged to delegate some of the academic work to non-school hours. As schools strive to raise scores on new standardized tests, more gets loaded into that heavy backpack.

As summer approaches, this is a good time for parents to step back and rethink. A few summers ago, as our daughter neared the end of high school, she planned the usual full plate of soccer camps, a special science program, summer reading for advance placement courses and the like. I decided to stop it all dead in its tracks and told her that I was not prepared to send a kid to college who had never had a full-time job.

Would her coach let her play soccer without the camp? Could she get into a good college without the summer science program? We took that risk and she spent the summer making beds and cleaning bathrooms. She told me later that it was a good experience, and yes she still got into a good college.

Look inside those full backpacks. It’s not just your kids’ backs that are aching. They are also aching for some free, unstructured time to think, to play, to be kids. Children who are raised to think that life is nothing but a full calendar and a heavy backpack with someday have loads of resentment to unpack. I hate to think of the bill the California Legislature will pass for that.

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