All Work and No Play?

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 All Work and No Play?

Both youngsters and parents see out-of-school activities in an overall positive light, but a few differences in outlook are worth noting. Some are predictable and probably even natural, but the study did unearth several areas where the contrast between what parents think and what young people actually say is more troubling. For example, most parents say their own kids don’t do much hanging out at the mall; yet more than half of kids say they do. And while some parents count on cell phones to know where their kids are, uncomfortably high numbers of youngsters admit they’ve told their parents they were in one place when they were really in another and that they don’t always answer their cell when they know it’s their parents calling.

One refreshing feature of All Work and No Play? is its examination of the views of youngsters as well as adults; consequently, the study allows us to compare the perspectives and judgments of the two. On the whole, parents and students see eye to eye when it comes to out-of-school time. Both say these supplemental activities and programs play an enormously positive role in youngsters’ lives. Both groups report participation and enjoyment in a wide array of activities, including sports, clubs, music and dance lessons, volunteer projects and/or religious, arts or academically focused programs. Both parents and kids are largely satisfied with what's offered to them. To the degree that there are problems with the kinds of activities available, the primary shortfall is among low-income and minority families. Both parents and kids in these households are more likely to say that the choices available to them are unappealing and/or too costly or inconvenient. Still, a few overall differences in outlook are worth noting.

Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Some are predictable and probably even natural. For kids, the main reason to participate in out-of-school activities is to have fun (39%) and keep busy (29%). For parents, the “it’s good for you” rationale is more important. Giving children “the chance to develop hobbies and interests” (41%) and keeping busy (27%) are the top reasons parents give for joining. Children and their parents also tend to differ on whether youngsters’ free time is used fruitfully or not. Kids (57%) are much more likely than parents (39%) to say that when they have time to do whatever they choose, it usually ends up being productive time. A Texas dad described his son’s preferred way to spend time: “He’s 10. His perfect day would be to come home and sit in front of the Nintendo or PS2 and play nonstop. That would be his perfect day.”

Some parents overestimate their child’s interest in trying something new—at least at the outset. While half of parents (50%) say their child is “eager and willing” when it comes to joining an organized activity or program, just 38% of kids say they generally look forward to joining after-school and weekend activities. According to substantial numbers of parents and kids, the reality is that kids are neither eager nor reluctant to join, but rather somewhere in between (43% and 54%).

The survey also suggests that many parents have a fairly subtle touch when it comes to encouraging their child to participate in out-of-school-time activities and programs. While 42% of middle school parents and 36% of high school say they decide how their child will spend their time, most kids are convinced that they are really making these decisions themselves (55% of middle scholars and 72% of high scholars).

Mom and Dad Will Pay

Parents may not be shocked to learn that worries about cost and convenience tend to be adult preoccupations. Since parents often deliberately insulate children from the financial pressures they face, it’s not surprising that youngsters don’t seem to focus much on this issue. More than 4 in 10 parents (42%) say it’s somewhat or very hard to afford activities and programs in their community during the school year, and more than half (52%) say they are somewhat or very concerned about being able to afford their child’s summer interests. But only 29% of kids believe that when kids don’t take part in activities, it’s because most things are too expensive.

Naive Parents

Differences between parents and kids about which activities are preferable or affordable are important, but most families probably have ways of working these things out. On the other hand, All Work and No Play? did unearth several areas where the contrast between what parents think and what kids actually say is more troubling. In both, the bottom line is that many parents need to be more skeptical and inquisitive when they are faced with glib reassurances from some of today’s youngsters.




The Internet

For sure, when it comes to technology, there may be a generation gap—but not in the way the term is commonly understood. Parents and kids are on the same wavelength regarding their views on the possible dangers involved with Internet use. About 1 in 5 parents (19%) think of the Internet as “a negative and potentially risky thing to be doing,” and the same proportion of youngsters who use the Internet (19%) acknowledge that something has happened on it that would upset their parents if they knew. But parents may be surprised to learn the extent to which they underestimate their child’s Internet use. Almost 2 out of 3 (65%) say their child uses the Internet at home to surf, play games and chat—compared with more than 8 in 10 youngsters (82%) who report doing so—a 17- percentage-point gap.

Down at the Mall

Parents might also want to double-check whether or not their own child is among those so-called mischief makers hanging out at the mall. According to the youngsters we surveyed, this is the most likely place to find the greatest number of kids after school or on weekends (44%)—compared with 29% who say the bulk of kids can be found at a playground, 13% at a local shop or restaurant or 8% at a community center. Most youngsters themselves (56%) say the mall is a place where they sometimes go to hang out. And while relatively few consider it an especially desirable destination, it does seem to be a common fallback choice. More than 6 in 10 (61%) told us that kids generally hang out at the mall because “they really don’t have anything better to do,” compared with 37% who say most kids hang out there because it’s a lot of fun. “There is nothing at the school, nothing to do,” said a middle school student from Colorado. “At the mall, it’s the only place that there are tons of people…. We have a gang, and we go to the mall and hang out. That is pretty much what we always do.”

This sketch of local adolescent life, from the parents’ perspective, is hardly reassuring. Six in 10 parents (60%) say that the local mall is a place “with a lot of potential for bad things to happen,” compared with just about 1 in 5 who think it’s safe but a waste of time (19%) or a nice place for kids to go to keep occupied (18%). Even more worrying, there is considerable discrepancy between parents and kids on just how likely kids are to go there. Most parents of middle and high school students (81%) say their own child is not hanging out at the mall. Meanwhile, well over half of the youngsters surveyed (56%) report that they do. And among those wandering the mall with time on their hands, more than 1 in 4 (27%) say that they have seen things happen there that would upset their parents if they knew. One teen told us bluntly: “We’re not about to tell them, ‘Hey, there’s drugs and marijuana and fights over at the mall.’”

Cell Phone Deceits

And All Work and No Play? offers a strong warning for parents who rely on cell phone check-ins to make sure their children are out of harm’s way. Many parents surveyed here say that their child has a personal cell phone (21% of middle school and 51% of high school parents), and the technology does seem to offer them the reassurance that comes with instant communication, no matter where, no matter when.

The majority of parents whose children do have cell phones say that they give their child “more freedom to move from place to place” because they or the child can always call to check in (62%). One young man in Arizona described how it is with his parents: “My mom is not bugging me all the time, because she knows that if I go anywhere, I’ll usually call her and say, ‘We’re going to the mall. I’ll give you an update at 8:00’…. She seems to be perfectly fine with that, so I never get the calls like, ‘Where are you? It’s 5:00 and I thought you were going to be home.’”

But based on what we heard from the kids, many parents may be indulging in a false sense of security. Almost 1 in 3 youngsters with personal cell phones say that they have told their parents “they were one place when they were really at another” (32%). The same number (32%) say there have been times when they’ve just not answered when they knew their parents were calling.


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