Monday, August 26, 2019

This Is Not Healthy

As a boy, I went to school like almost everyone, then came home and played in the neighborhood, in our yards, our neighbor's yards, in the street, in vacant lots, in construction sites, and, more rarely, in one another's garages or bedrooms. We could do that because school let out in the mid-afternoon, we had stay-at-home parents, no homework to speak of, and we lived in a world in which we didn't fear molesters and kidnappers behind every tree. We did not have organized after school programs or activities, so our mothers didn't have to chauffeur us from place. We had very few toys and most television programming was dull.

What we had was other kids. Even as young as four-years-old, mom would tell me I was driving her crazy, send me outside, and shut the door behind me. If there weren't already other kids out there, I quickly learned to go find them, going from door-to-door knocking, and asking, "Can Johnny play?" "Can Lisa play?" "Can Ralph play?" Then we would play with minimal adult supervision until our parents called us in, which was usually dinner time.

Both school and childhood have changed dramatically over the past 40-50 years. School days are longer, more strictly scheduled, and increasingly academic. School is "important" in a way it wasn't, with parents, teachers, and policy-makers obsessing over such things and test scores, grades, grit, and those mythological "jobs of tomorrow" for which our children must be prepared for the sake of our nation's economic competitiveness. Lucky children might have an hour of "free play" before bedtime or on weekends, but even that tends to be indoors, heavily supervised and often not "free" at all, with adults defining the limits of their play with rules, cautions, and Johnny-on-the-spot interventions should there be any hint of conflict, struggle, or failure.

This is not healthy. Children are human beings and as such, they must be free, free in mind and body, in order to achieve their highest potential. It's hard not to compare today's children to circus tigers, magnificent beings, locked into cages, prodded by ringmasters, and taught to do tricks for the benefit of an audience. Sure, they are safe, well-fed, lauded, and even loved, but when do they get to prowl through the jungle as they are meant to?

The rates of depression and suicide among children is increasing every year. As psychologist Peter Gray points out, children today are more depressed than they were during the Great Depression and more anxious than they were at the height of the Cold War. Suicide, suicide attempts, and thoughts of committing suicide among children and teens have doubled over the past decade. Tellingly, the rate of suicide and suicide attempts both double during the months school is in session versus summer months when it drops. And it's not just these clinically depressed and suicidal children we should be worried about: no child benefits from greater stress and less play.

We have, in a short time, fundamentally changed our view of children. Whereas previous generations saw them as relatively competent and self-reliant, even at early ages, we now tend to pathologize them as incapable and needy, even well into their adolescence and teenaged years. In our efforts to mold them into the shapes of our desires, we've taken charge of their every movement, even their every thought, controlling and shaping them, leaving them precious little time and space to prowl. In our quest to make them into shiny cogs in the economic machine we've robbed them of childhood, of the time during which the human animal develops essential social and emotional abilities, the capacity to play with, to work with, to understand, and befriend our fellow human beings. We've taken from them the essential experiences of knocking on the neighbors' doors, asking "What do you want to do?" and then setting about doing it in the unscripted, unscheduled, unmanaged way of children in their natural habitat, which is while playing with other children, outdoors, unsupervised, and with plenty of time in which to learn how to work through conflict, struggle and failure to something better.

I sometimes find myself despairing over my own part in this tragedy of contemporary childhood. I am, after all, a teacher in a preschool, a thing that barely existed in my own childhood. But, damn it, I'm striving, and I'll continue to strive, with every fiber of my being, to create a place, a culture, in which children are free to prowl, to play with one another without constant adult interference. It is not as good as I had it, but it's better than what's going on in society at large where we have done pretty much everything possible to destroy childhood to the detriment of us all. It begins with me, with us.

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