Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why Does Children's Play Enrage So Many Adults?

Back in the olden days we used to fly on jet airplanes that took us to new and exciting places to meet new and exciting people. Some of us remember the airports, places where people dashed and dawdled from jet airplane to jet airplane. What they don't tell you in your history books, however, is that most of what we did in airports during those more innocent times was wait. Can you imagine?

At least that's how it feels in these days of plague, as if air travel is something from a bygone era. Yesterday I mentioned to my sister that I needed to get my passport renewed and she asked me pointedly "Why?" And, of course, as I've noted repeatedly right here, I've very much enjoyed breathing crystal clean air that has resulted, in part, from the grounding of all those jet airplanes. Still, I'm eager for it to return, if only for the waiting.

I know it sounds strange. The waiting is the bane of the existence of most travelers, but I have come to embrace it. From the time I was a boy, I've experienced airports as places apart. Sure, the buildings might physically exist in Seoul or Frankfurt, but in another sense they are no place at all. Hailing simply from planet Earth, there are no permanent residents, we are all visitors, in transit, just passing through. I think this is what makes airports such an incredible habitat for people watching.

I consider myself a researcher. I read, of course, but most of my research is done by observing. Here on the blog, I tend to write about things I've thought and noticed in the classroom, but it nags at me that the fact of my presence, that I'm a known entity, that I'm a part of it, tends to taint my data. Young children might behave similarly wherever they are, but I'm certain that my presence impacts the behavior of adults. I suspect they are sweeter, more patient, and more attentive when they think Teacher Tom might see them, for instance, which is great for the kids, but perhaps not so much for research. In contrast, waiting around in airports creates excellent conditions for quietly observing children and adults interacting "in the wild."

One thing I've been shocked by, an observation that I've made consistently over the years everywhere I wait, is how often the sight and sound of children at play makes adults angry. I get it when a parent finally looses it and scolds their own kids, but most of the anger I've noticed is that of strangers. When children try to walk the wrong way on a moving sidewalk, the adults around them glare. When children clamber over and under waiting area seating, the adults around them glare. When children run or sing or talk excitedly, the adults around them glare. I suppose if I asked them about their glares they would complain about the noise or express their disapproval of those rotten parents who are raising such poorly behaved children, but I don't buy it. Psychologists tell us that anger is actually a secondary emotion, one that typically masks a more primal emotion like sadness or fear. So I ask myself, what it is about children playing that makes these adults experience flashes of sadness or fear?

I'm not the first to notice this phenomenon. John Holt, in his book Escape from Childhood, notes that play worker literature often recommends building high fences around places set aside for children's play specifically because the sights and sounds of it enrages so many adults. Apparently there are adults who resent the fact that children get to play while their own lives are so hard. I imagine that it's a sad feeling to think that your own days of play, of freely chosen activities, of playing Pooh Sticks with bits of paper on the luggage carousel, are long gone. I suppose that recognizing that kind of loss would make me sad as well.

And I detect fear underneath that anger as well. What if these children cannot be controlled even by the best of parents? Every generation fears that the next will somehow destroy the social order and these playing children are certainly not orderly. How dare they duck under the barriers instead of following them like mice in a maze? This is how it all begins, the end of civilization! Those kids have their parents wrapped around their little fingers. Those kids need some tough love. Control them, control them, we can't have them trying to fit their bodies into the carry-on luggage sizer!

Obviously, I'm just speculating here: we would need to perform proper psychoanalysis on these glaring adults to know for sure, but I feel confident that there is truth here. The sadness and fear is real. When children play around people who have no children in their lives, it often makes them sad, angry, and, I imagine, way deep down, a little envious. This is what comes, I think, from a world in which most adults and most children spend so much of their lives apart, separated by the modern world's hard barriers between work and school. We think it's because the adults need the children stashed away so that they can fully focus on their work, and maximizing productivity is certainly a part of it, but I suspect we also need those high fences because if most adults spent their days in the company of playing children they would soon grow aware that they too could be playing, and that would be bad for business.


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Book is back from the printers! I'm incredibly proud of it. And if you missed it, you can also pick up a copy of Teacher Tom's First Book as well.

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