Thursday, October 12, 2023

Our Epidemic Of Loneliness

In 2017, the US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared loneliness to be a public health epidemic, pointing to data that indicated that half of us report feeling lonely "much of the time." Eighty percent of 18-25 year olds describe their lives that way. Then we had the Covid pandemic which obviously made things worse. Recently, 
The New York Times, CNN, and Newsweek all published articles about some aspect of our epidemic of loneliness.

Social media, technology, and societal changes are most often cited as causes, but it seems to me that the seeds were planted early in the last century -- to the automobile, suburbs, the uprooting of young families in pursuit economic opportunities to distant places where they know no one. Then came television. When I look back over the trajectory of our nation, I see the source of this epidemic in the Industrial Revolution which transformed, and continues to transform our relationship not just with work, but with one another. 

The loneliness epidemic is at least in part to blame for our ever-increasing political hostility, gun violence, racism, and other bigotries, not to mention our alarming rates of anxiety and depression. We need air, water, and food in order to survive: we also need one another. And like those babies who roll over and die when they are not touched and held, it seems as if that is what is happening to our society.

Having worked with thousands of young children over the past 20 years, almost exclusively in the context of play-based preschool, I've never met a chronically lonely child. I'm certain their are children suffering from loneliness, but the one's I've known come to a familiar place day after day where they are safe and known, where they know the other people, and where the primary thing to do with their time is to play together. Most of the children I've known came to this place between the ages of 2-5, which means that by the time they moved on, they could not remember a time when they were not part of a caring community.

Standard schools and workplaces are obviously communities as well, but with less playing together. When a child leaves our play-based preschool to go on to a typical kindergarten, they find themselves in a system that will, year-after-year, reduce their play time and replace it with working side-by-side with others in the way it is done in a factory or other workplace. Oh sure, there will be some group projects, but the nature of standard schools is to grade, test, and rank the children in the spirit of hierarchy and competition, which becomes an every-man-for-himself scrum to prove oneself to be among best and the brightest. Those who cannot or will not succeed, find themselves even more isolated. Years later they enter the work force where they are expected to collaborate with others, but still not in the spirit of play: it is still hierarchical and competitive. Some thrive, but like in school many will find themselves increasingly stuck and alone. This is soil in which loneliness thrives.

Maybe this sounds grim, but epidemics are grim. 

Over the past many decades, we've turned to schools to address over-arching societal problems. The solution to poverty and homelessness, they tell us, is education. The solution to racism other bigotries, they asserted, was to desegregate the schools. The solution to sexism is to "teach" the children not to be sexist. The list goes on, yet the problems persist. That's because children have eyes and ears. They live a world with poverty, bigotry, inequalities, biases, hierarchy, and competition; not a world of their own creation. Yet we seek to pass the buck onto them and their teachers instead of looking at ourselves and admitting that it's on us, not our children, to solve these problems.

The epidemic of loneliness, however, is one that we could, if we wanted, begin to address in our schools, but it would require first learning the lessons of play-based preschool. What would it be like if our schools transformed themselves away from the factory model and instead adopted the form of a pre-industrial village? What if the purpose of school was to learn to thrive in a community of our own creation? What if our children spent their first decades coming together to play with one another in a safe and familiar place where they are known and where they know the other people? What if we quit seeing our children as future human resources and instead allowed them to spend their school years developing deep, meaningful, and personally satisfying connections with others? What if we can to see this as a birthright?

That's perhaps not a plan that serves the economy, but maybe it's a plan for connected, functioning, inclusive communities. Maybe it's time for the economy to adapt to us rather than the other way around.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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