Thursday, December 09, 2004

Childhood's End

Remarkably perceptive article by Hara Estroff Marano on Psychology Today's website regarding recent changes in the way children are raised in this country -- and the effects of that on adolescents and young adults. Some highlights:

"In the hothouse that child raising has become, play is all but dead. Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess. And what play there is has been corrupted. The organized sports many kids participate in are managed by adults; difficulties that arise are not worked out by kids but adjudicated by adult referees."

"A lot has been written about the commercialization of children's play, but not the side effects, says [Tufts University Professor David] Elkind. "Children aren't getting any benefits out of play as they once did." From the beginning play helps children learn how to control themselves, how to interact with others. Contrary to the widely held belief that only intellectual activities build a sharp brain, it's in play that cognitive agility really develops. Studies of children and adults around the world demonstrate that social engagement actually improves intellectual skills. It fosters decision-making, memory and thinking, speed of mental processing. This shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, the human mind is believed to have evolved to deal with social problems."

"In his now-famous studies of how children's temperaments play out, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences."

"The end result of cheating childhood is to extend it forever. Despite all the parental pressure, and probably because of it, kids are pushing back--in their own way. They're taking longer to grow up."

"What if parents have micromanaged their kids' lives because they've hitched their measurement of success to a single event whose value to life and paycheck they have frantically overestimated? No one denies the Ivy League offers excellent learning experiences, but most educators know that some of the best programs exist at schools that don't top the U.S. News and World Report list, and that with the right attitude--a willingness to be engaged by new ideas--it's possible to get a meaningful education almost anywhere. Further, argues historian Stearns, there are ample openings for students at an array of colleges. "We have a competitive frenzy that frankly involves parents more than it involves kids themselves," he observes, both as a father of eight and teacher of many."

I'm sure everyone has seen the crazy parent on the sidelines or in the stands at a game. The one that just can't seem to shut up, enjoy the game, cheer appropriately, and STOP YELLING! The pernicious effect of such behavior should seem obvious, but apparently it isn't. And we wonder why kids get burned out on organized sports. Almost invariably, we start them too early and push them too hard -- never letting them grow to love for the sport (whatever sport) for its own instrinsic allures.

The value of pick-up games and unsupervised play in the development of problem resolution skills just can't be overestimated. Choosing up sides and working through disputes should be a fundamental learning expereience of childhood. Unfortunately, as this article makes all too clear, it is increasingly an anachronism.

As far as the college admission process goes, my kids won't be going through it for a few more years so I probably shouldn't throw stones (which may actually be boomerangs), but ... by all accounts many parents are little short of psychotic in this arena. As the last excerpt above makes plain, you can get a good education almost anywhere if you are willing to become educated -- that is, if you are willing to learn new ideas, test old ideas, discard bad ideas and defend good ideas.

I want to be careful not to make a trap that I'll eventually fall into, but the purpose of a child's education should be something more than stoking a parent's ego -- which is what much of the college admission rat-race appears to be about (as seen from afar).


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