On the state of childhood today

I recently read 2 really fantastic, but totally unrelated articles on parenting that really spoke to me.

The first is an article from Aeon magazine, called The Play Deficit, and basically talks about how essential play is to the development of our children, and how our society (mainly parents and the school system) are accidentally hurting the our children’s development because we’re misguided about how best to help them learn. It’s a fantastic article, and I don’t want to summarize the whole thing here, so you should go ahead and go read it.

The second article is called Stuff My Husband Knows About Parenting, Feminism, and How to Do This Perfectly Wrong, and it comes from the blog of a friend of mine. Kori is a really great writer who lays herself bare in her blog posts. I am always inspired by her ability to admit to her mistakes and talk about them openly in a way that takes a lot of courage. Her article is about lessons that she’s learned (or is in the process of trying to learn) from her husband’s parenting style in regards to letting go as a parent; both letting her daughter be her own person and learn things her own way, but also in being able to lean on your partner and not trying to take on everything yourself. Obviously as a father, there is a lot of positive things related to specifically fatherhood that I like to hear, but I think overall it’s just a great, personal exploration about how to parent.

So on the surface, the two articles seem to be fairly unrelated, but I read them more or less back to back and as I started to digest them, I started to realize that there’s just no way to separate out all the ideas from each other. No parenting decision is made in a vacuum; every decision you make affects a million other decisions. Decisions you make about how to parent at home affect the way you view decisions made at school. Decisions have side effects, both positive and negative, and these are the waters you try to navigate each day while you’re raising your kids.

I admit some confirmation bias in reading these articles, especially The Play Deficit. I feel very keenly the importance of unstructured time, and as a person who just went through a pretty intense period of time making some important schooling decisions, I worry about the things I hear regarding schools and testing/homework. So maybe I’m just seeking out articles that tell me what I want to hear, I don’t know.

I think the most important thing we can do for our kids is to let them learn to do things on their own. I think everyone feels this to some degree, which is why you see all of those memes on Facebook about “back in my day, we played until the sun went down, and we had playgrounds made only of broken glass and acid pits, and look how we turned out! Share if you agree!” And I do think there’s some truth to those. Despite the advances in technology and the vast stores of knowledge we have at our fingertips, on the whole I don’t think we are better parents now than we were a generation ago.

I think that we want to feel like we’re in control of things. Like we’re doing something, and having an impact. Let’s face it, most things in our world today are pretty controlled. But sometimes controlling a situation doesn’t mean we’re actually making it better. We see that sometimes kids aren’t turning out the way we want them to, so we want to take over and solve that problem and grab ahold of them force them to be better. We want them to be smarter and more successful and we don’t really know how to do that, so we think we just need more tests, or more homework, or more time in school, or maybe a few more extracurriculars, and then we will finally force the world to come out the way we want. But for some reason, the harder we try, the more the sand slips between our fingers.

As a parent I know that you always try to make the best decision you can, but often you really don’t know if you’re doing it right or not. So you do the best you can with the info available. What else can you do? But I so often feel like we’re doing it wrong right now. Can’t everybody see that? Can’t everybody see how we’re ignoring each other because of our cell phones? Can’t everybody see how disgusting all this commercialism is? Can’t we see what this is doing to our kids?

I think everybody CAN see that, but we just don’t know what to do about it. Because the answer is to do *less* not do more, and that seems crazy.

I think our kids’ brains need boredom in order to learn creativity. I think their brains need music to teach them how to be better computer programmers, and they need art to learn how to think outside the box in a boardroom meeting. I think they need to be left alone with an old alarm clock that they can take apart to see how it works. I think they need to see their parents reading books and cooking and having friends to know how they’re supposed to behave when they grow up.

Kids will dominate as much of your free time as they are able. I used to feel very guilty about not spending every minute of the day playing with them, because OMG every minute is precious and that’s what good parents do, right? But then I realized that there is value in NOT spending every minute of the day with them, both because they learn to entertain themselves, and because they see me doing things like keeping house, or reading, or practicing an instrument, and that is actually an important lesson that they need to learn.

I think it’s important to think not only about the parenting decisions you make, but also the ones you don’t make. It’s important to think about what kind of role model you’re being, of what kind of example you’re setting. Everything is intertwined, everything is affecting them. As a father, just making a decision just to be around them is an important decision, and thus it ties into the working from home discussion.

Now that the kids are both starting school in earnest, I worry about who is making these decisions for them (because it’s not me anymore) and I worry that they’re just going to get sucked into this misguided machine of high pressure “traditional” school. I hear it over and over again from my fellow parents; all the homework, all the testing, kids 1st grade or even kindergarten getting stressed out about math scores and reading comprehension. I worry that these rumors are true, and I worry that we’re ruining an entire generation of kids. I hear rumors that schools are dropping art, music, library, and gym. Every action has a consequence.

We can measure what we’re gaining, but what are we losing?

Are our schools training kids to be good, well-rounded people, or are they making them laser-focused on the single objective of fact regurgitation? Is that what we want for our kids? Anecdotally, I feel like I am better at my job because of skills that I have that are not job related. I’m creative. I’m good at writing and talking, and thus presenting. I’m social, and good at networking. If I sacrificed all of that to be a better programmer, I might technically be a better programmer, but I would not be better at my job.

We can’t keep pushing these other skills to the side. Our kids need time to learn how to be social, how to be creative, how to look at problems from a different angle. These are skills that can’t be tested, can’t be assigned as homework. They have to learn them on their own; they’re discovered skills, not forced, which means that in order for kids to learn them, they have to be given unstructured time in which to discover them on their own.

Over the past 5 years, we made the decision not to watch tv with the kids, and not to let them use the computer. Little did we know, this seemingly self-contained decision was tied to everything else, and it has so profoundly affected so many other aspects of our lives. This is tied into this discussion too. Our hope is that by not letting the kids watch tv, we have given them the gift of time: time to play, time to be bored, to read books, and do puzzles, color, and make music, and ultimately develop these baseline skills that will turn them into real people. I would say that I am pleased with the result, though of course I don’t know how they would have turned out WITH tv. But as it is, they entertain themselves, they build cities out of duplos, tell stories, and look at books. They’re honest to god interesting to talk to! They have things to say. They don’t just act out someone else’s world or characters, they create their own.

And then they start school, where there is so much to learn about interacting with other people, and all we hear about is how great it is to play with the iPads. This is what passes for a “job” these days at school, alongside the more traditional ones like “line leader” and “turtle feeder”. Those iPads aren’t just going to play with themselves, folks!

After all of our hard work (make no mistake, it is HARD work, trying to do your best for your kids, especially when it goes against the grain), here we have educators taking our kids away from the richest social learning opportunities of their lives to stare at a little advertising screen (yes, it is still advertising even if the company is Scholastic). Evie comes home singing songs she learned in music class right alongside company jingles she learned on the iPad. Games at home are one thing, but what place do games on an iPad have in school? Is that an improvement over passing notes, or doing an art project, or climbing on the monkey bars? Is listening to a story on the iPad an improvement over listening to the teacher reading an actual book, like when we were kids? What about staying out until dark on our broken-glass-and-acid playgrounds?

Maybe we were accidentally better at raising kids before, but we just didn’t know it.

We want to do the best for our kids, but in our rush to do so, I’m worried that we’re not doing the best for them. What if we’re going in the wrong direction? Maybe it’s not too late for a course correction. For my kids at least, I’m going to try to back off. Get it wrong as a parent sometimes. Let them get it wrong sometimes. Let them figure it out.

Kids are pretty good at figuring things out. Maybe better than adults.

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