Let Kids be Kids

A commonly heard thought in our American society of today is that our kids are somehow substandard in the areas of math and science. We are forever being told that children in other countries, children in Asian countries in particular, are outperforming American children in critical areas of mathematics and science. The presumption is that we are in the midst of a national disgrace and downfall. Moreover, we are told that urgent corrective action is needed, and now. The usual prescription is to lengthen the school day and calendar, to start kids earlier in school, to spend more time on drill, cram in more academics, and to be continually pushing our kids wherein we strive to emulate the Asian culture as our standard.

The “Tiger Mothers,” to quote a newly coined phrase, are often at the forefront of those agitating for more and more. These anxious Tiger Mothers commonly argue that the primary task of children is to spend each and every waking moment in preparation for adulthood. In essence, according to the anxious class, childhood is a stage of life wherein its only purpose is to become prepared for the next stage in life – in this case adulthood. Moreover, while the goal has possible merit, the means to achieve the goal are misguided at best. I say misguided because the underlying presumption is that our children need an increased dosage of — you guessed it – memorized facts in math and science.

I strongly believe that the primary task of childhood is childhood. Simply stated, we need to let kids be kids. Moreover, important aspects of childhood are achieved through play. Kids, when left to their own accord and devices, take play very seriously. The imagination is sparked. When children play, every act and every thought are directed at becoming or achieving the ultimate – as viewed by the child using a child’s viewpoint. Through the process of playing, children engage their minds and their bodies to emulate adults – at least as they can best view adults.

It is important to distinguish what is meant by “play.” I am not referring to adult directed activities such as adult officiated team sports, spelling bee’s, or even piano lessons. Instead I am thinking of whatever kids do when kids are left to their kid-directed devices and imaginations. What the Tiger Mothers end up reinforcing seems to stress memorization and regurgitation of adult defined fact level knowledge, or possibly adult defined performance standards. This Tiger Mother mania is predicated on the myopic premise that facts, fact level knowledge, and pseudo adult emulation are paramount – and with obliviousness to the realization that knowledge and facts are merely relatively minor precursors to higher levels of creativity – and let me even utter the word “genius.”

Genius is a wonderful thing. Likewise, creativity is a wonderful thing. Genius and creativity are things that self-ignite within a person – and I assert that genius and creativity aren’t things that an adult can teach. The best that adults can strive for is to create and foster a setting or atmosphere that allows genius and creativity to spring forth internally from within the child. Children who are allowed to play, and I mean play by creating devices and associations of their own making, are forever pushing their imaginations and the envelope of what I’ll call the possibility space. When children are forced into an academic mode focused on performance according to adult defined standards, the children are denied the freedom to use and to allow their imaginations to grow. Said another way, it needs to be permissible for children to color outside of the lines. Forcing children to follow adult directives and goals is analogous to tying the brains up like hands tied behind one’s back.

As an illustration of the problem, in academia and at a wide array of levels, courses and course subject matter are designed to prepare the student for the next class in so ‘n so topic. Even at the university level, a level where I taught for three decades, I was and remain simply amazed at how many courses and textbooks have titles such as “Introduction to ….. “ Moreover, once the student takes the next course, its stated goal is – you guessed it – to prepare the student for yet another loftier course. At some point America needs to get real and to start redirecting classes so that the student who finishes the course will exit with skills that make the student useful and functional in the marketplace.

The evidence of the inadequacy of our school graduates confronts us daily. Corporations and businesses that try to hire entry level employees are faced with the costly task of training the new employees to be able to function in the job environment. Moreover, this is the case even when we are considering the better students. The case or situation of the anti-social drop-out from school is yet another grave and serious matter. I recently heard a friend who hires say the following, “I wouldn’t consider hiring anybody who is less than thirty years old.”

Children are not merely adults in training. Children are people with distinctive powers and joys. A happy childhood is measured by the children themselves, and is based on their own perception of themselves. In my case I was born in the ending and wrenching days of what is called the Great Depression – the 1930’s. The Great Depression era years were soon replaced with a 1940’s war that enveloped vast portions of the world.

The adults in that era fought to survive, fought to put food on the table, and fought as well to get back on their feet economically. In my blue-collar working class neighborhood, for example, some neighborhood families were so poor that they lacked amenities such as a car, a telephone, and in some cases – even an indoor flush toilet. The adult society also had to arm for the conduct of war. The Tiger Mothers didn’t exist, or at minimum they didn’t have the benefit of a platform.

My brothers and I, along with most of the kids in our blue collar working class neighborhood known as the Paradise Green area of Stratford CT, had a fantastic time. We were free virtually each and every day (when not in school or past bedtime) to go just outside and disappear from the view of adults. Only when the evening six o’clock whistle blew from the power plant across the Housatonic River we then knew we had about ten to fifteen minutes to hurry home on our bikes – in time for supper.

Those days were vastly simpler and less stressful. As kids on a hot summer day we would wait beside our neighbor’s house for the predictable arrival of none other than the ice man. In those days some of our poorer neighbors had ice boxes – where the family kept things cold. Every other day or so, the ice man would come by in his horse drawn wagon to deliver ice. Upon arrival, he would read the cardboard sign in the window, which was placed to indicate how much ice was desired that day. In the process of chipping a block apart, it was certain that a few chips of ice would break off. As kids we would line up on hot summer days and beg for a piece of chipped ice. Most folks today don’t have the slightest clue as to how wonderful a chip of ice can taste as it melts in the mouth. This was real ice as opposed to modern freezer created ice cubes that are too cold to suck. Moreover, the ice back then didn’t have ‘house-a-tosis’ smells as today’s modern ice has. Our ice back then was watery and smooth – and great tasting.

Another summertime pastime was to drive a nail into the pavement of the street. A long string or twine was then attached to this nail. As kids we would then wait hours by the curb holding the string as need be in expectation that some vender to come along with his horse drawn cart or wagon. Some horses didn’t want to cross over the string – and so the big event would be when the horse would fuss or even rear up. It was worth a half a day’s wait just for that one moment of excitement. Winter days were invariably spent sledding and ice skating. Fall and spring favorite activities included climbing trees, falling into the nearby creek, choosing sides for war games, and so forth. War games were particularly engaging. Words like “Bang-bang — you’re dead,” were commonly responded to with the words “You missed me.” As kids we lived exciting days as imaginary bullets were zipping by us at virtually every moment.

When those imaginary bullets weren’t zipping past us, we were found zipping about on our bicycles. In those days, riding a bike was as common as breathing. A bicycle was the ticket to freedom, as our range of travel was vastly expanded. The age of innocence also meant that we never locked doors and never locked our bikes. The idea of being unable to master bike riding never occurred to us. If we weren’t able to ride a bike it was because time moved too slowly. Our feet and legs didn’t grow fast enough, as the prerequisite to bike riding in those days was to first to be able to reach the pedals.

As a kid in those days I lived by one rule – leave the house and don’t come back unless you are bleeding. Moreover, my father worked a long night shift at a war factory job, so his days were spent sleeping. If my brothers and I made noise around the house or yard we got scolded. Moreover, I lived in an era when it wasn’t uncommon that infants were placed in a basket on a doorstep and left to the mercies of some well-to-do family who would answer the door bell. The idea of a child being abducted was non-existent. Yes, children of wealthy families might be kidnapped, as in the case of the Lindbergh child, but for the masses most parents of the day would almost be relieved if a child didn’t come home as it would be one less mouth to feed.

As kids living in an unsupervised world we became the arbitrators of our own internal disputes. The idea of an adult intervening so as to settle our disputes was unimaginable. Of course, some wimp or cry-baby might get upset at times and run back to hide behind his mama’s apron strings, but that kid in doing so caused himself to be the equivalent of an outcast or leper. Sissies were quickly identified, and we lived in a world where one fought hard to never be labeled as a sissy. If I ever got beat up by somebody bigger or tougher – which did happen — the last thought in my mind would be to go back to admit to anybody, much less my parents, that somebody had beat me up.

When we played street games such as touch football or baseball, there were no adult umpires or referees. From my perspective, I suppose that I was an idealist and altruistic, so if somebody tagged me out in touch football, I just admitted that I had been tagged. The game went on as we were focused on having fun. The idea of arguing a call in a kid’s street game was unheard of. My self-imposed image for being forthright was important to me. Frankly stated, as I watch modern day televised sports the display of some hothead arguing a call is repugnant to me. As such, it should come as little surprise that I watch only miniscule amounts of professional or even college sports on television.

Somehow my brothers and I lived though our childhoods. We have not seemingly been injured or set back by an absence of adults hovering over us every second of our lives. My oldest brother Donald went on to get his Ph.D. in microbiology. He is to this day one of the leading microbiologists in the world. My second brother, Freddie, ended up spending the bulk of his professional life working as a technical specialist for the FAA. In my case, this web site cites a portion of my achievements in my professional life – including the innovation and founding of the world’s only program to teach children with disabilities how to ride bikes.

I’d like to share a few thoughts about the metaphor of mountain climbing – and I mean real mountain climbing. When a team endeavors to scale and climb a mountain such as Mount Everest, the reality is that the real effort goes into what I’ll call the staging. Considerable effort is put into establishing base camps for support, which in turn provide support for camps farther up. The success during the build-up stage is hard to measure as all the effort into establishing support tends to be somewhat obscured. Once the critical support camps are in place, then and only then can the assault on the final peak be attempted. The assault on the top comes about quickly – almost in a flash. The assault on the final peak seems so easy, but it is possible only when the base camps and the lower supports are in place. In my view, this is analogous to many human endeavors where great achievements are realized. I assert, and strongly so, that childhood and play during childhood are the essential elements of building support for adulthood. Any child denied his or her childhood becomes in my view an emasculated nothing.

Failure was something that didn’t exist in my kid defined world of the 1940’s. Virtually every kid directed activity had a positive outcome because what we were doing as kids was fun – by design and intent. Kids having fun exploring their world didn’t have to justify what they were doing to anybody, and certainly not adults. What we did was fun because we were free to decide each and every moment what to be doing. As an illustration, if the activity was to climb a tree or swing on a rope, short of falling it was impossible to go about the activity incorrectly.

What are the blessings of childhood? The first is that children enjoy the gift of moral innocence. The second is the gift of openness to the future. Children are free to imagine whatever might come into their minds. Adults, in contrast, become restricted by their obsession with their own plans and expectations for a defined future. Children alone are free to imagine the most improbable of adventures. A third blessing of childhood is that time is plentiful. Time drags on so slowly in our growing years that it is an impossibility to waste time. Adults, in contrast, who are anxious are deluded into thinking that time can somehow be wasted. For kids, when forced to endure some adult directed activity – and I’ll use school as an example — time is the enemy as the hands of the clock seem to be glued in place. Time seems to stop when having to endure some stuffy teacher expounding on some endlessly boring topic such as sentence diagramming, or conjugating Latin verbs, or memorizing some absurd lines from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In my mind, the real adventures in life could only start when the afternoon school bell rang signaling the moment of release from an adult imposed prison.

Jesus frequently praised children and welcomed their company. Jesus even commanded adults to emulate children,

“… unless you become like a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 18:3

Many parents today would benefit hugely by taking a reflective time-out from teaching our children dull adult directed dribble to discover how much we can learn from children. A second assignment for parents today would be to take the time out to ride a bike – and I mean really ride a bike. For example, try riding a bike no hands. Once that is achieved see if you have the courage to ride a bike with four people on board. Bikes are social. Bikes are spiritual. Bikes allow us the time to reflect on the physics and mathematics of the world. Bikes allow us to believe in ourselves, to do something perfectly, and to have faith in God’s promises.

As a disclaimer, I do not want to suggest that as a kid I did nothing other than play beyond the eyes of adults. Yes, I had chores to do such as mowing the lawn and tending the garden. As World War II came to a close I can recall being involved in all sorts of patriotic activities such as scrap metal and newspaper collection drives, and even searching in the nearby fields for milk weed pods. Yes, milk weed pods were collected and held for some great secret war related effort. As kids we guessed that it was to fill life preservers, or possibly to make parachutes. Only many years following the war did I read that the milk weed pods were tried as a material to make a synthetic rubber, but to no avail. Our family didn’t pass up an opportunity to stop our family car to pick wild elderberries growing along the roadside, as my mother used the elderberries to make homemade jelly.

What is distinctly different today in the lives of my grandchildren – is that they are burdened with homework exercises and assignments that make me cringe. My grandson Jacob, now in third grade, does more homework in a mere week that I did in perhaps an entirety of elementary school education. My heart goes out for him and the countless other children in today’s world that is driven by what I call the Asianination of Education.

Note: Some of the ideas above are from The Wall Street Journal, Opinion Page, February 9, 2011, article by James Bernard Murphy, “In Defense of Being a Kid.”

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