Monday, March 21, 2011

Living childhood lessons

Recently, I met up with a friend who teaches both primary and secondary school kids. We were chatting about schools and kids in general, then he said some that I thought was particularly poignant: "Kids don't have time to be kids these days. I see so few of them with joy."

This statement struck me because just a couple of days before, I read an article in The Atlantic Magazine by Christina Schwarz on how many kids have been stripped of the important phase called childhood because they spend these years preparing for adulthood.

I encourage you to read the full article - it's thoughtfully written. I especially like the sub-header: Childhood is more than merely a springboard to adulthood. In essence, the article states in our rush to cram our children's time with "valuable" skills so that they can go to a good college/get a good job/get a headstart in life, we may actually be depriving them of some of the basic skills of thinking and problem-solving that kids develop through play or just by being kids.

Schwarz claims that "We seem to have returned to the 18th-century notion that play for its own sake is a waste of time, that children can be allowed to pursue their natural inclinations only if those can be channeled into activities that will prepare them to be orderly and productive (and now, God help us, “creative”) adults — even today’s play movement stresses the uplifting “educational value” of play."

In fact, she adds that "today, apparently, kids have for so long been deprived of time and space to play that they no longer know how... toys now come fully loaded with elaborate personalities and histories created for them by their grown-up purveyors. Playtime has been replaced by lessons with professionals."

If you think about it, what she says is true. In the past, toddlers simply went to the playground. Now parents sign them up for a "gym". Instead of being allowed to observe the physical world around them, kids now go to science camps. If a child likes to doodle, the parents will consider sending him for art classes. It's as if something is only of value if it's arranged in a structured or organised environment, preferably by professionals.

My friend didn't read the article but he uncannily echoed Schwarz's views when he told me that these days, kids' lives consist of a series of instructions by adults. They're told what to do, how to do it, when to do it (and in Singapore, it's almost always academic). They've never had to look after a younger sibling, find their own way home or solve any of life's little problems. If you're thinking, so what? then get this: according to him, these are also the kids who have the biggest problems academically in his school and tuition classes. He can usually tell who are the ones who've always had things handed to them on a silver platter because they've never learned how to think independently or laterally to solve a problem. Ironically, this ineptitude translates to their school work.

Schwarz quotes Robert Paul Smith, author of Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing. - "A kid needs time to lie on his back, opportunity “to find out whether he breathes differently when he’s thinking about it than when he’s just breathing” and to wonder who she’d be if her parents hadn’t gotten together. A kid needs enough downtime to be bored, yes — bored enough to stare at the sky and study the imperfections in his own eyeball."

If I were to convert this into pragmatic suggestions, it means letting kids have some unstructured play time (computer games don't count). In addition, a little responsibility doesn't hurt. My friend is an advocate of letting kids handle some chores, even if it's as simple as getting their own lunch. Through responsibility, kids learn to solve life's daily problems.

Critics may say Schwarz's view is a tad idealistic, afterall, times have changed drastically. The world we live in today is vastly different from the slow pace of life back in the 1950s quoted in the article. But if we realise that childhood has intrinsic learning value in itself, then by removing this phase of the equation and treating children as miniature adults, we're actually doing them a disservice because we're handicapping them in fundamental skills.

As Schwarz says, "childhood is not just preparation for “real life,” it’s a good portion of life itself." We all want our kids to do well in life. Perhaps then we shouldn't deprive them of such an important chunk of it.


Anonymous said...

This post struck a note with me. Have been struggling the past week. Despite the 1 week holiday, my P5 son had to go to school full day 7.30am-5.30pm for 3 days for various school arranged enrichment activities. Rest of the holidays were spent busy completing homework assigned by school. Not much time to relax for him. My hubby and I do feel sorry for him but could not do much. Schools need to play a big part of not assigning too much work and of course, we as parents, need to be conscious and try to attain a better balance for the children.

I wonder if this is just a problem in Singapore or worldwide.


monlim said...

TW: The one-week hols in SG are never holidays! Like you said, kids have to go back to school or "holiday" activities (which are usually academic enrichment programmes) or spend their time finishing up a ton of homework. It's even worse when the kids are in p6, it's supplementary classes all the way.

This kiasu syndrome is a vicious cycle. I don't think it's limited to Singapore though, it's an Asian phenomenon. Just look at the cram schools in Japan and Korea.

Anonymous said...

tw, you can't imagine how much I'm resenting the school system right now.

I think children has always spend part of childhood preparing for adulthood, but the key difference is they used to do so on their own terms. Maybe not totally, but certainly they have much more autonomy. Now, everything is dictated to them. For goodness sake, even solving a sum like 19-5 is dictated to them in a three step process shifting number bonds from here to there and that's supposed to be the latest in Maths syllabus. Since when does 19-5 take THREE steps to answer??

gnashing my teeth,

monlim said...

Iris: Sounds like you've got a bad case of the SG-school-system-angst syndrome! I've been there, can totally empathise. There's a long road ahead of you yet so take a deep breath and think zen :)

ada said...

Thanks for sharing the article & your thoughts, Mon. They struck such a cord with me. The contrast I've been noticing lately of how my 2 kids spend their time - Audrey in P2 and Anthony in K1 - showed me how easily and quickly their childhood and their spirit can disappear under endless piles of homework, tests, classes...

I particularly liked how succinctly he put it at the end about childhood being "a well of rich individual perception and experience to which you can return for sustenance throughout life, whether you rise in the world or not. Children have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain."... Much needed reminder of why it's worth going the extra mile as parents to try keep that zen and strike a balance so that our kids can enjoy childhood 'their' way! :D

monlim said...

Ada: Absolutely, I find that once the kid enters the school system, the spirit is dampened somewhat, what with keeping up with exams, homework, etc. We need to keep the innocence for as long as possible. Our kids need time to dream!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with Schwarz but no power to change the situation which is a common phenomenon. I totally dislike the way we are living the end, I don't think excellence is achieved but I see unhappy teachers, students, parents and education leaders everywhere. We stretch ourselves so thin that any deviation to the course sparks off a negative emotion or energy. I have seen parents flown into rage and became have teachers. But are they truly like this or circumstances have short-circuited their responses?


monlim said...

QX: It's hard cos of our environment and I know there are people in the relevant authorities who think keeping up this pressure cooker environment is the way to go to achieve excellence. Bah. No way to make a positive change when there are still people who think like this.

gudli said...

well Written.Keep writing.

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