I was saddened to learn of a recent teenage suicide, in which the boy who took his life apparently felt that he had screwed up so badly that the only recourse was to take his life. Why in the world would a seventeen-year-old from a good family and with a bright future think that ending his life was the only option he had left?
I believe that there are too many pressures on today’s kids, and you can see it in the way we structure their days. Think about the schools in which the arts and recess have been cut. What message are we sending? That sitting at a desk and making the right test score is the most important thing.
I jokingly lectured a dad of one of my preschoolers at the beginning of this school year that there’s nothing more developmentally appropriate for her to do than play. “Her Harvard application isn’t due for a few years,” I said, and I thought he would laugh, but the look he gave me said, I couldn’t disagree with you more. My question is, if she’s already being discouraged from letting her imagination run wild at the age of four, when exactly does she get to be a kid?
One of the tasks of a preschool teacher is, indeed, to evaluate the readiness of students to move on to the next level—but we’re talking kindergarten, folks, not the Ivy League. In considering one child in particular—a child who has all kinds of processing and attention and core strength issues—a comment was made that 10 years ago, he would have happily played through his preschool days and moved on to kindergarten with no one ever considering holding him back. But instead, he’s having all kinds of interventions to make sure that he can make it through preschool. And it’s not like he’s the only one.
As I already mentioned, children are losing many opportunities to express themselves creatively and physically with the loss of arts programs and recess, but the problem is that it’s not just at school where this is happening. Within the past 10 years, we’ve had the advent of the touch screen. We have a number of iPads designated for our classroom, and although our four- and five-year-olds love them, there is a marked difference in the way they behave when we bring them out. It places them in self-absorbed bubbles, and if that reminds you of anyone (ahem, teenagers and Millennials), then I hope you’re disturbed enough to want to reverse this trend. When you’re four and five years old, this kind of technology should be used sparingly, if at all, and LEGOs, building blocks, puzzles, and play kitchens should be the norm. (Here’s a great article about the dangers of turning over smartphone technology to our kids.)
At the end of 2016, I wrote about spending less time with my own technology (social media, in particular), and although I’ve really enjoyed putting my phone and down and breaking that addiction, I’m just one person. In this digital age, it’s more and more common to see families sitting around the dinner table, parents and older kids on their devices, ignoring the smallest members, who are literally screaming for attention. When asked recently by a workshop facilitator why we have K through 12 education (and in my case, PreK), it occurred to me that teachers have to provide more than the three R’s anymore; present day teachers are also teaching the things that children should be learning at home. Take manners and respect. It’s difficult expect a child to behave appropriately when he engages in disrespectful behavior right in front of his parents with no correction. These basics aren’t being taught at home because parents are mentally elsewhere, which gives people in my position an extra responsibility in addition to teaching letter and number recognition.
As infants, children are learning to swipe on a touch screen. Then when they start school, we teachers have to introduce their parents to such novel ideas as coloring with crayons, playing with Play-Doh, and painting at an easel—and paying for occupational therapy. For most children, if they’d just engaged in developmentally appropriate play to begin with, their parents wouldn’t have to incur this added expense just to teach them how to hold a pencil or use a pair of scissors.
I understand why technology is so attractive—it’s a great babysitter—but we have to understand that it can easily turn to junk food for the brain. There’s no substitute, in my book, for a box of LEGOs in the middle of the living room floor, a coloring book and crayons at the kitchen table, or a few minutes of introducing children to a beloved book. (Here’s an article about what parents of “good” kids do.)
More and more, we’ve come to expect that kids are just going to be tortured and inattentive while they sit at desks for extended periods, and that just shouldn’t be the case. A well-rounded childhood should include playing outside unstructured, which means that we shouldn’t micromanage every minute. One of the methods we use in our preschool to help children get ready for our “work” time is to let them run outside and play. In fact, I have one student who will hit the wall, and I’ve learned to just let him go and play with blocks for a few minutes, and he’ll be better able to finish a project after getting this little break. Here is one article, and here’s another, that both explain why the absence of play is leading to attention and sensory issues in this upcoming generation.
Kids can be kids when we sing silly songs in the car and at bath time, when we read books together, and, most of all, when we take the time to express why we do things the way we do. It doesn’t take any extra money, but it does take time and the willingness to put our children first. By connecting with them in these simple ways, we’re showing that we care, and if you don’t think that matters, then why did you have children to begin with?
Instead of raising techno-zombies and expecting them to succeed from the moment they show an interest in learning, we need to spend the effort to let them know that whatever they do, their lives are worthwhile. They need to learn how to fail, so they won’t expect everything to be handed to them without ever lifting a finger. They won’t be crushed when life, inevitably, is unfair. Instead, they’ll tackle challenges with creativity and resiliency. They’ll take responsibility for their actions and understand that other lives are being impacted as well, and they’ll have respect for those other lives.
In short, as long as we understand that throwing our hands in the air and doing the easy thing is not the best thing, then there’s the chance that this next generation will give aging Millennials the opportunity to say, “What’s with this generation? How’d they end up so well-adjusted? Oh, that’s right. We raised them that way.”