Sunday, February 20, 2011

"Liber"ty Lost (For Mary O)

“The essence of childhood, of course, is play, which my friends and I did endlessly on the streets that we reluctantly shared with traffic.”—Bill Cosby

Most of the people I went to school with never went to college. They became waitresses, pumped gas, cut hair, got their plumbers’ licenses or went into construction. There was no real pressure to go to college. Some of us did; many did not. It was okay, either way.

We were the children of the Sixties and the goal was to experience life and not get hung up on money and status. The thinking was that if you loved what you did, eventually the money would follow.

Somewhere along the line, life sped up and those values tumbled by the wayside. Parents began queuing their children for just the right nursery school and the best secondary schools. Not to be outdone by competing parents, the little ones’ schedules were filled with piano, dance, sports and other activities that left them little time to play and dream.

I never had homework until the fourth grade, and never more than an hour’s worth until I reached high school. Today, from first grade on, students have an alarming amount of homework. When my daughter was in fourth grade, she was given so much that she began after school and usually finished around 11 p.m., exhausted and in tears. I finally sat down with the teacher and told her I would allow my daughter to do one hour of homework. After that, it would go undone. Despite this lapse of homework, my daughter went on to a fine college and has a good-paying job.

Nothing says childhood like singing in the forest or driving a truck.
What is the result of all this scrambling to cram our kids' heads with knowledge and talent? In essence, in and out of school, our society is training this generation NOT to relax. There is simply no time for it.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”—Frederick Douglass

Don’t listen to me on this one. Take it from an expert. According to a recent article in by Professor Peter Gray* of Boston College:
  1. Rates of depression and anxiety among young people have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years, with five to eight times as many high school and college students suffering from major depression and anxiety disorders than half a century ago.
  2. Anxiety and depression rates among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than today.
  3. Anxiety and depression occur when people feel little or no sense of control over their own lives. Data indicate that young people's belief that they have control over their own destinies has declined sharply over the decades.
  4. One theory suggests that increases in anxiety and depression can be related to a shift from "intrinsic" to "extrinsic" goals. Intrinsic goals have to do with one's own development as a person—such as becoming competent in one’s chosen endeavors and developing a meaningful philosophy of life. Extrinsic goals have to do with material rewards and other people's judgments. They include goals of high income, status and good looks. An annual poll of college freshmen shows that most students today list "being well off financially" as more important to them than "developing a meaningful philosophy of life," while the reverse was true in the 1960s and '70s.
  5. Children's freedom to play and explore on their own, independent of direct adult guidance, has declined greatly in recent decades. Free play and exploration are how children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, and develop and effectively pursue their own interests.
  6. By not allowing children to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives, which increases the chance that they will suffer from anxiety, depression and various other mental disorders.
  7. During the same half-century or more that free play has declined, school and school-like activities (such as lessons out of school and adult-directed sports) have risen in prominence. Children today spend more of their life in school than ever before. More weight is given to tests and grades than ever before.
  8. In school, children learn quickly that their own choices and judgments don't count; what matters are the teachers' choices and judgments. The goal in class is not competence but good grades. Given a choice between really learning a subject and getting an A, the great majority of students would, without hesitation, pick the latter.
  9. The constant testing and evaluation in school—which becomes increasingly intense with every passing year—is a system that very clearly substitutes extrinsic rewards and goals for intrinsic ones. It is a system that is almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.
“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”—Stacia Tauscher

Even technology can contribute to the stress bandwagon. Due to the constant chatter of cable television, online video games, social networks and cell phones, it is difficult to disconnect from others and have a moment of isolated thought. If the Internet goes down or a cell phone is caught in a dead zone, young people often feel stranded. Many have not learned how to be comfortable with quiet and solitude. Is it any wonder that they seem to be suffering in record numbers from anxiety and depression, something I never even heard about when I was young?

So let’s put things into perspective. Money, status, appearance: facade. Competence, self-possession, personal peace: substance. What do our children really need? Personal space. Ironically, the insightful language of the ancient Romans expressed it best: The Latin word for "child" is "liber," which also, coincidentally, means "free, independent and unrestricted."

*Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College, is a specialist in developmental and evolutionary psychology and author of an introductory textbook, Psychology. To read the entire article by Peter Gray, go to:

1 comment:

  1. Virtually all the of the kids I grew up with went to college and yet we still had the free time to develop and pursue outside interests. Going back further, to the early sixties, we also enjoyed long stretches of unstructured time that no adults had to plan, pay for, or drive us to: it was called "going out to play," and it took place on porches, in back yards, and like good 'ol Cosby, on semi-quiet streets.

    These things let us see and be seen by peers, let us develop identities and individualities that guided us through subsequent choices.
    Thirty years later, most of that was crowded out for my kids under the burden of huge amounts of homework. We seem to give our middle school and high-schoolers much longer working days than we have ourselves, and that's saying something.

    It is out of hand. See the backlash to the "Tiger Mother" book; that's a good first sign.