Magazine article USA TODAY

Childhood Is for Children

Magazine article USA TODAY

Childhood Is for Children

Article excerpt

DESPITE ALL THE TALK about putting children first, our society is becoming increasingly hostile to its young. How different schools and homes would be if parents and educators would defend youngsters' right to a childhood, instead of fixating on their progress and success.

The pressure to excel is undermining childhood as never before. Naturally, parents have always wanted their offspring to "do well," both academically and socially. No one wants his or her kid to be the slowest in the class or the last to be chosen in a pick-up game. Yet, what is it about the culture we live in that has made that natural worry into such an obsessive fear, and what is it doing to our children? Why are we so keen to mold them into successful adults, instead of treasuring their carefree innocence?

Jonathan Kozol, a best-selling author and children's advocate, puts it bluntly: "Up to the age of 11 or maybe 12, the gentleness and honesty of children is so apparent. Our society has missed an opportunity to seize that moment. It's almost as though we view those qualities as useless, as though we don't value children for their gentleness, but only as future economic units, as future workers, as future assets and deficits."

Of all the ways in which we push kids to meet adult expectations, the trend toward high-pressure academics may be the most widespread, and the worst. I say "worst" because of the age at which we begin to subject them to it and the fact that, for some of them, school quickly becomes a place they dread and a source of misery they cannot escape for months at a time.

In my book, Endangered: Your Child in a Hostile World, I quote Melinda, a veteran preschool teacher in California: "We have parents asking whether their two-and-a-half-year-olds are learning to read yet, and grumbling if they can't. I see kids literally shaking and crying because they don't want to go in to testing. I've even seen parents dragging their child into the room."

Childhood itself has come to be viewed as a suspect phase. Children of all ages and means are being squelched on the playground and in class, not because they are unmanageable or unruly, but simply because they are behaving as youngsters should. Diagnosed with "problems" that used to be recognized as normal childhood traits--impulsiveness and exuberance, spontaneity and daring--thousands of kids are being diagnosed as hyperactive and drugged into submission.

I am referring, of course, to the widespread use of Ritalin and to the public's fascination with medicine as the answer to any and every problem. Given the fivefold increase in Ritalin prescriptions in the last decade, one has to wonder if it isn't being misused to rein in lively children who may not even have attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder. After all, much of what is designated as ADHD is nothing more than a defense against overstructuring--a natural reflex that used to be called letting off steam or, alternately, a symptom of various unmet emotional needs.

More and more, it seems that we have lost sight of the "child" in childhood and turned it into a joyless training camp for the adult world. We have abandoned the idea of education as growth and decided to see it only as a ticket to the job market. Guided by charts and graphs, and cheered on by experts, we have turned our backs on the value of uniqueness and creativity and fallen instead for the lie that the only way to measure progress is a standardized test.

Children ought to be stretched and intellectually stimulated. They should be taught to articulate their feelings, to write, read, develop and defend an idea, and think critically. However, what is the purpose of the best academic education if it fails to prepare young people for the "real" world beyond the confines of the classroom? What about those life skills that can never be taught by putting kids on a bus and sending them to school?

As for the things that schools are supposed to teach, even they are not always passed on. …

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