Let Children be Children

With June just a few days away, I am thinking about the “first day of school” and how my mom would painstakingly cover my new books with pretty wrappers, lay out crisp school uniforms and immaculately clean socks, and load my bag with the charming pencil box with pop-up nooks.  If these bits and pieces were not enough to bribe a child for school, what else would?  With June came the rains, as if nature wept for the lost days of frolic and fun.  It was a time to shed my shorts and tsinelas, don the blue and white armor, wear my black Greg boots and march to school.

And then I realized that for the children of today, even summers are much shorter.  Gone are the carefree days of summer when children have nothing to do but play. Instead, summers are filled with enrichment activities, ballet, cooking, swimming, art, piano, Kumon, and preparatory classes that would jump-start them for June. Some have gone as far as sending their tots to school when they could barely walk, let alone talk!

As with everything in the modern world, children are being pushed too far and too fast.  We are on a quest to create “Superkids” who have to be stronger, smarter and more gifted than the next kid.  As our culture equates happiness with success, our children are being goaded to outperform every kid on the block, grow up quickly, think and act like an adult.  Ironically, as we manipulate their childhood to create our prodigy, we often do the opposite.  When our children are hurried, they become exhausted and sluggish. When they are required to live up to our expectations, they become anxious and so they cannot perform. When we push them intellectually, they suffer from burnout and a sense of failure.   While our mini-me’s seem like little adults, the deeper reality is that they are still children.

I am guilty of dragging my two-year-old to ballet and swimming lessons, with the sincere thought that this was going to give her a “cut above the rest.”  After all, every girl loves to dance.  And swimming, well, it’s important for survival.  Growing up, I went to ballet and swimming too and was fond of both.  But what I forgot was that I learned ballet when I was 7 years old and my limbs had fully matured.  I learned to swim when I was 10, when I insisted that my mom enrolled me in swim class.  Until then, I was left free reign to dance to my heart’s content.  I went to swim in our neighbor’s pool (sometimes sneakily) and learned to hold my breath underwater and tread on my own.  No wonder my daughter just wanted to wear her pretty tutu and ballet slippers while she twirled around the house.  No wonder she preferred splashing about in the small pool while waiting for her swimming classes to start.

And what about early education?  How do you explain the children in diapers who are already learning letters and numbers!  We push them too early when their minds, heart, and bodies are still not ready.  There is tremendous pressure in our society to teach reading, writing and math to children at an increasingly early age.  But child experts Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and Piaget are unanimous in their view that a young child should not be taught cognitive work directly. Instead, they should learn through direct life experiences. Jane Healy, bestselling author of “Your Child’s Growing Mind” even opines that “reading problems can be created by forced early instruction…[T]he immature human brain neither needs nor profits from attempts to jump-start it.”  She adds that “studies show that four, five and six years olds in heavy academic classes tend to become less creative and more anxious, without gaining significant advantages over their peers.”  Dr. David Elkind, author of “The Hurried Child,” advises parents to let children be children. His research suggests “students are more likely to have academic success if they were not hurried through their early childhood by parents who overestimate their child’s competence and overexpose them to academic experience.”

Parents want what’s best for their children. But why do we stress them with the unnecessary and push them so hard? We dream big for our children and so bombard them with the big stuff, too fast and too soon.  Maybe, we just don’t know how to do it otherwise.  We naturally want to give our children the best start in life.  So, if Jane’s daughter goes to ballet, art and gym, my daughter deserves the same, even more.  Maybe, we are busy building our careers and have little time to really raise our children.  And so in the midst of it all, we nurse our guilt feelings with the assurance that our children are being taught what they need to survive in this world. We mean well and yet we forget to listen to our children, relying instead on what this mother said, what media dictates, and what society makes us believe is right.

I am no expert.  Child-rearing has been the most difficult course to learn (it sure beats law school and all the graduate courses in the world.) But I have learned to trust in the subtle lessons of Life itself.  Let your children be your guide.  They are more in touch with their bodies, mind and heart than you will ever be.  Just let them be. Watch them play, as it is how they make sense of the world.  Spend time with them.  They relish your stories, your songs, even your left-footed dance.  They revel in drawing with you, are certain that your baked cookies taste better, and delight in swimming time with you. All the enrichment classes summed up together cannot approximate the richer lessons of Life itself. Remember how they are still children.  They may act grown up, but they don’t feel grown up.  They may speak like adults, but they are still little angels.  When all else fails, look back on your childhood. It was a remarkable part of your life, one that has shaped and molded you. And it was filled with irreplaceable moments of unstructured, unhurried, and unbidden play.  So let your children be children.  Don’t rush them lest they miss out on the magic that is childhood.

Your children are not your children.  They are the Sons and Daughters of Life’s longing for itself… – Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

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