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Time to be children

Author warns of pushing children harder and harder to succeed

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It's no secret that parents are under enormous pressure to raise healthy, bright and trouble-free kids. But some parents err on the side of over-caution, says William C. Crain, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist, activist and a professor of psychology at City College of New York.

Crain's book, Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society, warns of the dangers of pushing children harder and harder to succeed. In this interview, Crain outlines his essential advice to parents: Let kids be kids, and stop obsessing about their future.

Ethan Gilsdorf: In your book, Reclaiming Childhood, you complain about our children's hectic after-school schedules, long hours of homework and ever-increasing pressure in the classroom to succeed. What's so bad about successful kids?

Dr. William C. Crain: Today, we are so obsessed with the child's future that we act like a house-builder whose mind is so fixed on the exterior image of the final product that the builder forgets about the need for a strong foundation.

EG: Where does this obsession come from?

Crain: We value trend-setters and believe that we should always have a goal, plan or vision. So we automatically assume that our children's future is what counts. But we need to pay attention to children's present lives, too.

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EG: Are you saying it's OK for students to slack off?

Crain: It's a common misconception that unless we direct and push children, they will just loaf.

EG: So adults fundamentally misunderstand child development?

Crain: There's an adult arrogance, which is that everything children learn is because we teach it, or [that] we have to teach it or else they won't learn.

EG: It sounds like you're cautioning parents against being their children's first teachers.

Crain: Parents have trouble just standing back and giving their children a chance to learn things on their own. A 1-year-old at the beach will spend several hours totally engrossed in investigating sand. Young childhood is not a time when rational analysis and formal instruction are natural. Henry David Thoreau once said, "Education makes a straight-cut ditch out of a free, meandering brook."

EG: What good is poetry, theater and drawing when kids will probably end up spending their adult workdays staring at a computer screen manipulating data, anyway?

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Crain: If we curtail our children's time for the arts, we send the message that we don't value their most creative impulses, and we restrict their natural development. Adults are, in effect, stunting their growth.

EG: Whereas many artists yearn to be children again.

Crain: Young children's accomplishments in the realms of dramatic play, the arts, language development and sensitivity to nature are extraordinary often superior to those of adults. Picasso and Klee have said they tried to recapture the creativity of young children. Einstein said that he attributed his genius to the fact that he grew a little more slowly than others, and so he had more time to be a child.

EG: You also feel nature is crucial to kids.

Crain: Children love animals, soil, trees, and ponds. They build shelters under large bushes or model towns in loose dirt, and many of their poems and drawings depict animals, brooks, flowers, stars, the wind. And when they have time in natural settings, they develop a sense of peace and belonging in the world.

EG: How has the classroom changed since you were a student in the 1950s?

Crain: I don't think kids have ever liked school very much, but school was easier in the 1950s.

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EG: Easier?

Crain: Today, formal academic demands are increasing at younger and younger ages even kindergarten and earlier. Under the pressure of the standards movement of the past two decades, test-prep now dominates school life. And this instruction is so dull and tedious that it destroys the child's natural enthusiasm for learning.

EG: What about computers? Don't they make learning fun?

Crain: The computer does have a seductive power. You push a button and things happen. There's almost a magical power. But the computer goes at a speed that is too fast for deep thought.

EG: Has the teaching profession changed?

Crain: Teachers have been de-professionalized; their judgments no longer count. They gear instruction to the tests.

EG: You've asked your students about meaningful learning experiences. What did you find out?

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Crain: I did survey my college classes and asked them to think of a moment they felt good about over their school lives. No one said a high test score. Even those who did well didn't feel good about them.

EG: Did you pressure your own children to succeed?

Crain: I did. I fell into the same traps. It's hard to resist the pressures, and to not think about where you're children are heading and what they will achieve in life.

EG: But you also declined an invitation to place your daughter in a fifth-grade gifted-and-talented program. Do you now regret that decision?

Crain: When my wife and I were invited to send our daughter to our district's "elite" group, we declined. It was a difficult decision, but we had great faith in her capacity to develop and to do well in life without these tracking systems. As a school board member in an integrated community, I was leading a battle against them.

EG: To what do you attribute the growing resistance to all this high achievement?

Crain: Many parents live with a constant dread of a judgment day the day college acceptances come in the mail when their success or failure as parents will be visible to all. This preoccupation makes parents, as well as children, nervous wrecks.

EG: So what advice do you give parents who'd like to ratchet down the pressure to succeed?

Crain: The advice that I'm giving is ancient. It's in Ecclesiastes: "Everything in its own time." Childhood has it own time. Argue with the schools, go to board meetings and say, "We really want the kids to have summer vacation. We really want recess. We really don't want to pave over that garden the kids like to explore." It takes a lot of active work on the part of the parent to give children the time to be children.

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