In my years of teaching, and now parenting in Northern Virginia, I have observed this crazy phenomenon that makes me want to run into the country with my family and recreate some form of a straightforward existence- channeling the Ingalls family from “Little House on the Prairie” or some other romantic notion of what it means to live simply. Of course, then I realize I’m not really into manual labor and I really like people so rural farm life may not be for me.
This phenomenon is the belief that children need to be more than what they are. They need to be reading more (and before all the other kids in their class). They need to be doing more math, working with higher numbers and getting to the answer quickly- no deliberating. They need to be more than a first grader. They need to be a first grader preparing to be a second grader, preparing to be a third grader…..graduating from an Ivy League school.
I’ve spoken with parents so wracked with anxiety about what’s next for their child, concerned about how prepared they are for what the future holds, that it becomes clear to me why this child is struggling in school. This child is paralyzed by the pressure, by the fear that what he or she is is not enough. I can understand this. If the most important adults in a child’s life are always looking right past them, at what they can do, rather than who they are, then that child will always feel their self-worth is tied to what they can accomplish, what they can produce.
Don’t get me wrong. I have high expectations for my children, as I’ve always had for my students. But I know, with certainty, that what kids really, desperately need is more time and more breathing room, our littlest ones especially. Reading may take time. Grasping addition with regrouping may take even more time. Our children are going to be okay. In fact, they will be better than okay if we give them this luxury of time.
What would it take to give this to our children? To give them time and space without fear or anxiety. Ultimately, it takes trust. It takes believing that the natural development of children, of childhood, is worth nurturing. For those of us who can’t take this leap of faith without cold-hard evidence, the research is out there. Imaginative play leads to closer relationships through adulthood. Time to be bored, to be unscheduled (instead of Kumon class or intensive Ipad use) allows for skills such as self-direction and self-regulation to develop. Time with books, yet delaying formal reading instruction until children are ready, leads to better reading and writing skills down the road. Time to learn, to wonder, to explore. Time to be quiet. These aren’t things we need to schedule for our kids, but are innate parts of who they are. We just need to provide the right environment and get out of the way.
If we are to believe in childhood, then we need to abandon the idea that children are just “little adults” that need the appropriate training and adequate dose of vigilance. Maybe it means we need to reevaluate our definition of success. Is it academic achievement? Really? Is it status and/or money? The research is out on this too and the results are not promising.
Maybe it means reevaluating what it means to have “high expectations” for our children. Maybe it means we expect them to be children- joyful and silly and appropriately distracted. Maybe it means we expect them to be respectful and kind and curious. Maybe it means we expect them to try their best, but be nothing more than who they are right now, worthy of love and acceptance untethered to our own narrow definition of success.