Back before there were drugs to calm little ones down, before recess became extinct, when organized sports were few and far between, when it was OK to play outside and you were not required to follow your kid around to “redirect” them – way, way, way back – kids were allowed and expected to be kids!
I remember my teacher education classes talking about how to handle squirmy boys and there was no mention of drugs. I remember a discussion as to how long a 3rd grader could sit. My professor basically told us we were idiots if we thought they could sit for more than 25 minutes. In today’s 3rd grade classroom I would guess 25 minutes is the shortest stretch they have to subdue their naturally wiggly bodies.
As a teacher I remember trying to figure out how to get kids to be more active at recess even though it meant our classrooms had a rather unpleasant odor every afternoon. No one expected a child to be perfect, actually, just the opposite. Rules were set and enforced through something we used to call “personal accountability.” For those of you who don’t know, that was a concept prior to always looking for someone or something to blame for a child’s behavior.
As parents and teachers we used to know how to choose our battles wisely. There used to be a concept which went something like this: some things matter and some things don’t. If it does not matter, remind and redirect. Squirming and sitting still do not matter. Getting your clothes dirty does not matter. Little kids passing gas does not matter. Wet sheets in the morning do not matter. They will grow out of such problems. If it did matter, then a parent was expected to train and hold the child accountable. Talking back to teachers and parents, that matters. Lying, cheating and stealing, those matter. Such things people will not outgrow.
As someone who works with and champions “kid causes” I read lots of parenting materials. Sometimes I am totally perplexed by some theories and beliefs. “Expert bloggers,” and “causes” crop up all the time filled with advice and a “better” understanding of how to raise our children. But instead of pleading for a return to letting kids be who they really are, we seem to be pushing extremes which are polarizing people.
One example is unstructured play. Seriously, there really is a problem today because children are lacking unstructured play. But starting a movement proclaiming that unstructured play is the answer to everything, from ADD to poor race relations is not only silly, but dangerous. Just look up in history what happened to all those kids hanging out in New York City in the 1920’s. They had all the unstructured play they wanted. No one wants a return to those street gangs! And how many of us know a child who was neglected and allowed to do whatever he or she wanted. Many grew up with serious social issues. Replacing all activity with only unstructured play is crazy.
Another example, many of us recognize that being a helicopter mom is a problem. But wanting your 8 year old child to navigate NYC subway systems, buy groceries 30 minutes away and return home all on their own is a bit much. Especially in today’s crazy world. Yet we can all admit that not letting your child go to the neighborhood playground is also silly. They need to be able to move about. Yet there are people trying to push the “free range” concept by allowing kids to move about with almost no restrictions and almost no concern for safety. Where is the moderation?
One last example. There have always been parents who discipline for the wrong reasons. But that does not mean that all punishment is evil and harmful. (Actually in my day we thought the biggest problems were children who were not disciplined, of which being punished is the final step, but were abused or neglected. Now there seems to be an ignorance between punishment and abuse, designating all punishment as abuse, but I digress.) Now there are movements with nice sounding names with words like “respectful” and “tearless” and “punishment free” promising you can parent perfectly enough to never have to use any type of punishment. (OK, I am going to digress again, and say that these philosopies often will allow for “natural consequences” but in my day we taught, exposed, warned, and punished* to prevent such consequences – it was our belief that some consequences like getting burned, run over, arrested, etc. were too big to allow, so we trained them and if needed punished them so as to avoid the really bad natural consequences in life.) With such a philosophy, if your child does not behave perfectly one of two things has to be happen. Either you have to blame yourself or you have to lower expectations. Unfortunately, I have seen both rampant in today’s parents.
Yet, I strongly believe that if we just recognize what normalcy in childhood should look like, parents could drop the guilt and drop the low expectations. We can allow for a healthy amount of unstructured play and allow for reasonable freedom. But we need to step down from our soap boxes and get a grip on what childhood should look like. And then understand what our kids need.
Let’s all agree that kids should be allowed to be:
- have accidents
- be snotty
- tired and cranky and allowed to sleep
- free to be themselves – as in NEVER compared to some kid or anyone on the internet
- someone who has learning strengths and weaknesses
- someone who has likes and dislikes, but still be expected to work through what needs to be done
- someone who has short attention spans
- difficult when having to do what their body or mind finds difficult
And let us agree to always give our children the following:
- our unconditional love
- allowance to develop at their own pace
- loving training to prepare them for what is ahead
- a lap to sit and cry on
- hugs and kisses everyday, even if they are messy
- read to or allowed to read most days
- a loving structure to thrive in
- a deep devotion to hold them to a reasonable level of accountability and enough love to hold them accountable*
- have some of the following:
- unstructured play
- structured play
- disciplines such as learning an instrument
- be expected to sit for 5 minutes plus their age
- training in basic, age appropriate manners
I have such deep sorrow watching children who are expected to be mini adults in many situations. My concerns for kids today: unhealthy, never before expected lengths of time forced to sit and be still in school ; unhealthy amounts of organized sports and structured activities causing high levels of stress; attempts to avoid “punishments” where our kids are over directed and over commanded.
A psychologist friend from Illinois, Wanda Burgund used to say, “Americans have it all backwards, we rationalize with our 2 year old and make demands of our 12 year old.” Sadly, we have moved far past that issue with even more problems with this age reversal. We slap far too many demands and expectations on our little ones, then seem to completely give up when they reach young adulthood. Our kids are expected to be little adults but our young adults are ignored and allowed to be childish.
This problem seems to hit our boys especially hard.
I wish kids could be kids again.
Mark Strohm, Jr.
* I explain these 4 steps on my parenting blog at colossians2.com: teach, expose, warn and punish and why they are so important in these 4 articles starting here: Successful Parents
Also, since one of her sons is in a few pictures above (he may or may not have his tongue sticking out), I want to give a shout out to a friend who has allowed me to photograph and post pictures of her two boys. MaryAnn writes for a blog at http://www.playeatgrow.com/. My thanks to her and her boys!