Just over two years ago, like most parents, my wife Kerry and I did the unthinkable. We entered the bedroom of our then third grader, Ella, on a cold Sunday night, and tried to communicate, in age-appropriate language, the unspeakable tragedy of Sandy Hook.
We did this against our better judgment. We did this to protect her from inadvertent comments from other children on the bus or playground. That night, we left her room with a piece of her innocence that will never be restored.
Sometimes life crashes down on us, forcing our hand. In our hearts, we knew that she was not ready for this information, nor could she truly comprehend it. At the time she was merely 8 years old. However, we felt powerless, similar to the feeling while standing at the shore watching a violent surf crash just in front of you. We felt tiny and helpless.
Moments like this happen. But, moments like this ought to be the exception and not the rule. As adults, we can, and should, pause to consider the moments when adults seize the innocence of childhood. We should pause because they are counting on us to do so.
Some say the measure of a civilization is how it treats its oldest, youngest, and most vulnerable citizens. In an era of overexposed, overscheduled, overstimulated, overanxious, and overstressed children, I’d say our civilization needs to take a long look in the mirror.
As a father and an educator, I believe it is time to categorically restore childhood. Childhood is not some mythical, romantic concept memorialized in literature and film. Childhood is real. The innocence of childhood is not only real, but it is fundamentally necessary. It is the foundation of human development upon which all adult stages of development rely.
The fragile thread that runs through childhood is fraying as a result of a culture that has lost its moorings. Wrongheaded education policies, reckless media, and pathological pressure cooker achievement environments (academic and athletic) indulge adults while leaving kids hollow and empty.
The result is an emptiness that cannot be filled by reactive therapeutic or pharmacological care. Alas, this “race to nowhere” is littered with vain academic pursuits, anxious students, and child athletes pressed to unnaturally accelerate their development in unhealthy, harmful competitive environments.
Over the past decade, schools have deteriorated into data factories, reducing children to mere numbers, with a perverted ranking and sorting of winners and losers in high stakes testing schemes. And now, a new test promising to revolutionize education will produce yet more meaningless data for adults starving to exploit children for self-gain, selfish career aspirations, blind ideological ploys, or for the purposes of establishing high property values on the backs of children, all the while sorting out which 8 year olds are on track to be “college and career ready”.
Even at the classroom level, children suffer from the unintended consequences of well-meaning adults unaware of the ways that children naturally develop and grow. Frivolous homework policies invade private family time and rob children of necessary unstructured time to develop executive functioning.
Play, the natural way children learn, is reduced to filler, barely acknowledged for the critical role it fulfills in child development. No one questions why the caged bird flies as soon as the cage door opens, nor should they question why children naturally play at a moment’s notice.
Even perhaps the most fundamental function of schools, the teaching of reading, has succumbed to the ignorance of this era. New standards and tests with a myopic focus on text without regard for the reader (i.e. the child actually doing the reading), without regard for their interests, knowledge, and passions, will serve to further disengage children from the splendor of reading and give students more reasons to see school, and reading, as irrelevant.
With unprecedented childhood poverty rates, an explosion in the identification of attention deficit disorder, recent reports of soaring teenage suicide rates, one thing is clear: the violation of childhood knows no boundaries.
Children from all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds are victimized by adult ignorance of child development. Sadly, those who have successfully shown the way, such as the revered Dr. James Comer of the Yale Child Study Center, no longer have the prominent seat at the table they deserve and our kids need.
We are left with a flagrant disregard for how kids naturally develop and grow, the consequences to which will have a creeping catastrophic effect.
Sometimes life does indeed force our hand. One careless wrong turn, one fractured family, one tragic medical report, can strip a child of his or her naturally endowed childhood. However, as adults, we are responsible for this sacred stage of development.
It is time to pause. They are counting on us to do so.
Thomas Scarice is the town of Madison’s superintendent of schools.