In many ways, childhood is being extended in the contemporary West. Until the 1960s, age 18 was considered the beginning of adulthood. Now, the average age of first marriage continues to rise, teens are encouraged to take a “gap year” before starting college, young people are permitted to be covered by their parents’ health insurance regardless of whether they are considered “dependents,” new science shows how brain development isn’t really complete until the mid-20s. Yet at the other end of the age spectrum, childhood is being truncated.
A recent article in The Atlantic by Erika Christakis documents how kindergarten and even pre-school is becoming more focused on drilling and testing, at the expense of the kind of creative play and exploratory building of social, emotional, and cognitive skills that go along with it. The pendulum has swung, as she describes it, “between a ‘protected’ childhood and a ‘prepared’ one.” Christakis argues that this is actually counterproductive. She cites research showing that such highly structured “school readiness” programs – built around direct instruction and repetitive drilling – actually led to worse performance in later grades.
Moreover, the long-term effects of placing such demands on such young children remains unclear. According to a New York Times story about the Success Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, teachers are encouraged to motivate students as young as kindergarten by fear. One teacher was video-recorded ripping a first grade girl’s paper in half, putting her in time out, and berating her in front of the class because she was unprepared to discuss a math problem. Another teacher made a kindergartener who stumbled on a math problem cry so hard she vomited.
This is reminiscent of the relentless focus on academics and performance that characterizes the “tiger mother” approach to child rearing. The sacrifice of “frivolous” activities is said to be worth the high performance of the resulting child prodigies. Yet studies show that true creativity is engendered not by hours of math problems and violin practice, but by sufficient unstructuredness during childhood. For example, in one study, the most highly creative teens in a school (top 5% by teacher rating) were compared with their less creative peers. The ordinary children had more than 6 times the number of household rules as the most creative ones. Repetition and drilling may foster skills, but not learning.
Kids have plenty of time to be adults. When they’re young, let them be kids.