The New Deficiency, Formerly Known as “Childhood”

Protect Childhood

Children have not always been seen as children.

Waaaay back in medieval times, children were simply viewed as “small adults”.  Childhood wasn’t really seen as a critical period, different from adulthood.  The same rules, expectations, and responsibilities were applied equally to children and adults.  (Hence, the child kings, child brides, child laborers, etc.)

Periods of Reformation, Enlightenment, and Industrialization shifted thinking and paved the way for 20th century theorists who recognized and studied the period of childhood as unique.

Seems obvious, right?  I mean, why did it take us hundreds of years to realize that children and adults are not the same?  That children don’t think the same way that adults do?  That they don’t know the same things adults know?  That they don’t behave the same way adults behave (well, most adults)?

Doesn’t it seem obvious now that children — humans — grow and change in a developmental pattern?

Yet it seems to be less and less obvious for some people today.

Two headlines caught my eye recently, and caused me great concern.

First this:

No Child Left Undiagnosed: The Latest Ploy to Make Childhood a Disease {Psychology Today}

I am not a psychiatrist, but I believe the author of this article is.  One thing we do have in common is that we are both alarmed that “daydreaming” would qualify as a significant symptom, worthy of treatment with stimulants.  When looking at the larger picture, the author, Allen Frances, MD, later points out:  “A prospective study using DSM-IV found that by age 21, 81 percent of kids had already qualified for one diagnosis of mental disorder”.

I’m a big advocate of mental health, but when over 80% of children qualify as having a mental disorder, perhaps it is actually our perspective of childhood that is askew, not the children.

Second headline that made me stop in my tracks:

Kindergarten Show Cancelled So Kids Can Keep Studying to Become “College and Career-Ready.” Really. {The Washington Post}

After parents complained about the annual kindergarten show being cancelled, the administration responded with a letter that said, in part, “The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.”

I’m not sure I’ve read a better response than the one in this post from Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids:

“Maybe someday those kids will be able to solve a problem like “How to get kids to read and work together?” without cancelling an event that would teach them to read and work together, like a kindergarten show.”

(PS – Those concerned with the kindergarteners’ chances for college admission should take a peek at a different headline:  Want to get your kids into college?  Let them play!  {CNN})

To me, those first two headlines (and far too many others) converge in one troubling camp, where we seem to have defined “rigor” and “performance” for young children, using adult standards and perspectives.  It’s as though we’ve decided that “success” means kids who have become “small adults”.

Unfortunately, any awareness of child development will tell you that perspective is a step backward, not forward. 

Some seem to hold to a medieval standard where the more adult-like a young child is, the better.  Childhood becomes viewed through a deficit model.  Childhood is the disease and adulthood is the cure.

Dismissing childhood doesn’t make kids more “prepared for the future”.  It only robs them of what they should be experiencing now.  That childhood period is extraordinary and powerful in and of itself.  It’s a developmental process that we’re naturally wired for.

Childhood IS what prepares kids for the future.

We want our children to become successful adults, of course.  But there’s a time and a season to it.  It’s supposed to be a long process, and not without its challenges.

As I’ve noted before, child development psychologist Alison Gopnik makes a great point when she says that across many animal species, there’s a relationship between how long a childhood a species has and how big their brains are compared to their bodies, and how smart and flexible they are.” As just one example she points to the chicken (a not so bright bird with a “childhood” of a few months) and the crow (a rather clever specimen, which matures in about 2 years).

According to Gopnik, it’s that disparity in childhood that explains why “the crows end up on the cover of Science, and the chickens end up in the soup pot.”

The naturally-driven childhood period prepares and shapes the brain.  The more intelligent and specialized the species is, the more time is required to progress through the developmental period of childhood.

So why do we still seem to think that moving kids through childhood faster is an accomplishment?

To be clear, I am in favor of rigor and standards — appropriately defined and applied, of course.  I’m also a fan of intentional growth and learning.  I’m a fan of building skills.

But I am not a fan of treating children like small, broken adults.

I support childhood.  Will you?

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38 Comments

Filed under Child Development & DAP

38 Responses to The New Deficiency, Formerly Known as “Childhood”

  1. Claire

    Did you hear me shouting “Amen” through the computer?! This is spot on and amazingly well written. Thank you for writing so passionately about this important topic. In addition to childhood being treated as a deficiency that needs to be remedied, children are also treated like robots who all need to meet the same standards. The article about the kindergarten show being cancelled should be a major wake-up call.

    • notjustcute

      Thank you so much, Claire! I’m glad the bundle of passionate thoughts I had came across clearly to you! Thank you so much for reading — and for the “amen”!

  2. Amanda

    This is so, so, so very true! I’m a preservice teacher, and can agree that the pressures placed on children in today’s climate are astronomic, and completely inappropriate for supporting childhood, growth, and development. The routine and structure of school aren’t the enemy; You’re exactly right when you pinpoint the way our society views childhood! Playing IS learning! Playing IS learning! How many times do we have to shout this, for administration and lawmakers to understand? For people to take note? It’s the voices and votes of many that will change societal views on children and childhood, and ultimately change the way we treat our nation’s most valuable resource. So keep on shouting! I second that “amen!”

  3. I couldn’t agree with you more. I remember being in a lecture during grad school and the guest speaker was voicing his disgust at the fact that 2-year-olds were being labeled as having oppositional defiant disorder. That’s what a toddler behavior is supposed to look like – oppositional (it’s not a diagnosis for a 2-year-old). We need to stop holding our young children to the same standards that we hold adults.

  4. Emma

    AMEN AGAIN!!! Too many pressures are put on kids these days as a Mum of a 6 & 4 yr old I am very concerned about the expectations put on them so young. I have a friend who was never allowed rollerskates. .or a bike..or to do anything that may cause her to fall and hurt herself. ..sadly in adulthood she has struggled with challenges life has thrown her way. ..it made me realise how important those bumps & scrapes are!! Every moment is learning when they are so young!

    • notjustcute

      What a sad story! It’s true that we learn to deal with challenges beginning in childhood. As much as we want to protect our kids, they do need those experiences. Thanks for sharing, Emma!

  5. I could not love this any more. Thanks so much for articulating this SO VERY WELL! Sharing everywhere!

  6. “Childhood IS what prepares kids for the future.” Exactly!!!!

  7. Excellent post, Amanda! It is sad to see more and more pressure to grow up fast pushed down on such young children. The long term effects can’t be good for this generation of children. Education policy decisions need to be removed from the hands of those who don’t understand children.

    • notjustcute

      “Education policy decisions need to be removed from the hands of those who don’t understand children.” Well said.

  8. Teacher

    amen!!!!!! As a very dap (luckily our program in my state is) prek teacher at a public school, I get looks of pure crazy from all the other grade levels. Maybe if kids played together in kindergarten, they wouldn’t have so many issues with eachother down the road! Were skipping developmental stages and it’s only going to hurt!

  9. Thank you for the perfectly spoken piece. You speak for so many teachers, and for ALL children. Do you know if those precious Kindergarten kids got to do their show in the end? Did right prevail?

    • notjustcute

      Nothing that I read indicated a reversal of the decision to cancel the performance, Robin. But the year’s not over, so keep your fingers crossed! :0)

  10. Rachel

    I have worked in Early childhood education for over 20 years. Its so sad I have to keep reading articles like this over and over. When are people going to get it as Amanda said PLAY is learning.

    • notjustcute

      It is frustrating, isn’t it, Rachel? I take heart, though, knowing that in the midst of these frustrating influences there are many childhood advocates like yourself who are the ones literally down on the floor with the kids. And THEY are the ones who will have the most impact in the long run. Thank you for what you do!

  11. Susan

    PLAY is a child’s work! Having spent 25+ years working with young children, my work was child’s play…providing a safe nurturing environment for them to learn, grow, and experience the world. This included “plays” and special activities planned for families…always great learning experiences!

  12. Dana

    GREAT writing and research! Loved it! As the parent of a very laid-back, outgoing, academically successful middle-school child I’d like to say that we should always be careful to ignore the pendulum-swing of the day and find a happy medium. For very young children the day is filled with opportunities to inject a little “education” into playtime – 5 minutes here and there to teach a few alphabet letters, numbers, colours or even to have an intelligent conversation without robbing your baby of his/her childhood. The label that the smart, adult-like kids you see must’ve been robbed of a childhood is also VERY wrong so please let’s not wag fingers at everyone who does things a little differently. And at the risk of doing just that – I’ll tell you that several of my friends who refused to teach their own kids (“that’s the TEACHER’s job!”) anything wound up later on struggling endless hours helping poor Johnny with too-difficult homework and having to send their kids to afterschool tutoring programs while my daughter got to play after school. How ironic is that. I kept my smugness to myself but I do realize I’m not concealing it very well here. Oops … Anyway, thanks again for a very important, thought-provoking article that I’ll be sharing widely, for sure.

    • notjustcute

      So true, Dana! The longer I live, the more wisdom I see in the middle ground. There is a sweet spot, and that spot may differ from child to child in a truly responsive environment.

  13. I was formerly a mental health advocate for children and I think your comments about the DSM, as well as the article, reflect a gross mis-interpretation of how people qualify for a mental health diagnosis. Any person can look at the DSM and find out that they have many of the qualities of many mental health conditions. I don’t know anyone who studies psychology who doesn’t find themselves reflected in the manual, because we all have those qualities in some amounts. Daydreaming is one example. Do you know anyone who doesn’t daydream? To recieve a mental health diagnosis, one must look at frequency of symptoms (does the person presents the symptom all the time, and does it impair their ability to function), at possible physical causes of symptoms (ie: hyperactivity is a symptom can be caused by many different things), and that the symptom occurs accross environments (the person presents symptom in many different environments and situations). I find that most psychiatrists and psychologists are quite good at making a correct diagnosis knowing that we all fit on a spectrum of behaviors, although often people receive a diagnosis from their regular physician who does not have the same training and expertise. This is likely where much of the sense of “over diagnosis” comes from.

    • notjustcute

      Emily- First, thank you for your advocacy for children’s mental health. I think it’s extremely important. What you hit on is what concerns me as well. Too many diagnoses are happening without proper context and training. The DSM is a tool and, just as with any other tool, can be used well or used poorly.

      You may note that “my” comments about the DSM in particular were actually a quote from Dr. Allen J Frances, professor emeritus from the department of psychology at Duke University. He was also the task force chairman of the DSM IV. I don’t want to put words in his mouth (which is why I quoted him) but from what I’ve read from him, he is concerned that changes appearing in the DSM V will lead to a much higher rate of diagnoses for people who are “essentially normal”. I agree with you that many if not most mental health professionals measure these out very carefully, but I also agree with Dr. Frances that the parameters that have been set allow for grievous misuse. Dr. Frances’ mission resonates with me as he says: “My main job now is to alert the public and clinicians on ways to contain diagnostic exuberance and to fight back against excessive and misdirected treatment for people who are essentially normal. Equally important, I will be advocating that resources be redirected towards those who are really ill and who now are shamefully neglected.”

      I want to be clear in saying that I strongly support children’s mental health services. And like you said, with strict adherence and proper training, many children are well-served by diagnoses following the DSM. But I also have great concern about the over-diagnoses of childhood disorders that stem from a) a lack of rigor in the diagnostic processes (whether due to loose standards or to a lack of training) as well as b) developmentally inappropriate expectations and environments that lead to the behavior considered “symptomatic”. I am a strong proponent of mental health services, but I am equally a proponent of education and awareness so that parents and professionals do not allow themselves to be sucked into what I call “good science, poorly applied”.

      • Emily Green-Cain

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I always enjoy your blog and the commentary.

        • notjustcute

          Thank you for adding to the conversation! You brought up a subtle point that I probably should have clarified in the post. Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  14. Destenee

    I agree children should be allowed to play and grow. As a mother of a child who will be school age soon it worries me to see the way school systems treat children these days. They are being taught too much too soon and if they don’t get it oh well. Administrators wonder why there are so many children being left behind and struggling. The whole no child left behind slogan is a joke!
    At our local Elementary there is no account for age at all the teachers/ principals expect 5 year olds to be able to sit for hours and not make a noise, move ect. And they have no problem suspending the children that do. There are no music class, no art class, no school plays and very little recess. But there are plenty of suspensions being handed out from kindergarten through 6th grade for some of the dumbest reasons. When I asked about programs like art and music I was told that with budget cuts they decided to let those classes go.
    I remember having awesome teachers as a child. They didn’t send you to the office over petty childish things like getting up out of your seat, making silly noises with your mouth or tapping a pencil on your desk. Homework was sent home with books regularly. If you were struggling with something they gave you extra work in that subject and they communicated with your parents (weekly sometimes daily if they needed to). They helped you understand. The teacher didn’t wait until April and say well he might fail he hasn’t been trying all year and just doesn’t understand the work.
    Until parents stand up and say this is not right and I will not stand for it my child is a child and will treated like one. Sadly nothing will change.

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  16. Emma

    I have 2 gorgeous boys and they are polar opposites when it comes to learning (eldest is quiet and loves colouring in and will sit still forever!) and I’m not sure their teacher understands that my youngest doesn’t have a learning or behavioural problem, he’s just turned 4 and he’s still in adventure mode! I’m not saying he’s allowed to be naughty (and he is reprimanded when naughty), but in the heavily structured environment he really struggles because he is an explorer and has an amazing imagination that is being squashed in the super structured, do this do that, no imagination, school environment!
    LET THE CHILDREN PLAY!!! let them create and they may even teach you something!!

  17. Claire O

    Great article, but as a professional working in child and adolescent mental health I just want to add that over-diagnosis is different to mis-diagnosis. If anything attentional issues are underdiagnosed and when diagnosed are treated with stimulant medication without adequate behavioural support and training to ensure the child’s social, emotional and academic success. We need to stay balanced and not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. We all know that we need to eat but over eating causes flow on issues. That is no different to attention. We all need to daydream and be taken away but when it prevents a child reaching their potential then there are all sorts of flow on effects (for self-esteem, self-confidence and the desire to learn.)
    So thank you for an interesting article,

    • notjustcute

      Thank you, Claire. You make some good points, particularly that attentional issues are often being treated only with medicine and without behavioral support, despite the research that supports a combined approach. Unfortunately, it is much easier for most people to get a prescription than it is to get adequate behavioral therapy. Thankfully, there are great professionals and centers out there, people just have to look a little harder to find them!

  18. As usual Amanda, excellent post. EXCELLENT. I too, found my jaw on the floor when I read the article regarding the cancellation of the kindergarten performance. I am saddened by what is happening to our schools as it just seems to be getting worse.

    Unfortunately, the information on the DSM you shared does not surprise me. I have been saying for YEARS that the range of “typical” has been dwindling down to a thread…that more people (and children) have some kind of diagnosis than not. How can this be?

    I’ll be sharing, as usual!

  19. Jill

    Wonderful article Mandy!

  20. This is PERFECT. Thank you for being so well written. When I needed to explain why I wanted my very capable 5 year old to only do half day kindergarten- one of the teachers really wanted to know exactly why (in a kind supportive way, mind you). I know I’m making waves a bit with my request (and I have a fully supportive principal, thankfully). But trying to articulate why- and well- wasn’t exactly easy for me. I am just going to email this link along . . . thank you, thank you! for always providing such well written and well researched (and references included) articles!

    • jones

      Mandy, You rock. I recently served on a hiring committee for a full day kindergarten teacher at a charter school touting a philosophy about the whole child. Of the 10+ applicants we interviewed only one mentioned play.

  21. Renee

    I’m not a really outdoorsy person, but I always enjoyed playing pretend, chatting with friends, and doing artsy things. I doodled because I was bored (I had grasped the concept long before), not because of ADD. I enjoyed school, I enjoyed the extra brain busters that I was offered in grade 3, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do all of the time. Overall, I liked being challenged at times, but I also developed relationships and artistic skills. I’m a high school graduate this year, and I recognize the importance of both academics and play. Because I played pretend, I want to try acting. Because I doodled ALL THE TIME, I’ve found that drawing helps me vent or relax. Because I developed relationships and did a lot of reading, I want to help people who are hurting and rebellious. Yes, academics helped me to further those goals. I’ve excelled in academics, partly of my own initiative. But they didn’t give me the goal. If we allow kids to do what they enjoy, they will find what they love to do.

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