Until about the mid 1700s, childhood wasn’t recognized as part of the lifespan. Children were viewed as miniature adults. The same rules, expectations, and responsibilities were applied equally to children and adults. (Hence, the child kings, child brides, child laborers, etc.) No one considered that children might have different needs, different ways of thinking, or different capacities. The shift in perspective that allowed adults to consider children and childhood to be unique was one of the great advances of the 18th century
And yet, I couldn’t help but think, as I read chpaters 7, 8, and 9 of What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children’s Lives (*affiliate link), that some policies and attitudes make it seem as though we’d like to regress several centuries in our thinking.
As Heather Shumaker said in her book, It’s OK NOT to Share, we have a tendency to look at childhood through adult lenses. But that egocentric view leaves kids short-changed. How can we be responsive to the needs of children if we refuse to see them as they are?
As Rae Pica points out in our read-along, there’s an unsettling trend of leaving “baby stuff” behind, so that kids can get ahead. As in, “the sooner kids can just quit acting like kids the better off they’ll be”. (A fallacy I wrote about here.) Here are the three cases in particular that were addressed in the most recent chapters of Rae’s book:
- Getting rid of nap time in preschool programs.
- “Toughening kids up” by emphasizing competition.
- “Zero-tolerance” for play themes (or any expression, really) that adults view as violent.
Through the lens of adulthood it seems clear that naps are a waste of time, a competitive drive will give our kids the edge, and violence in all forms and representations must be kept from our schools.
But when we look again at each topic with what we know about children– what they need, and how they grow– we see that naps are a basic human need, particularly in the early years. Young children are driven by pleasure and intrinsic motivators more than by outdoing others. And play themes are a natural and healthy outlet for children to process heavy topics – not least of which is the violence they see around them in many forms.
Let’s dive into each topic a bit more deeply.
Children need more sleep than adults. It’s just a developmental fact. Typical, healthy sleep patterns include naps for many 3 and 4 year-olds. This means full-day preschool programs will need nap times in order to address that vital human need. With adult lenses, it’s wasted time that can be reclaimed for a more “rigorous” purpose. But with a childhood awareness, we see it is time spent meeting essential needs.
And as usual, ignoring those needs is counterproductive.
As the many experts Rae cites will evidence, children who lack sleep have a harder time learning, a harder time behaving appropriately, and a harder time managing their emotions. So in an effort to get ahead, skipping sleep simply puts them at a disadvantage.
It’s another classic case of doing for kids now what we think they might need later. “They have to compete for spots in college and out in the workforce, so let’s toughen them up to compete now.” This one’s actually unfortunate from both the child perspective AND the adult perspective.
For young children, cooperative goals are more motivating that competitive ones. This developmental period is primed for learning new social skills. But equally compelling is the data that shows that one of the top qualities employers are looking for is not the cut-throat competitor, but someone who is able to work well as part of a team.
If our goal truly is to prepare our children for their careers and adult lives (a bit misplaced when laid on 3 year olds in my opinion, but for the sake of argument let’s stick it out) then we would do well to emphasize the cooperative skills that are also developmentally driven in the early years.
As Rae wrote on page 39: “I’ll concede that there are occasions in life when we must compete. But if we consider the number of relationships in our lives —familial, spousal, work- and community-related —we have to admit that there are more opportunities for cooperation and collaboration than competition.”
We live in an age of hyper-vigilance. It’s an unfortunate necessity. Violence and tragedy have left their mark on too many families and communities. We all want to keep our kids safe.
But punishing young children for play themes is another case of seeing childhood through adult lenses. Certainly we need to make sure that no child feels afraid or unsafe in a play situation. But beyond that, dramatic play is something we should observe, not obstruct. Dramatic play is a child’s means of processing. It’s literally therapy. So when we see complicated themes as the output, we need to analyze the input. Are they seeing violence at home? On the news? Movies? Video games? Can it be more closely monitored and reduced?
What goes in should be monitored and regulated. What comes out should be listened to, valued, and processed. Addressing the play rather than the source is like forbidding medicine while ignoring the need for hand-washing.
Are we truly doing more to promote peaceful healthy kids when we don’t allow them to work out heavy topics through play? As child development expert, Nancy Carlsson-Paige asks of these unaddressed fears and stresses, “Where does it go inside of them? How does it affect them?”
There is so much more on this topic, including how to find that healthy middle ground, in the book!
But now it’s your turn! Have you seen policies that “adultify” childhood? Instances or policies that view children through adult lenses, rather than recognizing the unique needs and experiences of childhood? Share your observations in the comments. And as always, share your questions for the author, Rae Pica. She’ll be answering YOUR questions in the last post in the series!