A child is a person, not a product. We know this, but somehow it doesn’t always translate into the way we raise our children. We want the best for them, and as adults we know that the world can be competitive and unforgiving. So we try to make sure that they have the skills they need to compete in the twenty-first century.
But we define skills narrowly, and we apply the adult perspective that helps us organize our world. This perspective features resume-thinking and objective measures like achievements, productivity, and return. It leaves out more amorphous concepts that come instinctually to kids such as trial-and-error, discovery, and invention. We forget that a child’s horizon is much closer than an adult’s, and that what really matters is what you’re doing.Consider two kids I know, Alex and Thad, both eleven. Both boys’ parents have enough money to send them to private schools and engage them with summer programs. Alex’s summer consists of eight scheduled activities: tutoring in Writing, tutoring in Math, Spanish lessons, Violin lessons, tennis camp, computer camp, movie camp, and church group. Alex lives in a neighborhood of gated houses with no sidewalks, and he doesn’t go to school with any kids his age who live within a mile of his house. He has little free time, and what free time he has he mostly spends playing X-Box, Nintendo Wii, or Playstation (he and his brothers have all three).
Thad has two summer activities: “prefect” at a Harry Potter camp that he has attended for several years, and programming camp. He has a lot of free time, which he divides between making forts with his neighborhood friends in the backyard, concocting “potions” out of various household items, and reading. His family doesn’t have a video game console, and Thad doesn’t have an iPod or cell phone.
When you first encounter these kids, both seem happy. Alex especially is extremely polite. If you spend more time with them, however, you notice that Alex is more passive and less curious than Thad. He rarely asks the kinds of questions that kids are famous for—“Why … how … but what if …?” Thad asks these questions constantly, in between proposing solutions to a wide range of technological problems you’ve never noticed. You can tell within minutes of meeting him that Thad has an active imagination.
Obviously, Alex and Thad are just two youngsters who could simply have different intellects and personalities. But as a teacher and tutor I’ve met hundreds of kids, and these two boys are representative of differences I consistently see between kids whose lives are highly structured by adult-designed activities and kids who have time and space to make up stuff to occupy their time.
To me the most important thing about a child having unstructured, unmediated time is that the child gets to make something out of nothing. Whatever the child comes up with he has a stake in, and he gets to see what happens as his ideas come to fruition. He may have moments of brilliance or he may make mistakes, but either way he builds a sense of his interests, abilities, and limitations, and he gains confidence in the process of making his way in the world.
In future posts, I will explore this idea in some detail through stories of my own childhood and stories of other kids I’ve known. I’ll talk not only about how a less structured childhood builds confidence and a sense of self, but also how it fosters creativity, problem-solving skills, and “cross-disciplinary” thinking. I hope these stories will help you think about your own children or children you know, and the chances they have to just be kids.