Most of us know the experience of messing up and then compounding our mistake as we try to fix it. When we hit the snooze button too many times, leave late for work, speed to get there on time, and get a ticket on the way, arriving even later than we would have if we’d driven the speed limit. Or when we try to solve an argument with a loved one with a comment that seems brilliant at the time, only to find ourselves in a bigger argument about what we meant by the comment.
As a species, we have perpetrated innumerable variations on this theme. We dump toxic fertilizers on land that we’ve drained of nutrients by over-farming. We get deeper into wars to finish what we’re not sure why we started. And so on. Clearly this is a very human trait, and we are obviously immune to the lessons of our collective or personal histories.
I find myself a witness to this pattern currently playing out between young people and their parents. First, we shower our kids with media that absorbs them and keeps them inside their rooms all the time. They get lazy, withdrawn, and obese, so we realize our mistake (or at least that being lazy, withdrawn, and obese can’t be good) and try to fix it by signing them up for an endless succession of good, healthy social activities.These activities—soccer, track, tae kwon do, etc.—are most assuredly good and healthy, and hopefully our kids get more outgoing and fit, but in a key way we’ve compounded our mistake. Our first mistake—the video game/iPhone/portable dvd player mistake—involves substituting a mediated, corporate, adult vision of childhood for one that flows more naturally from the nature of the child or the character of the family. Our second mistake—the structured-activities-as-antidote mistake—further supplants children’s inherent need (and ability) to shape their own environment and discover their own best path.
If the mass-marketed, mediated trappings of the modern world suck something important out of our kids (like our corporately farmed monocultures do with the soil), then the last thing we should do is to try to save them by filling them up with more of our draining, adult-driven ideas of what they need. Just like many organic farmers are getting back to a system of rotating their fields to give them time to recover, we need to find the time, space, and will to provide our children chances to regenerate from what the media-driven world fills them with and extracts from them.
It may seem challenging to identify the best alternatives to compounding our mistakes, to find safe and stimulating periods of fallowness for our children. Some of us our doing just that, though, and trying to spread the word. Maybe just like you can find organic produce or free-range meat almost anywhere now, you’ll be able to easily find amazing unstructured play spaces in five years. Sometimes the best way to fix a mistake is not to give more of the same, but to give something back.