Children Deserve the Promise of the Declaration of Independence

Children of today are quite oppressed in a certain sense, but they are far less likely to defy elders than were children of the 60s.  The photo here is of a youth demonstration outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

[Note: I originally published this article last year around Independence Day. I'll publish it every year until I start to get some screaming agreement from parents and/or kids. ; ) ]

Children’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are at a low point in America.

Parents highly restrict their children’s freedom to go outside and play, both directly by limiting their ability to roam outside and indirectly by filling up their schedules with adult-led structured activities. Most schools have either eliminated recess or severely restrict it, and they also increasingly dole out homework, which eats into children’s precious free time at home.

When I hear about oppressive adults going overboard, I get very angry. For instance, when I read about the elementary school principal in Connecticut who has outlawed competitive sports at recess and expects kids to do things like pick up litter on the school grounds instead, I felt like dumping the contents of his school’s dumpster in his office.

But do the children care? In fact, it’s practically impossible to find a child in America today who has a rebellious attitude like children of the 60s did. Do you know any kids who could sing The Rolling Stones’ (and The Who’s) “My Generation” with feeling? I don’t.This is the paradox of rebelliousness. It seems like people who are less free are less prone to revolt. At least, that’s the principle that the Communist government of China is betting on these days.

However, there are two problems with this line of thinking: 1) those who are oppressed may be volatile and prone to huge revolutionary eruptions if they have an opportunity, and 2) the oppressed are unhappy because of their lack of freedom, in spite of the fact that they do not overtly act resentful toward their oppressors.

I don’t believe 1) is true, at least for now. I have prodded the teenagers I’ve met in the last few years quite a bit, and I’ve yet to unearth any latent rebelliousness. On the other hand, in The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, therapist Madeline Levine argues quite convincingly that 2) is abundantly true, especially for upper-middle class children.

The book is devoted to discussing a swelling tide of adolescents who, “indulged, coddled, pressured and micromanaged on the outside, . . . appear to be inadvertently deprived of the opportunity to develop an inside.” Levine adds, “They lack spontaneity, creativity, enthusiasm and, most disturbingly, the capacity for pleasure.” Many end up very depressed, listless, or even suicidal.

Adolescents today encounter a different set of problems than they did decades ago. Back then, their defiance of their parents was a necessary, yet unsavory, step in the process of developing an independent identity. Today, Levine writes that fewer and fewer adolescents

. . . are able to resist the constant pressure to excel. Between accelerated academic courses, multiple extracurricular activities, premature preparation for high school or college, special coaches and tutors engaged to wring the last bit of performance out of them, many kids find themselves scheduled to within an inch of their lives. . . As a result, kids can’t find the time, both literal and psychological, to linger in internal exploration; a necessary precursor to a well developed sense of self.

I don’t know about you, but just reading this stuff gets my blood boiling. I feel an impulse to rise up and overthrow these tyrant parents. The problem is, well, I’m not one of the ones being oppressed, and the oppressed seem to be totally uninterested in rebellion.

America’s children’s only hope, I guess, is that parents will come to realize on their own that they are infringing too far on their children’s rights to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Bringing about this realization is a big part of Playborhood’s mission.

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6 Responses to Children Deserve the Promise of the Declaration of Independence

  1. graceluvgun says:

    amen

  2. graceluvgun says:

    theres a revolution in the air

  3. sanfelice says:

    Mike, I absolutely share your sense of outrage. But, I will offer this in response: your projection of what “they” want is just that, a projection of your feelings onto another group and it may be misplaced. Again, I have No Idea why parents want to put their kids through the wringer when it comes to scheduling within an inch of their lives and it is certainly not the way I (we) remember childhood. But current practices aside, I think we are projecting onto another group and it is hard to defend, either way.

    My time outside in a neighborhood that had dozens of kids (from multiple streets) in a densely packed two- and three-family home area was ideal in many ways (and in a time of fewer cars allowing us to play on the street).

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    sanfelice – Let’s face it, *all* of parenting is about projection. Do children tell us they need to go to school? That they want to wear clothes? Of course not. We would say it’s obvious kids need these things, but when we say this, we’re projecting.

    Of course, some projections are fairly unanimous among parents, while some are not. Developing an autonomous sense of self is something that not all parents prioritize, but I’d say that practically all child development experts think that it’s essential. So, I feel pretty darned justified in making this “projection.”

  5. sanfelice says:

    “I’d say that practically all child development experts think”
    … that can get you into trouble…

    I think the pendulum is swinging in our favor at the moment. With regard to the zeitgeist of child psychology, it will fluctuate. Again, I will be raising my kids to have lots of freedom, but what is right for some, is not “right” for others.

    With regard to the larger point you are making on this site, to increase neighborhood activity, we must have more housing density in the neighborhoods. If people want to stay in the ‘burbs (and they will), those places will have to permit more housing units. You can’t have kids in the streets if the kids are miles apart. Hence, the organized activities which parents are forced to participate in. Those parents don’t love their kids any less or understand the concept of play any less, they’re just shuttling them for friendship out of necessity. But time in the mini-van and seeing their friends only in the context of organized activities is detrimental, I agree. This will remain the status quo if housing units are one to an acre. It’s really that simple: move to a place with more kids if you want to have some unstructured play time; it will happen even if you have band practice, sports and camera clubs after school. I did all of those things and still had time to hang out with my friends in the neighborhood because they were there on the street when I got home.

    Oh, and bring back neighborhood schools, but I digress!!!

  6. Mom Esquire says:

    I found this blog via Nurture Shock blog on Newsweek, which I read daily. And I’m so happy to find someone who shares my POV. Last year I moved from my parents’ home on a high-traffic street to a street where the kids play outside. Soon we’ll be moving to a cul-de-sac street that I picked because the lack of thru-traffic means that the kids can play sports outside in the street. My kids are 12-year-old twins, and I’m a single working mother about 10 years younger than most of the parents of my kids’ friends. But my attitude toward outdoor play has led to me being labeled the “hippy” parent.

    I’ve been letting my kids go to the park and ride bikes and explore the neighborhood on their own since they were 8, and if not for the traffic in our neighborhood, I would have let them start earlier. But whenever they had friends over, I’d have to accompany them on their explorations because their friend wasn’t allowed to go to the park without an adult. At first, I would let them go play as long as they had on a watch and knew what time to be home (usually in an hour). As my kids got to be 10, the rule was that they could go outside to play and had to be home when the street lights came on, same as I had when I was a kid. And now I let my kids roam the neighborhood as they please with the rule that they are to check in any time they switch major primary locations. (e.g. call on the phone to say that they are leaving Emily’s house to play at the park, then call again when they’re heading to Aaron’s house.)

    My kids are not perfect. Sometimes I worry that they’ll get picked on or that they may do something they shouldn’t like throw rocks. But for the most part, they are good kids who know right from wrong and as long as they are earning their freedom by making good choices and being responsible, I don’t see why I should force them to stay inside in front of a screen just because I can’t accompany them to the park while I’m cooking dinner. So many kids don’t get to go outside and play because their parents won’t let them go on their own and at the same time don’t have time to take them.

    I’m hoping that when we move into the new house, our home will be the hangout. I picked a floor plan that had open living areas and a street that was level (hard to find in my hilly neighborhood) and lacked traffic so that the kids could play sports in the street. As they become teenagers, I would rather have them all hanging out in and around my house or at the park nearby.

    When I was a kid, we had a group of about 10 to 12 of us varying in age and we were allowed to roam about a mile in any direction. We didn’t have cell phones, but we knew when we had to check in or be home. We played in each other’s yards and even the yards of the neighbors who didn’t have kids. We would even play house or school on their front and back porches, letting ourselves in the gate or hopping the fence as necessary. My kids grew up with kids their age right across the street and they barely ever played with those boys because they weren’t allowed to play out front or cross the street without adult supervision. I felt like that was no way to grow up, so instead of keeping my kids in, I taught them the same traffic safety and don’t talk to strangers lessons I got as a kid and gradually gave them more and more freedom. And while my kids are far from perfect, they are a healthy weight, know the neighborhood, and make friends pretty easily.

    I’m so inspired by this blog. I am going to do the happy hours when we move to the new neighborhood and start getting to know my new neighbors as soon as we move in.