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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