by Johann Christoph Arnold
have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.
In a magazine piece I recently read about a Kenyan school that holds its
classes in a shady grove outdoors, the headmaster (who had helped plant the
trees as a child) recalled an African saying: "When you plant a tree, never
plant only one. Plant three -- one for shade, one for fruit, and one for
beauty." On a continent where heat and drought make every tree valuable,
that's wise advice. It's an intriguing educational insight too, especially in a
time like ours, when vast numbers of children are endangered by a one-sided
approach that sees them solely in terms of their ability to be fruitful -- that
is, to "achieve" and "succeed."
The pressure to excel is transforming childhood as never before. Naturally,
parents have always wanted their children to "do well," both
academically and socially. No one wants their child to be the slowest in the
class, the last to be picked for a game on the field. But what is it about the
culture we live in that has made that natural worry into such an obsessive fear,
and what is it doing to our children? What is achievement, anyway? And what is
success, other than some vague, lofty ideal?
My mother used to say that education begins in the cradle, and not one of
today's gurus would disagree. But the differences in their approach are
instructive. Whereas women of her generation sang their babies to sleep just as
their mothers had done -- because a baby loves the sound of its mother's voice
-- today's tend to cite studies on the positive effects of Mozart on the
development of the infant brain. Fifty years ago, women nursed their babies and
taught their toddlers finger games as a matter of course; today, most do
neither, despite endless chatter about the importance of bonding and nurture.
As an author I became aware, after completing my first book, of something I
had never noticed previously: the importance of white space. White space is the
room between the lines of type, the margins, extra space at the beginning of a
chapter, a page left blank at the beginning of the book. It allows the type to
"breathe" and gives the eye a place to rest. White space is not
something you're conscious of when you read a book. It is what isn't there. But
if it were gone, you'd notice it right away. It is the key to a well-designed
Just as books require white space, so do children. That is, they need room to
grow. Unfortunately, too many children aren't getting that. In the same way that
we tend to overwhelm them with material things, we tend to over-stimulate and
over-steer. We deny them the time, space, and flexibility they need to develop
at their own pace.
The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu reminds us that "it is not the
clay the potter throws that gives the jar its usefulness, but the space
within." Children need stimulation and guidance, but they also need time to
themselves. Hours spent alone in daydreams or in quiet, unstructured activities
instill a sense of security and independence and provide a necessary lull in the
rhythm of the day. Children thrive on silence too. Without external distractions
they will often become so consumed by what they are doing that they will be
totally oblivious of everything around them. Unfortunately, silence is such a
luxury that they are rarely allowed the opportunity for such undisturbed
concentration. Whatever the setting -- mall, elevator, restaurant, or car -- the
low murmur (or blare) of piped-in music or background noise is incessantly
As for the importance of giving children unstructured time,
nineteenth-century writer Johann Christoph Blumhardt warns against the
temptation to constantly intrude, and emphasizes the value of spontaneous
activity: "That is their first school; they are teaching themselves, as it
were. I often have the feeling that angels are around children ... and that
whoever is so clumsy as to disturb a child provokes his angel." Certainly
there is nothing wrong with giving a child chores and requiring him to carry
them out on a daily basis. But the way many parents overbook their children,
emotionally and timewise, robs them of the scope they need to develop on their
It is a beautiful thing to see a child thoroughly absorbed in his play; in
fact, it is hard to think of a purer, more spiritual activity. Play brings joy,
contentment, and detachment from the troubles of the day. And especially
nowadays, in our hectic, time- and money-driven culture, the importance of those
things for every child cannot be emphasized enough. Educator Friedrich Froebel,
the father of the modern kindergarten, goes so far as to say that "a child
who plays thoroughly and perseveringly, until physical fatigue forbids, will be
a determined adult, capable of self-sacrifice both for his own welfare and that
of others." In an age when fears of playground injuries and the misguided
idea that play interferes with "real" learning has led some forty
percent of the school districts across the country to do away with recess, one
can only hope that the wisdom of these words will not go entirely unheeded.
Allowing children the room to grow at their own pace does not mean ignoring
them. Clearly, the bedrock of their security from day to day is the knowledge
that we who care for them are always at hand, ready to help them, to talk with
them, to give them what they need, and simply to "be there" for them.
But how often are we swayed instead by our own ideas of what they want or need?
After the massacre at Columbine High School in April 1999, administrators
rushed to provide psychologists and counselors to help traumatized students
process their grief. But the teenagers didn't want to see experts. Though many
privately sought professional help later, on their own terms, they first flocked
to local churches and youth centers, where they dealt with their grief by
talking to their peers.
The tendency to intervene, especially when a child is in trouble, is a
natural one, but even then (perhaps especially then) it is vital to be sensitive
to the child's needs.
Resurrections, his new book about children in the South Bronx,
Jonathan Kozol reflects on another angle of the same issue: the way adults tend
to guide children through even the most casual conversations. He says it, too,
is a result of our tendency to hurry -- and our reluctance to let them sort life
out in their own way, at their own pace.
Children pause a lot when reaching for ideas. They get distracted.
They meander -- blissfully, it seems -- through acres of magnificent
irrelevance. We think we know the way they're heading in a conversation,
and we get impatient, like a traveler who wants to "cut the travel
time." We want to get there quicker. It does speed up the pace of
things, but it can also change the destination.
Of all the ways in which we push children to meet adult expectations, the
trend toward high-pressure academics may be the most widespread, and the worst.
I say "worst" because of the age at which children begin to be
subjected to it, and the fact that for some of them school quickly becomes a
place they dread, and a source of misery they cannot escape for months at a
As someone whose scholastic career included plenty of mediocre grades, I am
familiar enough with the dread that accompanies bringing home a report card.
Thankfully, my parents cared far more about whether I got along with my peers
than whether I achieved an A or a B. Even when I failed a class, they refrained
from scolding me, and eased my anxieties by assuring me that there was a lot
more in my head than I or my teachers realized; it just hadn't come to the
surface yet. According to Melinda, a veteran preschool teacher in California,
such encouragement is only a dream for many children, especially in homes where
academic failure is seen as unacceptable.
We have parents asking whether their two-and-a half-year-olds are
learning to read yet, and grumbling if they can't. The pressure some parents
put on children is just incredible. I see children literally shaking and
crying because they don't want to go in to testing. I've even seen parents
dragging their child into the room...
In some instances, the frenzy to compete begins even before a child is
ready to start school.
It's true the examples above represent the extreme end of the spectrum.
Still, they cannot be dismissed, because they shed light on a disturbing trend
that affects education at all levels. More and more, it seems that we have lost
sight of the "child" in childhood and turned it into a joyless
training camp for the adult world. Jonathan
From around the age of six or seven, and up to eleven or maybe twelve,
the gentleness and honesty -- the sweetness -- of children is so apparent.
Our society has missed an opportunity to seize that moment. It's almost as
though we view those qualities as useless, as though we don't value children
for their gentleness, but only as future economic units, as future workers,
as future assets or deficits.
When you read political debates on how much we should spend on children,
you'll notice that the argument usually has nothing to do with whether
children deserve a gentle and happy childhood, but whether investment in
their education will pay off economically twenty years later. I always
think, why not invest in them simply because they're children and deserve to
have some fun before they die? Why not invest in their gentle hearts as well
as in their competitive skills?
The answer, of course, is that we have abandoned the idea of education as
growth, and decided to see it only as a ticket to the job market. Guided by
charts and graphs, and cheered on by experts, we have turned our backs on the
value of uniqueness and creativity and fallen instead for the lie that the only
way to measure a child's progress is a standardized test. Not only are we
neglecting to plant trees for shade and beauty -- we are planting for only one
variety of fruit. Or, as Malvina Reynolds puts it in her song "Little
And they all play on the golf course,
and drink their martinis dry,
And they all have pretty children,
and the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp,
and then to the university,
Where they put them all in boxes,
and they come out all the same.
Granted, children ought to be stretched and intellectually stimulated. They
should be taught to articulate their feelings, to write, to read, to develop and
defend an idea; to think critically. But what is the purpose of the best
academic education if it fails to prepare children for the "real"
world beyond the confines of the classroom? What about those life-skills that
can never be taught by putting a child on a bus and sending him to school?
As for the things that schools are supposed to teach, even they are not
always passed on. Writer John
Taylor Gatto points out that though American children sit through an
average of 12,000 hours of compulsory academic instruction, there are plenty who
leave the system as 17- and 18-year-olds who still can't read a book or
calculate a batting average - -let alone repair a faucet or change a flat.
It is not just schools that are pressuring children into growing up too fast.
The practice of rushing children into adulthood is so widely accepted and so
thoroughly ingrained that people often go blank when you voice your concern
about the matter. Take, for example, the number of parents who tie up their
children's after-school hours in extracurricular activities. On the surface, the
explosion of opportunities for "growth" in things like music and
sports might look like the perfect answer to the boredom faced by millions of
latchkey children. But the reality is not always so pretty. Tom, an acquaintance
with friends in suburban Baltimore, says:
It's one thing when a child picks up a hobby, a sport, or an instrument
on her own steam, but quite another when the driving force is a parent with
an overly competitive edge. In one family I know -- I'll call them the
Joneses -- Sarah showed a genuine talent for the piano in the second grade,
but by the time she was in the sixth, she wouldn't touch a keyboard for any
amount of coaxing. She was tired of the attention, sick of lessons (her
father was always reminding her what a privilege they were), and virtually
traumatized by the strain of having been pushed through one competition
after another. Yes, Sarah played Bach beautifully at seven. But at ten she
was interested in other things.
In the case above, and countless others, the pattern is all too familiar:
ambitious expectations are followed by the pressure to meet them, and what was
once a perfectly happy part of a child's life becomes a burden that is
impossible to bear.
Einstein once wrote that if you want brilliant children, read them fairy
tales. "And if you want them to be more brilliant, read them more fairy
tales." Obviously, such a quip is not the sort of answer an expert might
give to the discouraging trends described above. But I still believe it is a
thought worth reflecting on. It is the inventive sort of wisdom without which we
will never pull ourselves out of the ruts we are currently stuck in.
As for the parental desire to have brilliant children in the first place, it
is surely just another sign of our distorted vision -- a reflection of the way
we tend to view children as little adults, no matter how loudly we may protest
such a "Victorian" idea. And the best antidote to that is to drop all
of our adult expectations entirely, to get down on the same level as our
children, to look them in the eye. Only then will we begin to hear what they are
saying, to find out what they are thinking, and to see the goals we have set for
them from their point of view. Only then will we be able to lay aside our
ambitions and recognize, as poet Jane
Tyson Clement puts it:
child, though I am meant to teach you much,
what is it, in the end,
except that together we are
meant to be children
of the same Father,
and I must unlearn
all the adult structure
and the cumbering years
and you must teach me
to look at the earth and the heaven
with your fresh wonder.
"Unlearning" our adult mindsets is never easy, especially at the
end of a long day, when children can sometimes seem more of a bother than a
gift. When there are children around, things just don't always go as planned.
Furniture gets scratched, flowerbeds trampled, new clothes torn or muddied, toys
lost and broken. Children want to handle things and play with them. They want to
have fun, to run in the aisles; they need space to be rambunctious and silly and
noisy. After all, they are not china dolls or little adults, but unpredictable
rascals with sticky fingers and runny noses who sometimes cry at night. Yet if
we truly love them, we will welcome them as they are.
article is excerpted from Endangered: Your Child in a Hostile World,
©2000, by Plough Publishing House. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Plough Publishing House. http://www.plough.com
About the Author
Christoph Arnold, a father of eight with over thirty years experience as a
family counselor, draws on a wealth of experience gleaned from a lifetime in the
a community movement dedicated to providing children with an environment where
they are free to be children. An outspoken social critic, Arnold has advocated
on behalf of children and teens around the world, from Baghdad and Havana to
Littleton and New York. He has been a guest on over 100 talk shows, and a
speaker at many colleges and high schools. His books
on sex, marriage, parenting, forgiving, dying, and finding peace have sold over
200,000 copies in English and have been translated into eight foreign languages.
Visit the author's website at http://www.plough.com/Endangered
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