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In Defense of Childhood: Let Kids Be Kids!

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Childhood is under attack by the very people who should be protecting it: parents.

Two recent articles in the New York Times present dispatches from the front lines of the assault:

1) The article "Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children" reports that publishers are releasing fewer storybooks in favor of young adult chapter books, largely because parents are pushing little children to read more complex work in preparation for standardized tests and the rigors of academia.

2) In "The Playground Gets Even Tougher," bullying and peer pressure typically associated with teens -- kids comparing who has the hottest clothes or technology, picking on those who are different, worrying about being cool and fitting in -- are shown to be trickling down to children as young as five, status-conscious kindergartners encouraged or enabled by their parents to overachieve socially as well as academically.

Both show parents pushing their children to grow up fast and toughen up intellectually, fanatically trying to prepare them for the competitive world of the classroom and beyond.

In my Brooklyn neighborhood just a stone's throw from Park Slope, whose army of stroller-pushing bourgeoisie make the suburban soccer mom look laid back, I see this attitude even among my son's peers -- and he's 16 months old. I'm regularly asked what classes he's enrolled in or when we plan on sending him to preschool.

I always thought preschool was something children attended the year before kindergarten, around the age of four or five, but I've learned that educational programs exist to serve toddlers. One mother explained to me, "It's not like when we were growing up! Kids today don't have the luxury of waiting so long to begin school; they need more stimulation."

I don't buy it. (Though what do I know? I'm a preschool dropout.)

Our culture is overstimulated and hyper-anxious. A pervasive sense of unease hangs over the upper class and rapidly shrinking middle class, a feeling of empire in decline. Parents worry that their kids aren't going to have better lives than they did and hope that enlightened science -- studies and reports that endorse this product or that technique, programs designed by Ph.D.s to give kids a leg up on their peers, books penned by "experts" each more qualified than the next -- can produce fitter, smarter, better-adjusted kids than the instinct and tradition that their parents relied on.

And so they start their 18-month-olds on an educational treadmill that won't stop for almost a quarter of a century, when they receive a master's degree -- which has become the new bachelor's. As a result, many children of privilege lean on their parents into their mid and late twenties, either living at home or looking to Mommy and Daddy to foot the bill for rent or tuition, a phenomenon that the New York Times Magazine reported on in August.

With childhood truncated and independent adulthood put off, the worries and fears of the teenage years -- what many of us consider some of the most challenging, depressing, awkward parts of our lives (seriously, would you want to be a teen again?) -- are extended.

And some of the fundamental joys of not only childhood but of life are destroyed. If a kid can't read the book that he or she wants to read, whether it's illustrated or not, then reading becomes a chore, something done to achieve an end, as if there's a measurable payoff as opposed to a lasting pleasure engaging with a book. I believe there can be both, but in my five years of teaching English, I rarely found a kid motivated to read voraciously if they didn't love the act first.

And what happens when parents, like the ones in the Times article who encouraged their first graders' cliquishness, push their kids not to make friends but to network, racking up connections with the right people, the ones with status who may not necessarily be the nicest or most fun to be with? It's not nice; in fact it's dehumanizing, building walls between children that lead to bullying and aggression and likely furthering our societal divisions as they grow older.

How does a parent combat these disheartening trends?

By keeping life simple. I'm with my son five days a week, and most of those are largely unstructured. We go for long (for a toddler) walks through the park, kicking leaves, gathering sticks, looking at doggies and airplanes. We visit playgrounds, have a play date or two, and sometimes spontaneously take the subway on a food adventure to Chinatown, say, or to Coney Island to see the ocean. What greater pleasure is there than ambling about town, talking about this and that or else daydreaming in shared silence, reading and drawing and playing games in the fresh air? (OK, so he's not old enough for all of these things right now, but he's getting there.)

I can't see why I would want to deprive my son of these basic childhood, human joys by enrolling him in classes meant to "encourage his cognitive development" -- shorthand for conforming to testable skills. Many of the most important skills are untestable -- imagination, general optimism and lightness of heart, the capability to love another creature, to empathize and demonstrate compassion. These are things a child can't bubble in on a Scantron sheet, and yet cultivating these attitudes matters more in determining how my son will exist in the world and what kind of contribution he'll make with his time on Earth.

Being a kid means making friends without regard of status or difference; it means using our imaginations and playing without a goal. To do away with these things, to do away with childhood, is to pollute some of the most fundamentally beautiful attributes of being human. And that's just silly.

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