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Leave Those Kids Alone: An Argument For Benign Neglect

leave those kids alone“A child craves magic…and magic depends on having space where adults will not “butt in.” This includes literal space of the kind long gone from nearly every urban part of this country, like vacant lots and construction sites (not like playgrounds, which reek of adult intentionality), and also metaphorical space.”

So says Christina Schwarz in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, where she looks at childhood through two books examining the way we raise our children. One is a reissued classic, the other a historical analysis of our attitude towards play.  Both, Schwarz says, bring her to the same conclusion: we have returned to an age where play for its own sake has lost its perceived value, and our kids are losing out big time.

Not only are today’s children deprived of the space to figure things out for themselves, their parents are deprived of the same freedoms, by the need to look to experts to teach them how to raise and even enjoy their children. The result is an environment that feels so circumscribed that both parents and children can feel aimless when there’s no clear plan.

We all know the part of this story about overscheduling,  the part about numbing our children’s creativity with too much screen time,  and the part about turning them into couch potatoes with lack of physical activity. But what we might not have quite so well-drilled into our heads is the idea that play—real play— is inherently about kids doing what they want to do, not what parents tell them they should.

“Although adults have perennially felt compelled to protect children and guide their play—encouraging board games, for instance, in the 1800s—to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say. A 1981 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission study of playground use scolded that children were “walking up and down a slide, climbing onto any aspect of playground apparatus that allowed a grip or foothold, and roughhousing.” That’s play. Children have always taken risks and will continue to do so (which is why some experts argue that restricting them in every way imaginable only pushes them to go farther to find hazards that adults have not yet anticipated); children will always play with objects not intended to be toys; children will always use toys in ways the manufacturers—or the parents—do not recommend. They are driven to experiment and create; that is what developing human beings do.”

This view of play not only has the power to change how we see the way our kids use their time, it could change how we look at their behavior in general. If the very value of play is to let kids run their own worlds for a discreet period of time (whether those worlds are real or imaginary) maybe we can feel a bit better about their inevitable desire to run them the rest of the time.  It doesn’t mean we should let them, of course. But we tend to see these affronts to the adult order as signs of a lack of socialization, or worse, deliberate misbehavior. Maybe seeing the intrinsic value of kids defining their own sense of reality—however inconvenient—can help us be a little more understanding when we need to bring them back to our reality.

Read Leave Those Kids Alone in the Atlantic

photo: Dawnzy58/flickr

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