Let Kids Be Kids
by Stephen R. C. Hicks
Condensed from The Wall Street Journal
as printed in Readers Digest August 1991
The newspaper in the Indiana town where I taught last year ran a contest for school-children. The students were to create a one-frame cartoon on any topic; the best would be published in the paper.
A second-grader drew a sad-faced earth, with the caption “I am weary. I am tired. Please quit wasting me!” A boy in the sixth grade sketched some hills beside a sign reading “Landfill,” with one tiny person informing another, “Here we have the tallest hill in Bloomington.” A third-grade girl depicted animals crying near a house under construction, with smokestacks in the distance; the caption read “We want our homes back!” Other entries showed Nelson Mandela being crushed beneath the boot of apartheid, and a construction site where trees spelled out “Save the Trees.”
Apparently, many children are coming home from school frightened that the world is a cold inhospitable place. All the furry animals are being killed and the nice green trees being chopped down. Even breathing the air is dangerous.
Motivated by the best intentions, most teachers want their students to become informed and independent thinkers. But in trying to convey a sense of urgency about the world’s problems, they are committing an error. Children are not able to deal with global environmental concerns when they are still grappling with personal hygiene. They are not able to understand international race relations when they are struggling with schoolyard bullies.
When we overload them with such problems, they become frustrated and frightened. If a teacher persists, students simply mouth the appropriate words to appease him.
My college classes are regularly populated with young adults either convinced that no solutions are possible (so why bother trying?) or so desperate for answers they latch onto the first semi-plausible solution and close their minds to other alternatives. Both reactions are defense mechanisms against the feeling that we are living in a hostile world whose problems are too big to handle And that’s an attitude children often acquire early in life.
The does not mean educators and parents should pretend that the problems do not exist. We need to take pains to help children confront them on a scale they can grasp.
If we want to prepare our six and seven-year-olds to deal with acid rain, teach them to first to care for a 30-gallon aquarium. If we want them to be ready to handle the Saddam Husseins of the world, help them deal with the little tyrant who extorts their lunch money or demands to copy their homework. These are the sorts of problems they are ready to solve. Don’t ask them what they would do if terrorists exploded chemical weapons above their town, or if the food chain were irreparably damaged by pollution.
Frightened children are not going to grow into adults who can solve the world’s problems. That requires a confidence in one’s abilities to find solutions. And such healthy self-esteem requires nurturing over a long period, on countless small, day-to-day matters. Too much, too fast, can only destroy it.