Tuesday, May 20, 2014

No more summer? The sad fate of childhood

I opened the local newspaper this week and blinked. "Summer school is about to open", it said. Well, I must have been out of the loop for a good long while, because I have only just learned that our Ministry of Education is running a pilot program, in the course of which schools are required to provide something like "school lite" for the first three weeks of the summer. Participation is voluntary and the payment depends on the family's income - low-income families are supposed to get this lovely program for free. 

I turned to my husband and asked, "don't the kids get enough school as it is?"; my sentiment was echoed in many comments on the web made by students, who all basically say, "give us our summer vacation and let us rest after the hard work we pull in school all year."

I realize that in families where both parents work (or, at least, both parents work outside the home), the question of What To Do With The Kids is a major one. No matter how much parents and women's rights organizations clamor to have an ever longer government-funded school day, kindergarten or daycare program, to this day a family cannot rely on government-funded programs alone. So people sign up for private afternoon programs, hire babysitters, beg grandparents for some help, and register their children in a multitude of summer camps. Having a government-organized, government-funded program for a large part of the summer vacation can seem like manna sent from heaven.

I understand and sympathize, but I still don't think it's good for the children. 

When the children are young and parents send them to a daycare or preschool, they basically turn the daycare provider or the preschool teacher into the most influential person in this child's life. In the current reality, the child spends more time with the daycare provider or preschool teacher than he does with his parents. And you know what really gets to me? Often, the parents don't even have much conscious choice regarding the identity of the person who cares for their child. Their choice of daycare or preschool is simply determined by where they live or work. 

I'm not saying the actual time spent together is the only thing that matters; after all, in most traditional families where the children stay home, they usually see their father far less than their mother. It doesn't mean that the father is less important, or less loved. But it does mean that the mother is responsible for the practical realities of bringing up the child. If the daycare worker is the one who spends the most time with the child, then this responsibility is shifted on to her.

I will never forget how a little girl of about three years told me, "my preschool teacher's name is Ruthie." "That's nice," I said, "and what is your Mom's name?"... she shrugged. "My preschool teacher's name is Ruthie," she repeated. She continued to talk about Ruthie for a while, but didn't say a word about her mother. Somehow, this made me incredibly sad. 

Most preschool teachers and daycare workers are decent people who care about the general well-being of their charges, but they don't individually care about each child the way his or her parents do. The essence of what preschool teachers do all day is group management. Their job is to get the kids during the day reasonably content so that they don't get bored and start fighting. This requires constant entertainment. Also, naturally, many preschool teachers are nicer than the child's parents. They don't need to address the core issues of bad behavior, which turns us into the Bad Guys in the little child's eyes. They don't give out punishments. They just need to keep everybody happy until everybody goes home - and it would be unreasonable to expect anything else.  

In school, things are a little different because there isn't one teacher that spends the entire school day with the class, but rather, each subject is taught by a different teacher. This gives more influence to the peer group - an even less desirable situation, because though all the kids in a class may be good, they are spoiled by the effect of a large group of children that is cooped up together for long hours.

If that is not enough, there is incessant demand to make school hours even longer, to fund afternoon programs (which will probably soon turn into evening programs), to shorten vacations, to thin out the summer holidays, and so on and so forth. There are also extra-curricular activities, youth movements, and more. The overall trend means the children spend less and less time with their parents - or even on their own. This isn't much better than the despised children's houses of the old kibbutz movement. 

This over-organizing, over-scheduling works to create passive adults that require close management and constant entertainment in order not to become restless, dissatisfied and bored. This also makes teenagers who have dropped out of school into such a disaster. If these teenagers had been given the right tools at the right age, they could find a place for themselves even if they don't fit (and not everybody can fit) in an increasingly academic-oriented world. As it is, many of them are lost because it's either strict school regime or total anarchy; self-management is a foreign concept.

Children need time. Time to grow, to mature, to learn, to dream... on their own. There is time for the positive, educational, organized experiences... but there must also be time for the "doing nothing". For gentle, spontaneous learning, which can never happen if all our waking hours are strictly regulated. 


Anonymous said...

Bravo! Well said.

Hilde said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post. I totally agree with you. When I was a child, I lived a bit outside of town with only two boys of my age to play with in the neighbourhoos. Our families did not travel, there was absolutely no entertainment programduring the 7 weeks of summer holidays. And not TV until the age of 12! But we had so much fun, we invented all kinds of games, roamed the nearby forest, climbed trees, and when the weather was bad, there was the library. When I told my mother I was bored, she told me to pull weeds in the garden! But this happened only near the end of the holidays, when I looek forward to seeing all my friends again at school - a truly positive effect in my opinion.
At this time, nobody would have thought of a program at a child´s birthday party or an event of any sort. The children were expected to amuses themselves, and they usually did. Nowadays, there are entertainment programs for children everywhere, even at church. So they never learn to listen, to organise themselves, or to have ideas out of boredom. I think this is terribly sad.

Winkel's Crazy Ideas said...

Very well written indeed. I share your feelings completely and though l cannot change the general development l am trying very hard to give my four children what l consider to be very impotant values. It is though boredom that children learn to be creative and think for themselves. If one of them complains about being bored l say "good, go think of something to do!" We don't go on elaborate Summer vacations or own fancy expensive stuff, but l truly believe that time and a slower, less organized life truly makes up for that. Pam

Lady Anne said...

I agree - I spent my summers on my grandparents farm, for the most part, but my sister and I played "town", with orange crates for store counters, and the bank was a chair turned backward, so the money was passed through the slats. We learned how checking accounts worked with Monopoly money and empty cereal boxes. We climbed trees, learned about snakes, how to make a daisy chain, fed the chickens and generally had a grand time. But we learned many, many things school would never have taught us - including the dangers of sibling rivalry!

maria smith said...

This is a subject close to my heart. The lost art of play is causing problems in today's adults. Children are taught stress and distance from their families. The lack of free play creates stifled imaginations, inability to cooperate and problem solve and the desire to be continually entertained. My kids know that if they tell me they are bored I will give them a deep cleaning job, or ask them to find something to do. There is no reason to be bored when we have so much to fill our days with!

Anonymous said...

It's crazy! I know a couple who spent $8000 US just so ther daughter could spend the summer in a camp.

Too many parents nowadays don't seem to want to spend much time with their kids it seems, it's sad.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the point that children today don't have sufficient time for free play and to explore the wonderful world we live in. However, as far as I understand, the proposed summer school is for 3 weeks of an 8 week vacation, which is quickly followed by a further 3 week vacation in September. It is also only half day, still leaving a significant chunk of out of school time. Many people do have to work, and paying a fortune on childcare is simply not an option. Many also live in urban areas with no convenient grandparents on a farm to help out with child care.

I work as an pediatric OT and see a significant regression in skills with the children I treat after every long vacation. Many parents do not have the skills or motiviation to engage with their children and perhaps a loving staff member really is a good alternative for part of the day.

I love your blog, but feel that you often present an all or nothing approach- it's either being a SAHM in a rural environment or a career woman, farming out the kids for long days. Everyone has to make their own decision, for me, working part time, (fortunately I also get school vacations with my kids) is a perfect balance which I feel enriches my mothing skills too.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Anon, certainly it's not an all or nothing - I have friends who work outside the home but make an effort to spend as much meaningful time with their kids as possible.

I also personally know a homeschooling family where the kids are frustrated and bored and the mom is a wound-up bundle of nerves.

However, the ongoing trend of the Ministry of Education is to provide longer and longer hours, and more and more days, of government-funded care and/or school, and to present it as a good thing. For many parents, that is seen as a blessing. The problem begins when such regulations become obligatory for everyone. For instance, now that kindergartens close at 2 PM (not including the voluntary afternoon program of course) instead of 1 PM, those moms who are at home and want their kids to have lunch at 1, must argue with the staff in order to take the kids out earlier. They don't want the kids to eat the government-provided meal in an institution - they want the family to have lunch together at home!

So we, the mothers who are home for their children, are a minority with an almost unheard voice. We are seen as weak, as failures. Programs are made to "encourage" us to enter the work force. I will be honest enough to say it infuriates me.