The Lost World of Childhood

Wednesday marks the beginning of the holiday season, in which will surely, in all of us, conjure up warm, fuzzy, nostalgic memories of our childhoods.

Every year I teach ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, I’m a little saddened when we get to the part about the Boo Radley game–the kids glance over this part, mostly because this idea of imaginative play did not exist for them in their childhoods (In my family, we called it “playing house” and we loved to reenact “Little House on the Prairie”–we would collect small pieces of gravel to represent corn and turn into flour, dig holes in the yard to be our “fire pits” and bridle up the Saint Bernard to pull a sled behind to be our house drawn carriage). For the kids of this current generation, their childhood was not spent playing Cops & Robbers or Boo Radley or “Little House on the Prairie” because their childhood games consisted of sitting in front of an iPad, pressing imaginary touch-screen buttons, watching entertaining bright colors flash in their eyes, and listening to high pitched voices.

But, as developmental child psychologists will tell us, these imaginative games are so important for children because they help children to make sense of the world–a world that is confusing, chaotic, and scary. Like the Boo Radley game, kids take something that doesn’t quite make sense to them, put it in the form of imaginative play so that they can tease out the inconsistencies, their questions, the unease. Fred Rogers knew this. He said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood”. As adults, I sometimes think we see child play as “frivolous” or “silly” or “infantile” and we neglect to recognize the very important purpose that play serves for a child’s development.

Instead, we try to hurry our kids along–we want them to grow up as quickly as possible and we want them to move out of their childhood quickly. This is evidenced with our obsession with ADHD–we see a kid moving around, asking lots of questions, making rocket ship noises at (what we as adults see as) inappropriate times–so we prescribe some medicine to sedate those very childlike impulses so that they “act more like an adult” (ignoring that these impulses are probably helping the child to understand and navigate their world). This is evidenced when we we shove our kids into college prep courses and send them to college prep high schools–we want them to “prepare for their futures” as soon as possible. We ask them to speed along with the processes of obtaining their driver’s licenses, working their first job, going through their first break up, so that they can be ready for their FUTURE in adulthood, and we forget the importance of those milestones.

What would a generation of kids look like who weren’t allowed to daydream? Who weren’t allowed to play? Who were not allowed to suspend and value their childhood for just that–being a child?

According to Piaget’s Cognitive Development Theory, we hit developmental milestones as we mature, if we do not successful complete those stages, our development remains stagnant. If we do not successfully complete the Sensorimotor Stage, we do not have faith that objects exist even if hidden. If we do not successfully complete the Preoperational Stage, we have difficulty taking the viewpoint of others. If we do not successfully complete the Concrete Operational Stage, then our logical representations and understandings of the world are inhibited.

I sometimes fear what this world would look like–a world in which children are not allowed to have childhoods, but then I think to myself, perhaps we are already here–a world where kids grow up, playing on iPads, where the ends to their stories are already created, and the kid doesn’t have to imagine how it might end–a world where kids are asked to start reading at age 3, and skip out on learning to share, learning to organize, learning to interact with other kids–a world where parents have chronicled their kids’ whole life on InstaGram, and the kid has already learned the skill of ‘posing for a pictures’ by age 7.

And, what is the result of this world? A world of the highest anxiety we’ve ever experienced? The most apathetic generation? A world of immature adults–because they never were allowed to experience those very important childhood milestones.

I think people, like Fred Rogers, and writers, like Harper Lee and Mark Twain (among many others), knew the importance of holding this childhood space–of not rushing our kids too quickly through to adulthood. This is why Scout cusses in front of Aunt Alexandra–she is understanding the boundaries of her childhood, and why we see her call out Mr. Cunningham in the mob. This is why we see Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn playing cops and robbers, and designing an elaborate plan to help Jim escape–of course, there certainly are undertones of morality and The Conscience in these games, but the kids don’t immediately recognize it for anything other than play and entertainment. In these stories, Scout and Huck are allowed to reside in their childhood stages–it is not the people–their parents/guardians, the school system–who ask these children to be anything other than the age in which they are.

I don’t know for sure, but I think both Scout and Huck Finn turn out to be decent people?

(Photo Credit: Norman Rockwell)

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