The Lost Art of Childhood

October 21, 2007

Earlier today I walked past a window and glimpsed my eight year old son working intently in the backyard.   There he was crouched over the ground with a plastic shovel transferring small bits of dirt from a hole he had dug to the newly transplanted blackberry bush a few feet away.   Watching him, I was torn between wanting to join him in his exploration to see what he was experiencing and letting him have this unstructured time to explore, move and accomplish some task he dreamed up by himself.

This is my son whom the schools have broadly hinted, because they are bound by law to not diagnose him, that he has severe Attention Deficit Disorder.  We moved our son last year from a school that labeled him as bad or troubled in the first grade, to one that was wildly successful in the second with a teacher that, if tested under the very unscientific ADHD testing today would likely come back with a diagnosis and a prescription herself.  She was active, disorganized, forgetful but in short, she fit our active, out-of-the-box son perfectly. 

After our disastrous Kinder, First and early Second grade years, we opted to homeschool our son but only felt it was fair to give him a choice on whether to return to this new school or not.  Because he loved it so much, he chose to return.  Unfortunately, his new teacher is extremely structured and doesn’t mesh well with my son’s exploratory, inquisitive, and quirky personality.  Because he is a bit more disorganized than the average child, because he knows his mind and doesn’t easily accept instructions on completing an assignment, instead choosing to figure out methods on his own, he is labeled with a disorder and I continue the battle for my son’s health and education.  I have no complaints about our teacher in general as she is willing to see him for him and accept our decision to not medicate.  She has agreed to adapt the classroom to fit his needs rather than push him to conform to the school.  Above all, she respects our wishes to keep most of our conversations and especially any discussion of a disorder away from our son’s hearing.  She is a gem if a bit, ahem, rigid.

With my most recent discussion with his teacher in mind, I continued to watch my son from the window looking for tale-tale signs of ADHD such as shortened attention span or hyper focus – truly; a different kid simply can’t win, they either don’t focus enough or focus too long – and only see signs of our son working intently on this project, finding tools and solutions to problems he encountered along the way.  What I saw was a  bright problem solver.  For example, he was using an old, seemingly worthless, croquet mallet handle as a stick to jab at the hardened earth and loosen it for shoveling.    When he encountered dirt too hard and dry for either the shovel or his stick to dislodge, he carried the shovel to our small backyard pond, scooped up some water and carefully carried it to the hole to dampen the earth for easier removal.  

I watched this project for over half an hour.  Never once did he become frustrated over an obstacle he encountered.  He found solutions to each problem and apparently completed the task to his satisfaction, putting his tools aside to see what his dad and I were doing. I did not see him quickly switch focus from this project to something new and interesting, leaving his tools and hole forgotten nor did I see him get so engrossed in the project that he blocked out everything else such as me tapping on the window to see if he needed something to drink.   What I saw was a kid experiencing a, now rare, moment of childhood.

As I observed this with our school dilemma in mind  I have to wonder, what have we, collectively, done to our children?   Have we so completely lost touch with how children play and why they need to play that we have to medicalize, probably not a word, their inability to sit in a desk for nearly SEVEN hours a day?  Sure some kids can but there will always be a subset that are more; the explorers and risk takers of the world to whom sitting still is equivalent to torture.  These children are not defective, they are the creators. 

Think about it, how many children have unstructured playtime to explore the woods, the streams, and the surrounding fields; if they have any fields, streams or woods to explore?  How many actually move for more than 30 minutes a day?  Recess is almost forgotten and P.E. is an afterthought.  Gone are the days of running, literally, with your neighborhood friends playing cops and robbers (or in my sister’s and my case- and I am dating myself here- C.H.I.P.S). Childhood play time is now a stream of organized sports and activities on unnatural manicured lawns with rules, structure and rigid performance requirements.   Children no longer spend hours riding their bikes through the neighborhood jumping over ramps they build from materials they forage along the way.  They have structured play-dates, playing on constructed playscapes rather than climbing trees and skipping rocks in a pond.  Where is the unstructured time necessary to learn about their world? Where is the exercise needed to keep their bodies in shape and in control?  Where is the imagination to create entire worlds out of nothing? 

How much of this “lost childhood” is resulting in an alarming number of children under the age of 10 on psychiatric drugs? In my research I read something like 10% of American boys are diagnosed with attention disorders and medicated.  And to what purpose?  Yes, they can sit still in class but what do they lose?  Why is class so rigid and structured that they have to be medicated to sit through it?  Where will our next Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso or Benjamen Franklin be if they are sitting calmly through yet another boring lecture on proper sentence structure rather than using their hands and their minds to create new inventions and innovations?

I am not here to criticize parents who medicate their children for ADHD or any other illness.  I understand the urge to believe the schools are authorities on most things children even though I don’t share that particular philosophy.  I also understand the urge to fit in and get along and acquiesce to the pressure from the schools to make their jobs easier. I also understand the urge to have a more calm child that is easier to deal with in large social settings or gets along better and easier with the world.  Every parent has to make the decision they think will best serve their child, including  me.  I do not think the long list of “normal” side effects of nervousness, moodiness, weight-loss, decreased appetite (in a child who rarely eats as it is) sleeplessness nor the new FDA black-box warning of possible death, heart attack, stroke or onset of psychiatric symptoms and early childhood onset bipolar are worth risking so he can sit still in school.  If we have to, we will take him out as we planned or we will force the school into modifications to make his day more successful and fit him better, either way as long as he is happy and his self confidence and self-esteem remain in tact, it doesn’t really matter – this too shall pass.

I am going against the mainstream here but I reject the ideal that school as a partnership with parents and I reject that they know a child is disabled from learning.  I accept they can identify a child who doesn’t fit their mold but I reject that they are the authorities on how to best work with that child. 

My friends, a partnership implies equality and no one at the school as an equal share with my husband and I in what happens to my child’s life nor will anyone at the school have an equal share in the consequenses of screwing him up.  Instead, I view the school as a service from which we choose to partake.  Knowing education like I do, I would never defer to a teacher for typical childhood issues because they simply are not trained in childhood development.  I know teachers that are naturally in-tune with children and how they develop but there are far more who are classroom managers firmly in the box.  In many ways, it is not entirely the teacher’s fault (although, knowing several out-of-the-box teachers, those that don’t modify for children do bare some responsibility).  Education policy makers bare the greatest responsibiliyt for failing to understand what children need to succeed.  Children need tools but above all, freedom.  Freedom to explore and  learn, freedom to experiment and well, be children.

This is why a return to the simple life is so vital to our nation, to our children and to our future.  We need these small risk takers and “trouble makers” to grow up to create the next greatest leap for mankind.  I don’t see my son as a deficit or a difficulty, I see him as an amazing opportunity.  I could be raising the next Einstein or the person who DOES go on to find a cure for cancer or who finally has the vision to make regular space travel a possibility.  I don’t know what I did to be lucky enough for the universe to choose me with such a task but I will strive to live up to it by keeping my son’s day unstructured and full of potential for realizing any possibility and I will fight tooth and nail to keep him drug free and functioning to the best of HIS potential which may not necessarily coincide with any school goals. 

And readers, if you too have been lucky enough to be given a child as special as mine or if you are simply lucky enough to have children, I urge you to do the same.  Give our children back their childhood.  They may not be able to sit for long hours, they may switch quickly from one thing to another but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are defective.  They are special and we are blessed to have them among us.