Child Development

Keep the "Child" in Childhood

Much is lost when childhood is rushed.

Posted Dec 22, 2016

Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

In the 1960s, only 10 percent of three- and four-year-old children in the United States were enrolled in a classroom setting.  By 2005, 69 percent of four-year-old children participated in a state preschool program.  Each year more states are proposing or implementing universal preschool for all four-year-olds, and states such as Illinois include three-year-olds in universal preschool programs.  In the United States, the traditional age for enrollment in kindergarten is five, whereas it is six in countries such as Russia, Switzerland, Germany, and Japan, and seven in Sweden.

Although there have been a number of reasons for having children begin formal schooling at younger ages, a major rationale has been the expectation of superior academic performance.  In a rush to keep up with rapid technological advances, parents and educators have traded structured experiences for the free play learning of traditional childhood.  Many have lost sight of the essential value of unbridled learning as it occurs without formal containment.  Is there an adequate substitute for imagining a ride to a fantasyland on the back of a flying reindeer?  Is there a better way to practice social skills than sharing toys and playing with siblings or stuffed animals?

Does our progressive culture necessitate trading childhood freedom for formal education?  Research suggests that the academic benefit of starting school early pales by comparison with other aspects of children’s family and child care background experiences, and children who entered kindergarten at older ages outperformed those who entered at younger ages on some academic skills.          

Early entry into structured educational settings is not the only social change stealing time from the carefree days of childhood.  Children are becoming engaged in a variety of cyberspace activities at younger ages.  In 2010, The EU Kids Online survey, carried out in 25 countries across Europe, indicated that one-third of nine- to ten-year-olds who use the Internet go online daily, and 17% of them had been bullied in some way.  A 2009 survey of 3,657 ten- and eleven-year-old children in the United Kingdom revealed that most of the children used the Internet, and nearly half were involved in social networking, despite being younger than the age required by the sites.  Heavy use of social media was related to poorer psychological wellbeing.  One in eight children had experienced cyberbullying, and such bullying was associated with poorer psychological wellbeing.  The trend toward greater participation in cyberspace by younger children has been accelerated by the increase in use of smart phones by children.  In the 2009 survey, 93% of the children had their own mobile phone, giving them potentially continuous access to the Internet.  The rapid rise in children’s immersion in cyber-activity was documented also in the United States in a national survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The good news is that children are becoming tech savvy at ever-younger ages.  Even toddlers are able to play games on tablets and mobile devices.  Our high-tech cultural revolution will need adults who were practically weaned in cyberspace.  But the early learning of technical skills is not the only change in this revolution.  Earlier formal schooling has engaged young children in a more structured environment with stricter boundaries, expectations, and rules.  Early involvement in the cyber-world has exposed them to people and content that reveal harsher aspects and/or distortions of reality.

As borders, responsibilities, and the sad or evil facets of reality intrude upon childhood, they threaten the innocence and fantasy unique to childhood.  Ideally, childhood is magical and boundless, a paradise of imagination and all that can be wished for.  Childhood is rich with beliefs in unicorns, talking animals, and people who love without demanding anything in return.  Reflecting on his three-year-old son, musician Gregory Porter sang:  “He’s satisfied to dream his whole life away.  Candy coated castles life of play.  Broomsticks are his magic cars.  Climb aboard and you’ll ride the stars.  Do you remember?  It feels like yesterday.” 

Toddlers feel secure, trusting that those who love them can do anything and everything to care for them.  These childhood qualities are the foundation for psychological wellbeing in adulthood.  The freedom to dream as a child grows into creativity and inventiveness in adulthood.  Trust in childhood is the basis for loving adult relationships and healthy coping skills during times of adversity.  Reminiscing on his own childhood, James Morrison sang:  “Once, when I was little, yeah, I could dream more then.  Yeah I believed more then that the world could only get better.  Yeah I was free more then. . . . There was a time when I trusted everyone.”  Morrison advised:  “Stay as young as you can, for the longest time, cause those days flew by like a breeze just passing through.”

If we keep chipping away at the essence of childhood, how will future generations interact with a world transformed by digital reality and robotic versions of ourselves?  Before we rush more and more children into adulthood, we should consider what we are all losing.


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