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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Why can't kids just be kids?

I felt compelled to write this post after listening to Dr. Leonard Sax's anecdotal opening at a professional development day at the school district where I teach. Here was his story. Dr. Sax began by telling us about a retired teacher fondly reminiscing about snowball fights he used to have with his students. After 40 or so years of teaching, that's one of the things this teacher noted he missed the most. When Dr. Sax told us this, all of the teachers in the room became excited. How fun would it be to throw snowballs at our students! Could you imagine? What a great opportunity to bond! How thrilling! I thought there was even a certain sense of giddiness as teachers fondly remembered their own childhood experiences with heaving snowballs and building snow forts. It's difficult these days to create moments where the older generation can connect with the younger generation. Nowadays, with lawsuits and for liability reasons, teachers could never throw a snowball at a student; nor could students be allowed to throw snowballs at each other (at least not on school grounds or at bus stops or on the way to or from school...). The rules really weigh down on students' opportunities to just be kids.

So I started thinking...how come there are less opportunities for kids to "just be kids" these days? What I mean by "just be kids" is to feel little responsibility related to the adult world; to be able to run around and hang out with neighborhood friends getting a game of baseball going or building tree forts. Catching crickets or fireflies in the summer. Riding bikes and getting excited for the ice cream truck. Not needing lavish birthday parties with ponies and blow-up jumper buildings. Not wanting to have hotel pool parties or limo rides to the salon. Not knowing these things exist because you're not an adult yet and you wouldn't even dream of it! That's what I mean. I mean teens not caring so much about their social status of clothing, or their social status online (i.e, number of facebook friends).

It seems to me that kids don't have as many opportunities to relax in positive ways. Pastimes have been stripped away. Kids no longer have opportunities to just "be themselves." These days they are constantly putting forth a self-image of who they wish they were or of who they see on T.V. They emulate rap stars whose claim to fame includes prison time and spending time and money in strip clubs, "poppin the champagne." They look up to young women celebrities who are in and out of rehab for drug or alcohol abuse. They watch T.V. shows where teens are partying or living lavish lifestyles (i.e. MTV's My Sweet Sixteen Birthday Party). Parties and lifestyles well out of reach for the majority of teens...not to mention even debating about whether such parties are acceptable.

Teen and pre-teen girls can't find modest clothes at the stores anymore. I walked into a store that was meant for elementary age girls and it had chain belts and belly shirts. I was shocked! What kind of message does this send to our children? Should elementary aged girls be allowed to wear the same kinds of clothes as teenage girls? Plus, from my own observations, it seems that lower-cut shirts for women are becoming more and more the norm both on T.V. and in the workplace. Is this o.k.? What do kids think when they've grown up with this as the "norm?"

Television and radio greatly affect children's' outlook on the world. Lyrics to songs on the radio used to be more fluffy and cute; while sometimes suggestive, they were never explicit. For example, the Beatles "I want to hold your hand" has been replaced by inappropriate and in-your-face lyrics. There are several examples that come to mind, but I'd rather not list specific examples on my blog. Shows like the Secret Life of the American Teenager attempt to reveal issues that teens today deal with. I'm not saying adults should turn a blind eye or pretend that teens aren't more sexually active these days, but what message does this send to teenage girls who watch the show? That teens having sex when parents aren't home is what all the kids are doing? That teens will have support and can afford to have children? That life is all about relationships with boyfriends or girlfriends? (Talking with some teenagers, this may be true! And that's o.k).

What about sports or music? Many students are involved in extracurricular activities, that's a good thing, right? It depends on a few factors. Factor number one: the pressure the kids feels to have to continue to be in a specific activity. Maybe your child used to love to play soccer, but is not interested in it anymore. Say, for example, your favorite sport is soccer and your kid is good at it. What do you do? Have you sat down to even ask your child if she/he likes the sport still and is having fun playing it? Are you the parent that's counting on your child to earn a scholarship for college? (If you are, you should really take the time to look up the statistical data on the number of athletes who receive collegiate scholarships according to the specific sport). Do you push your child to be the best on the team? Competition is fun. Sports can serve as a wonderful physical and social outlet, but at what point is competition o.k., and at what point does it become too much to handle or start to feel like a chore?

Parents are enablers of burn-out when it comes to extracurricular activities. I've coached softball (at jr. high level) for the past two years and after talking to several parents, a common topic of conversation was the ridiculous and rigorous sports schedules their child had to face. At more highly competitive levels, parents drive their athlete across state lines to compete in weekend tournaments. Parents don't like long sports seasons, but not much is being done to shorten that. It is acceptable in my school district (and plenty of others as well) for softball teams, for example, to play double headers two-three times a week. Often, athletes get on a bus right after school and don't get back home until 7:30, 8:00, or 9:00 at night. (Some sports/music groups get to leave school sometimes up to an hour early just to make it on time to a competition. Think about how much instruction time that student is missing in his/her last class of the day and how much extra work that creates for teachers?) Couple such a schedule with all day Saturday tournaments, dinner, homework, and sleep and then ask yourself, when do our kids have time to be kids?? Parents have repeatedly told me they feel like they are their child's personal chauffeur taking their child (or children!)from one activity to the next. Hello! You're the parent! Tell your child he/she has to choose one activity and can't do them all at once! If it's becoming too much for you to drive your child to activities, you have to assume that it's too much for the child to handle as well.

Kids are becoming less and less interested in face-to-face, personal interaction. I'll talk a bit about boys and video games and girls with texting/facebook.
Boys are addicted to video games, and some girls, too. It is an epidemic in our country. Think of how many teenage boys play video games or multi player computer games such as World of Warcraft. What's the future of those boys going to look like as they become fathers? Will they encourage their sons to play, too? Will this replace going outside and playing catch or taking fishing trips? Will fathers encourage the false sense of accomplishment that you get from making a kill or organizing a raid online? What do these skills and experiences have to do with reality? How will ample video-game playing time increase boys' reading skills?
Girls, generally speaking, are addicted to texting and facebook. Facebook was a tool designed to keep college kids socially connected- and it should have stayed that way. Why does a 12-year-old girl need a facebook account? What's the point? Why do 500 people need to see your photos and know what's going on in your life? I'll admit, I have a facebook account that I started in 2004 when it was just spreading to colleges across the country. I use it to keep in touch with friends who live far from where I live. It's a nice way to drop a note once and a while. Is it necessary? No way. I call the friends I want to talk to and vice versa. I can email those I'd like to stay in touch with. But for a high school student who sees her friends everyday? It's like they don't get a break from each other. It's like taking your school home with you; exacerbating issues like cyber-bullying and increasing chances for passing judgments and gossiping.

Kids aren't allowed to be kids anymore. And who made this so? I know children aren't born into this world making the rules; society's norms are well in place before they reach school age. Can you blame society as a whole? Can you blame parents? Can you blame the kids? Teachers? It's not about pointing fingers and placing blame. It's about seriously considering how society and technology impact our kids on a daily basis. It's about raising them to make competent, morally advised decisions in life. It's about teaching them to have fun and be a kid once and a while. What kind of adults will our kids be if they were deprived of a childhood?

On one final note, I observed a girl in her early twenties visiting an older relative. This girl and her relative rarely get a chance to spend time with one another. For a good portion of the weekend visit, the girl was busy texting on her phone and answering email. There was little conversation between her and the relative. I thought this was sad; maybe they weren't that close to begin with. But think about when you visit your own relatives? How much quality conversation do you have with them? How often do you end up sitting around and staring at a T.V. screen together? Do you watch T.V. during family dinner time? Do you even designate a specific family dinner time where everyone sits down together to share a meal? I think it's crucial that we start to think about the role models we are for our children and for our students. We can make changes that could impact the way a child takes in the world for the rest of his life.