What is childhood? It is a stage of life when the human being is young, is protected by adults, and is growing fast and is learning from all things new. Chronologically, the stage of life called childhood ends with adolescence. Some say playing is the work of childhood. In 1981 David Elkind published the first edition of The Hurried Child: growing up too fast too soon. Now updated and revised, the book still tells a story of childhoods lost, moved indoors, stressed, and yes, hurried.
Although fire drills are still required and no child is stressed with fears that a fire will break out, we hear reports about the stresses children are experiencing regarding about gun violence and school safety. Because our childhoods took place before 1981, we can attest to an interesting change. We can recall no stress or fear when we were required to take duck and cover drills. We huddled, heads covered with arms, in classrooms under desks or along the hallway walls protecting ourselves from atomic bombs. It was a remote, mysterious part of going to school. We never thought about whether these drills and putting our heads down would really protect us from an atomic bomb. But, actually, we recall feeling safe. We had a plan if the bomb dropped. For those younger than we, who may not know about that time, here is a brief video. It will help understand intergenerational responses and contextualize the fear.
Perhaps because the enemy was invisible to us, we were not fearful. It was Russia, the enemy of far away that was the imagined enemy; too remote for much fear to arise. It was, after all, a cartoon turtle warning us. Our days were before ‘stranger danger’. Adults in communities watched over all the children as if we were one family. Now, strange adults are to be feared, schools prepare for shootings and children are warned about ‘a strange van circling the neighborhood’. But, these aren’t the only reasons childhood is at risk.
In the original edition of David Elkind’s book 30 years ago, he introduced the premise that markers between childhood, teenage, and adult years were disappearing. It was harder, he wrote, to know where in the continuum one stood. There used to be a “coming of age” when girls were permitted to wear makeup and stockings and when boys were given their father’s or grandfather’s prized pocket watch as signs of growing up. No more. Toddlers wear tights (stockings) and prized watches remain with the fathers and grandfathers, don’t they? Childhood was a time of books and games and lessons. So how does a child know now when they are still a child or when they are a transitioning into adulthood? Does responsibility change? Are there new rules we need to know? Even this wondering provokes stress.
‘Emotional overload’ ‘responsibility overload’ and ‘change overload’ provoke stress.(p. 172). Change in the working family and stressors of parents’ lives spill into the life of the child. Quarreling, complaining about work or those at work is normal and is happening more frequently. Elkind believes, "...as more and more workers are engaged in service or white-collar activities, there are more people who lack physical avenues for ‘letting off steam’” Therefore, it comes out at home without even realizing it. Separation also causes stress for today’s child. Possible childcare, camp, the business trips of parents, a divorce, a death, or moving to a new neighborhood or state are all stressors children might experience now. The news, comments about politics, frustrations at work, and never ending hurrying from one activity to another...or the lack of activities and a sense of isolation...all provoke stress for children.
School presents another place for stress to arise in the life of a child. Any environment in which a child doesn’t feel welcomed, successful, or confident can bring on stress. A teacher who seems not to like us, a glance in a hallway, a comment from another student, the looming of a state test and the tensions held by teachers, a bully, a failing grade...any of these provoke stress for a child.
Teachers and Leaders Make a Difference
School is a system in which culture is an adult choice. Leaders have the opportunity with other leaders and the teachers and staff to create a culture of understanding and safety in which learning is supported and the expectation for success is a constant. Teachers welcome children into their classrooms and should be attentive to the well-being of the child as they facilitate learning. It is the preparation for learning that is being challenged for the hurried and stressed child. The stressors in a school that serves children living in poverty are different from the stressors for children living comfortably or in wealth, yet stressors exist for all children. The knowledge imparted is measured by tests. The hard work of teachers and their leaders who comfort and guide and build a culture of safety and acceptance and caring is invisible. No measure exists. No evidence exists to ascertain when the child moves from feeling stressed to being ready to learn. To a large extent, this is the work and the intuition of the educator.
David Elkind’s words:
A philosophy of life, an art of living, is essentially a way of decentering, a way of looking at our lives in perspective and of recognizing the needs and rights of others. If we can overcome some of the stresses of our adult lives and decenter, we can begin to appreciate the value of childhood with its own special joys, sorrows, worries, and rewards. Valuing childhood does not mean seeing it as a happy innocent period but, rather as an important period of life to which children are entitled.” (p.221)
So has the notion of childhood as the stage of innocence become archaic? While we acknowledge the stress of early years and the difficult lives of young families today, we are still hoping for a bit of the old way to endure. We still hope for some bits of innocence in childhood. We aspire to days that are carefree and playful. We think those days help form us as adults. If parents can’t do it alone, active and loving grandparents along with teachers and leaders who understand and can help protect childhood will make the difference. As educators, we can make the path clear by remembering the value of a childhood and making sure it is a protected time in the lives of the children we serve.
Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.
Elkind, D. (2001).The hurried Child: Growing up too fast too soon. Cambridge, MA.: Perseus Books Group
Photo by Alexas_Fotos courtesy of Pixabay
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.