Early Childhood Opinion

Are Children Asked to Grow Up Too Quickly?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 02, 2013 5 min read
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We see truth in two sides of many issues. We tend toward both/and rather than either/or. It has made us agile. But, don’t you long for the days of clarity: right and wrong, good and bad, black and white? Nowadays, we deal in shades of gray. We fulfill our responsibilities to follow mandates while we rail against the very things we are doing. The results are often a compromise with disappointment on both sides. Rather than building something better and stronger, we are left with some watered down version of what one or the other set out to accomplish. Oh, for the days when our choices were simpler and the world was less complex.

As we wax nostalgic, let’s take this moment to step back and reflect. It seems everything is different. We know even the children are different now....but they are also the same. We do know what is good for children; it is the very fiber of our work. Assumptions follow. We assume others also know because they are parents and concerned citizens. They assume, regardless of the years of our training, that we are not the experts. Hence, when we speak out in protest to the plethora of testing our children are required to take, our objections are cast aside. The policy makers receiving the letters see us as protectors of the status quo, fearful of accountability and opponents of the goal to have students become college and career ready, when we are simply fighting for the protection of their childhoods.

Driven by this wave of nostalgia, we turn to the bookshelves. We came across a book written by David Elkind, Professor of Child Development at Tufts University. In The Hurried Child, first written in 1981, Elkind gives clear and inarguable evidence that hurrying the growing up process is a dangerous one. An observation he wrote about was the loss of markers, rites of passage that used to exist. Childhood was divided by specific events that were traditional. At a certain age a young girl was allowed to wear stockings. At a certain age a young boy was given his grandfather’s watch. Waiting for the age when stockings were permitted and the watch was passed down, the boundaries of their childhood were protected. These were rites of passage that informed young people they were moving into the next phase of their life, each step closer to adulthood. As long ago as 1981, Elkind noted that these types of traditional steps were melting away. Girls were wearing stockings well before their mothers did and boys had no interest in that old watch anyway. Childhood was losing its protection and adulthood was seeping in. If we thought change came fast, there have been portends for decades. We need new markers...or don’t we?

The work of Jean Piaget, who lived from 1896-1980, provides context for Elkind’s work. In his chapter entitled ‘Growing Up Slowly,’ Ekind refers to Piaget’s findings, “...prior to adolescence, children lack the mental abilities to think, reason, judge, and make decisions in the way adults do...both the content and the form of children’s thinking changes with age” (p.119). Add to that thinking, the difference in the community of children we have in our schools. During his studies in Europe, there was far less mobility, and much more homogeneity. There was no internet and handhelds were only science fiction. So for us, there is this truth: the content and form of children’s thinking changes with age. And each presents him or herself as an individual even within those age brackets. It is more complex and dynamic. The diversity of the levels even of school readiness alone presents increasingly unknown territory for us as we usher our students through their development.

No one will disagree that our entire system is being stressed. That includes our students. Elkind writes about the negative affects of stress. It is not only the tests that are stressing our students; it is the world they live in. It is not a kind and gentle world. They are confronted with violence everywhere. Games, stories and the media glorify it. Schools try to protect them from it. Families and communities struggle with it. Streets and strangers become unsafe. The American values of individualism and self reliance, the media’s representation of issues having two sides, one right, one wrong, the influence of their perception that consequences are optional, and their sense of entitlement all contribute to the stress they live with. In addition, Elkind reports, “Violence and the threat of school violence are powerful stressors and have significant effects upon students, teachers, administrative staff and the very process of education itself. Stress impairs children’s ability to learn and teacher’s ability to teach” (p.16).

This may be the time to watch our own actions. Hurrying children has a consequence. Elkind describes Piaget’s Concrete Operational Period in which children, ages 6 and 7 begin to master certain basic skills. “Hurrying children academically...ignores the enormity of the task that children face in acquiring basic math and reading skills” (p.127). Ask any kindergarten or first grade teacher how it is going - trying to figure out how to manage the Common Core demands while knowing in their bones that there needs to be time for them to be sure that their children truly understand the concepts required to move forward, and they will tell you! The Common Core is not the issue. The common foundation, across the country, offers clear and robust expectations and introduces the possibility for creativity to reenter our schools. This may hold a great value for our systems but it may take a generation to know for sure.

In the meantime, as leaders of institutions of learning in which we welcome five year olds and graduate 18 year olds, we have a moral imperative to use our positions to protect and guide these children safely and well. If our actions are guided by the faces of our students, each one of them, we have the highest calling. Our teachers and leaders are stressed, perhaps in part, our hearts are troubled. We must keep the children safe, and learning and we must do both those things while keeping in mind that they are young. The stress of hurrying our children academically matches the stress our children have come to live with as the other parts of their childhoods have melted away. Let’s take the time this summer to think about our schools as places for what has come to be called ‘the whole child’ and ask ourselves if we need to do something else, something different. Let’s not fight back, but fight for. That might take us in a different direction.

Elkind, David (2001). The Hurried Child. Cambridge: Perseus Book Group

You can find Ann and Jill’s summer reading recommendations at BookMarks

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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.