Protecting the Sacredness of Childhood

A major theme of my work over the past few years has been a push back to the efforts to accelerate children to become adults. This is an extremely challenging and nuanced conversation. On the one hand, we know children are typically anxious to get older and become adults. We foster some of that with conversations about “changing the world” and becoming “future-ready”.

The expectations we’ve placed on children, I believe are contributing factors to the increase in anxiety and stress among young people. On the other hand, we have a responsibility to prepare students to become healthy, contributing adults. But I think we might be leaning too far in one direction at the cost of them losing out on what it means to be a kid.

Not every child gets the full experience and not everyone agrees on what the childhood experience should be. However, I think it’s pretty universal that these formative years need to be full of wonder, innocence, exploration, and a gradual increase in responsibility. So many factors determine how much each of these tenets is preserved, many of which schools and even parents have little control over. Today’s world is a constant barrage of messages that exposes children to adult themes and issues at a far younger age and with far more intensity than ever. We all are aware of the source of these messages and the challenge of balancing access with safety. Once again, it’s complex. But I wonder if schools might take a more active role in preserving and honoring the sacredness of childhood. What if we truly believed that this time in a human’s life is so precious that would actively work towards ensuring that children get the full benefits of a healthy childhood? Here are a few suggestions that I think may be helpful in protecting childhood:

No grades until high school. I’d probably argue for no grades period, but at least ensuring that a child’s first 13-14 years of life can be grade-free. We pretty much have a universal agreement that grades shouldn’t happen until at least grade 1 and many have postponed that further. To those who think this doesn’t mirror the real world, what is the correct age to begin evaluating students’ work? It seems arbitrary at best. When I look at effective sports programs, the goal is skill development and engagement in the sport. Competition is fine and can be a good thing but it should be relatively low stakes and invitational. Kids are being forced to compete on something they never asked to and I believe this contributes to the mindset of “will this be on the test?” rather than the love of learning. A good learning experience should provide enough opportunities and evidence of success and failure that it’s intuitive for the learning and they don’t require an adult to write a number or letter on a paper to determine their level of achievement.

More cross-grade interaction. I have no better mechanism to remind me of the precious nature of childhood than the time I spend with my preschool grandchildren. Watching little ones interact with the world can take us back to a time when we saw the world more simply. Children that don’t have younger siblings, pass by early childhood and transition into adolescence at such a pace they forget that only a few years ago they were playing with Lego and dolls. Having older students work regularly with younger students provides a sense of community and empathy but I’m looking at the added bonus of subtly reminding teens that they used to be 6. I fondly recall doing this with my first-grade class and a group of 8th graders and allowing them to play on the playground together. You could see the looks on the young teens’ faces who were being reminded of the joy of going down a slide and swinging on the monkey bars. Kids need to know that playing with Lego and dolls has no age limit.

More play or experiential days. Similar to the idea above but a concerted effort to get creative in providing experiences that focus on play. While there will be those who argue, that this should be embedded into the daily experience, there is something important around school-wide events that once again build community and culture. Gary Stager talks about introducing things to children that they don’t know yet that they love. This is a time to widen the horizon of childhood.

No homework. Lots have been said about this and the research, particularly around elementary students is clear. Given we already have children scheduled to death with extra-curricular activities, schools don’t need to pile on. I don’t think I went to a particularly progressive elementary school in the 1970s but I rarely remember having homework. After school was for pickup games and the odd ABC after-school special.

Watch your messaging. This is really tricky. I’m thinking specifically about the messages around “changing the world”. I’m thinking about placing the burden on children to solve world hunger, climate issues, and racism. I know young people can do great things and even within these big problems, young people and children can lead and create significant change. There is a time when natural curiosity and opportunity exist to address big problems. But the degree to which we inadvertently suggest they are the ones who should fix these problems can be a contributing factor to a loss of innocence and indeed their childhood.

Like all of us, but especially children, they need to experience beauty, play, wonder, and time and space to get to know the world around them and make sense of it without being told about all the dangers and evil that exists. That comes soon enough and there is no shortage of information to support that perspective.

As you can well assume, the influence of my grandkids has helped shape and solidify my beliefs about learning and life. Keeping in mind, that while it’s easy to think that childhood ends at adolescence, it’s just as important to protect them as teenagers as well. The acceleration to adulthood is a speeding train that’s nearly impossible to slow down but don’t you think it’s worth it? You only get to be 7 once. (Insert any number you like). What might we do as educators, leaders, and parents to preserve the sacredness of childhood? More than anything, I’d love for this post to start an honest conversation for you, your school, and your students.