From "Endangered" (Plough Publishing). Used by permission.

The pressure to excel is transforming childhood as never before. Naturally, parents have always wanted their children to "do well," both academically and socially. No one wants their child to be the slowest in the class, the last to be picked for a game on the field. But what is it about the culture we live in that has made that natural worry into such an obsessive fear, and what is it doing to our children? What is achievement, anyway? And what is success, other than some vague, lofty ideal?

My mother used to say that education begins in the cradle, and not one of today's gurus would disagree. But the differences in their approaches are instructive. Whereas women of her generation sang their babies to sleep just as their mothers had done--because a baby loves the sound of its mother's voice--today's tend to cite studies on the positive effects of Mozart on the development of the infant brain. Fifty years ago, women nursed their babies and taught their toddlers finger games as a matter of course; today, most do neither, despite endless chatter about the importance of bonding and nurture.

Just as books require white space, so do children. That is, they need room to grow. Unfortunately, too many children aren't getting that. In the same way that we tend to overwhelm them with material things, we tend to over-stimulate and over-steer. We deny them the time, space, and flexibility they need to develop at their own pace. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu reminds us that "it is not the clay the potter throws that gives the jar its usefulness, but the space within." Children need stimulation and guidance, but they also need time to themselves. Hours spent alone in daydreams or in quiet, unstructured activities instill a sense of security and independence and provide a necessary lull in the rhythm of the day.

Children thrive on silence too. Without external distractions they will often become so consumed by what they are doing that they will be totally oblivious of everything around them. Unfortunately, silence is such a luxury that they are rarely allowed the opportunity for such undisturbed concentration. Whatever the setting--mall, elevator, restaurant, or car--the low murmur (or blare) of piped-in music or background noise is incessantly there.

As for the importance of giving children unstructured time, nineteenth-century writer Johann Christoph Blumhardt warns against the temptation to constantly intrude, and emphasizes the value of spontaneous activity: "That is their first school; they are teaching themselves, as it were. I often have the feeling that angels are around children ... and that whoever is so clumsy as to disturb a child provokes his angel." Certainly there is nothing wrong with giving a child chores and requiring him to carry them out on a daily basis. But the way many parents overbook their children, emotionally and timewise, robs them of the scope they need to develop on their own.

It is a beautiful thing to see a child thoroughly absorbed in his play; in fact, it is hard to think of a purer, more spiritual activity. Play brings joy, contentment, and detachment from the troubles of the day. And especially nowadays, in our hectic, time- and money-driven culture, the importance of those things for every child cannot be emphasized enough. Educator Friedrich Froebel, the father of the modern kindergarten, goes so far as to say that "a child who plays thoroughly and perseveringly, until physical fatigue forbids, will be a determined adult, capable of self-sacrifice both for his own welfare and that of others." In an age when fears of playground injuries and the misguided idea that play interferes with "real" learning has led some forty percent of the school districts across the country to do away with recess, one can only hope that the wisdom of these words will not go entirely unheeded.

Allowing children the room to grow at their own pace does not mean ignoring them. Clearly, the bedrock of their security from day to day is the knowledge that we who care for them are always at hand, ready to help them, to talk with them, to give them what they need, and simply to "be there" for them. But how often are we swayed instead by our own ideas of what they want or need?

Of all the ways in which we push children to meet adult expectations, the trend toward high-pressure academics may be the most widespread, and the worst. I say "worst" because of the age at which children begin to be subjected to it, and the fact that for some of them school quickly becomes a place they dread, and a source of misery they cannot escape for months at a time.

According to Melinda, a veteran preschool teacher in California, such [discouragement starts early].

We have parents asking whether their two-and-a-half-year-olds are learning to read yet, and grumbling if they can't. The pressure some parents put on children is just incredible. I see children literally shaking and crying because they don't want to go in to testing. I've even seen parents dragging their child into the room. ...

I had a little boy one year, Miles, whose parents were pushing him to get him ready to enter a very expensive private school. I bumped into his father at the beginning of the next school year and he said, "You know, Miles has been so stressed out that we're going to get him into counseling." It was true that Miles was stressed out, but I was sure it was because of the rigorous testing they'd put him through during the summer. ... He had started crying the day of the testing, and he'd cried every day since then. We have abandoned the idea of education as growth, and decided to see it only as a ticket to the job market. Guided by charts and graphs, and cheered on by experts, we have turned our backs on the value of uniqueness and creativity and fallen instead for the lie that the only way to measure a child's progress is a standardized test.

Einstein once wrote that if you want brilliant children, read them fairy tales. "And if you want them to be more brilliant, read them more fairy tales." Obviously, such a quip is not the sort of answer an expert might give to the discouraging trends described above. But I still believe it is a thought worth reflecting on. It is the inventive sort of wisdom without which we will never pull ourselves out of the ruts we are currently stuck in.

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