Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"Playing is Good for Children" says the New York Times UPDATED

Well, that's a relief.

Also ... "Studies Show Water is Wet," and "Scientists Agree: Puppies are Cuddly."

I don't know whether to be pleased or mystified by "Effort to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum," a story in the Home & Garden section of the New York Times. Like so much from the Times, it reads like a dispatch written by and about alien life-forms. In this case, people have recently discovered that these strange small beings known as HU-MAN CHIL-DREN enjoy peculiar rituals called "PRETENDING" and "PLAYING," and that these rituals may now be safely classified as "GOOD" due to the opinions of Designated Experts.

What kind of Type-A, OCD, careerist, whack-job parents do Times writers generally associate with that they think a mom who lets the kids play in the house--even if it gets a little bit messy!--is somehow news? They even manage to find some chin-tugging expert to say, “Play is just a natural thing that animals do and humans do, but somehow we’ve driven it out of kids.”

Speak for yourself, lady. I teach kids, I volunteer with kids, and I live with kids, and I have never encountered one who has had the play "driven out" of him. I do the "play" thing professionally, and kids know how to play just fine.

I'm not always sure that parents know how to parent, however. If the story were merely a lament about the over-scheduling of the average American child, then I'd agree, but that hardly means that children have "forgotten" how to play. They merely have parents who think a child's every waking moment must be filled with some kind of self-improving busywork. I heard one parent justify this kind of intense parenting by saying "If we don't have our kids keep up, then the Chinese will beat us." I'm not sure what exactly they think the Chinese are going to beat us at. Long division? State capitols? Ping-pong?

My family is hardly typical--my wife and I both work at home and our kids don't do sports--but I know plenty of "typical" families, and none of the kids have what one "expert" actually calls a "play deficit."

The Times story ends with excerpts from a 75-page instruction manual on how to play, including such gems as these:
“Climb on the couch with your friends and pretend you are sailing on a ship to a distant land,” reads one idea. Another, from the section on construction play: “Lay a toy on the floor and figure out how to build a bridge going over the toy with blocks.”
“Make paper doll cutouts from old newspapers and magazines,” a third suggests, “and let your imagination fly!”
I don't mean to sound judgmental (wait a second: yes I do), but if your kids need instructions like these, then you have royally screwed up the whole parenting thing, and almost certainly screwed up your kids.

We play a lot here at Casa McD: certainly more than the average household. Part of that has to do with the constant flow of games coming into the house for my job, but part of it also has to do with the rules we laid down. TV watching and screen-based games are limited to a few hours spread over Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and sometimes on days with heavy weather. That's always been the rule, so the kids have learned how to play on their own. I've had parents marvel at this. How do you do it? My kids would never stand for it! they say.

I never understood this response. You're the parent! You make the rules. You shape your child's world through the decisions you make. And if your child doesn't know how to play because he's staring into a screen all the time, or because she's bouncing from ballet to soccer to Mandarin lessons to yoga, then you made the wrong choices somewhere along the line.

Take away the DS, turn off the computer, cancel the stupid lessons, quit the team, and dump a pile of Lego in the middle of a table, get a stack of paper and a new box of Crayolas, or break out a board game. If you want to give your kids the best, then give them time to just be kids.

UPDATE: Some people wanted to know if I'd read this story about Chinese parenting. Yes I had, and if it's accurate, then it's a rather chilling portrait of a nation of psychopaths. I find the entire drive to "get ahead" at any cost utterly nauseating, whether it's from Eastern or Western parents. What are we trying to get ahead of? Why must professional, academic, or even personal achievement (more correctly, over-achievement) be the defining measure of a life, rather than love or joy? Perhaps certain children are happy being driven to misery so they can play a nice little piano piece and make mamma proud at the recital, but I'd say those children are definitely in the minority.

I'm not saying that kids don't need to be pushed and made to understand that hard work is needed to master anything, but the "Chinese mother" techniques described in the story cross the line into brutality. I agree that rote memorization and drilling is a huge benefit to kids, and I spend summer break tutoring my kids in Latin, history, literature, math and other subjects in order to keep their minds sharp and extend their range of learning. Every parent has to push their kids to learn math, study science, and practice instruments, but the vast majority manage to do so without turning it into some kind of cruel psychodrama.

Perhaps this drive to create "superchildren" is a byproduct of China's monstrous single-child policy, with incredible pressure brought to bear on that one child to fulfill all his or her parents' dreams and expectations. In any case, I'll put American independence, empathy, high spirits, freedom, and inventiveness against obsessive Chinese parenting any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.


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