Saturday, March 31, 2007

Several months back, I answered a question from a parent who was bemoaning that in her community, structured activities for preschoolers have become the standard by which a mom is measured — that is, the more activities in which a preschooler is enrolled, the better (more caring, responsible, forward-looking and so on) the mom is perceived to be.

My petitioner specifically mentioned Kindermusik and Gymboree in her letter, to which I responded that although none of the activities in question was harmful per se, the harm was in the fact that today’s children are not obtaining the benefits of sufficient unstructured, imaginative play. The villains are well-intentioned adults who believe they must micromanage everything children do in order for children to obtain full benefit.

I pointed out that children seem to have gotten along fine before adults decided they could not figure out how to play on their own. In the process of directing their own play, they learned social skills, including negotiation and conflict resolution, that today’s children miss. I also mentioned that no one has yet demonstrated what disadvantage, exactly, accrues to a child whose preschool years are absent these exercises in micromanagement.

Although I did not mention Kindermusik in my reply, the nerves of Kindermusik teachers nationwide were scratched. Nearly 100 of them sent me e-mails (half of which looked suspiciously similar). Some tried to educate me as to the value of Kindermusik, and some just wanted to vent.

I am revisiting that column to make perfectly clear that I stand firm on the issue. I don’t really care how supposedly valuable any given preschool activity is; I am continually and permanently disturbed that so few of today’s children are being allowed just to play.

Instead, their discretionary time is organized and directed by adults who all sincerely believe they are on an anointed mission to “improve” the children. The unintended consequence is that these children are being deprived of the full benefit of childhood. As they grow, the problem of adult overinvolvement only worsens until the teen years, by which time youngsters don’t know how to make creative use of their time, so they turn to such mind-numbing activities as video games.

Shortly after that column appeared, psychologist David Elkind’s (“The Hurried Child”) latest book, “The Power of Play” (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2006, $24), hit the shelves. I don’t generally review books because I don’t want publishers inundating me with requests to do so, but I’m going to break with policy in this case (and endure the consequences). I think every parent should read this book. In fact, I’m making it an assignment, and there will be a test on Monday.

Mr. Elkind says play is being “silenced” by adult-organized activities, television, video games and an overemphasis on academics that has led to the shortening (and in some cases elimination) of recess and physical education. He makes a coherent, readable and altogether fascinating case for adults who are childhood-friendly instead of focused on making sure their children participate in every “advantage” available.

What it boils down to is that most adults no longer possess a sense of proper boundaries where children are concerned. They seem to believe that the more involved they are the better.

By contrast, when I was a child, it was my job to keep my parents from getting involved. If I accepted and properly discharged my academic responsibilities, they didn’t get involved, and what a wonderful thing that was for them and me. If I conducted myself properly outside the home, they didn’t get involved, and what a wonderful thing that was for them and me. If I did my chores properly and on time, they didn’t get involved, and what a wonderful thing that also was for them and me.

Low adult involvement is still a wonderful, liberating thing for both adult and child. In the most compelling way possible, Mr. Elkind recommends that you give it a try, and I second that motion.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (

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