I have regular discussions with adults about childhood.
Those my age tend to wax nostalgic about the carefree days of the 1950s and 1960s while parents of students I currently teach tend to be children from the ’70s and ’80s and will often reflect on the wild times of that era.
Although we have different experiences, we can usually agree that while childhoods might be different, children are not.
Children are born with certain personality qualities, physical abilities and various ‘natural’ talents, but the final product of who they are and what they become is much more a factor of the education they get, at home, in school and from others. In other words, every child may be unique in many ways, but in one way they are virtually all identical – they are sponges in learning to cope and adapt to the circumstances around them.
If we contend that children are different today than when we were young, we’re really just stating the obvious. The entire world is dramatically different now than it was just 20 years ago. The incredible impact of computerization and the internet has fundamentally changed the way we live and it has certainly changed the childhood experience.
Gone are the simple days of walking to school, coming home for a home-cooked lunch, walking back to school, coming home for a home-cooked family dinner, going out to play until the street lights come on, then catching an hour of TV before heading to bed.
Today’s children are more likely than not to be driven to school, to stay at school and eat processed food for lunch, to get a ride home, to eat dinner at a fast food outlet while heading to a soccer game or some other programmed activity, to watch two to three hours of television or spend that time on a computer that gives them access to a world of communication and networking and then head to bed where, once mom and dad (if they’re not split up) have headed to bed, the computer or cell phone can be fired up again to continue whatever conversations are available for as long as they wish to do so.
We may view our childhood as idyllic, but young children today view their world as idyllic. And why not, it’s all they know and they are doing what they like to do. We liked to play after school and they like to play on their computer.
A kid is a kid, and looking for the path of least resistance and maximum enjoyment is part of childhood play.
I’ve said before that in some ways I feel sorry for today’s youth. I find them rushed, stressed about social status, pressured to try to be an adult long before they have the emotional maturity to do so, and lacking decent nutrition, exercise and sleep to be as healthy, and happy-go-lucky as I recall my own childhood being.
Still, a childhood takes place primarily in a home and the ability of parents to influence that childhood should not be underestimated simply because others might be overwhelmed. Giving a child a computer, a cell phone, a video game, a fast food diet, too much programming, designer clothing and a host of other issues which crop up when we express concerns about children is really a parental choice. No child needs any of these things, any more than a child of any previous generation did. They are just ‘stuff.’
What every child does need, however, is what every child has always needed: constant love and support of family; appropriate guidelines to help them grow up safely and learn to make good decisions for themselves; and a balance between learning, working and playing that helps them prepare for the adult world of responsible citizenship and, yes, responsible parenting.
Graham Hookey is an educator and writer. Email him email@example.com.