A Longer School Year: Just What Over-Scheduled American Children Don't Need
So often, in our attempt to move toward something new and better, we give up something vital and important. Such is the case with the Obama Administration's proposals for a longer school year.
Although this plan might provide a service to some parents and provide more time for “information absorption,” it will come at the expense of optimal childhood development. It will come at the expense of family time, downtime and nurturing, and at the expense of opportunities to play, daydream and explore --- all of which are essential for intellectual and emotional growth. We must face the fact that learning is not something that is done to children, but a way of life that requires not only information, but also enthusiasm and curiosity. What better way to dampen enthusiasm and extinguish curiosity than to force children and teenagers into institutional settings all day and all year? Children and teenagers can only sit still for so long. They can only listen to lectures for so long. They can only absorb new material for so long. At some point, they need to get outside, relate with friends, be with family, stretch, and grow.
American children already spend more time in school than they used to, and the results are not impressive. Yes, American education needs improvement and, yes, higher academic standards are in order -- but let’s not mistake quantity for quality. It’s better education we need, not more. Academic rigor and more time in school are not one and the same.
The supposition that “more is better” is not new. To the contrary, it is a supposition that already defines American childhood. Today’s children expend their energy on long days in group situations, on preschool activities and after-school programs, on team sports and music and athletic lessons. Today’s teenagers juggle academics, sports and tutorials, and are expected to “build resumes.” “You can do it” parents, tutors, and coaches urge, as children “try again” to achieve the perfect ballet pose, the perfect runner’s mile, the perfect musical performance, the perfect SAT score. Then we are taken by surprise when success strategies backfire; when, instead of gaining momentum, children and teenagers lose energy and motivation. But, this end result makes sense. For, it takes a certain amount of freedom to be creative, a certain amount of time to be a thinker, and opportunities for independence to become inspired. Moreover, when we emphasize outward displays of accomplishment over children’s actual moral and intellectual advancement, children feel a void.
The signs that our children are overwhelmed by feelings of emptiness or inadequacy are everywhere, one of the surest signs being the very visible one of “cutting.” A 2006 study by the American Psychological Association reported that nearly 20 percent of American teenagers engage in self-mutilation. Eating disorders, anxiety problems, binge drinking, childhood depression, displays of cruelty and even childhood suicide rates all continue to rise. Depression, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reports, can be related to too much parental pressure, too much familial conflict, and too little maternal nurturing. Stress, these groups also note, is no longer a word that applies primarily to adults. (See, for example, the Nemours Foundation’s “KidsHealth” and “TeenHealth” websites, and my book: Ships Without a Shore: America's Undernurtured Children, which would have been more aptly named: Undernurtured and Overscheduled.)
An alternative to the harried, preordained way of life we give our children would rest upon renewed respect for childhood and renewed respect for learning for its own sake. There is a world of difference between raising a child and programming a child. Teaching children to be tough and prepared for the world, achieving doers instead of capable thinkers, has its price. Children’s innate curiosity is intense. When that curiosity has no room to fulfill itself, it burns out like a smothered flame.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan's plan appears to be gaining momentum. If you disagree with his vision for our children, now is the time to speak out.