Kids need recess. They need longer lunches. They need free play, family time, meal time. They need less homework, fewer tests, a greater emphasis on social-emotional learning.
This is the view, cited in a New York Times article, of Denise Pope – a co-founder of ChallengeSuccess – an American organisation that works with schools and parents to help kids to thrive in life; balancing academic performance and valuable life skills.
I was interested to read the article, as I found that many of the points made is what drives the work of Leaderonomics Youth, which is part of our community initiative to help young people develop self-confidence, practical skills, teamwork, social intelligence, and much more.
Most people over the age of 30 or 40 will remember growing up having chunks of the day when we would be off playing with our friends. We would be exploring, having fun, and – unknown to us – learning how to interact with each other and develop a strong support system.
Nowadays, as parents, we might reflect on those nostalgic times, lamenting that “kids today don’t spend much time playing outside – they’d rather spend all day looking at their phones.”
While it can be argued that children are captivated by technology, research studies into parenting and child development suggest that this might be more of a coping mechanism from over-protective parenting, rather than a preference to spend more time with devices.
As the NYT article notes:
Children turn to screens because opportunities for real-life human interaction have vanished; the public places and spaces where kids used to learn to be people have been decimated or deemed too dangerous for those under 18.
On this side of the world, children often have added pressures besides having limited free time to have fun with their friends for the sake of having fun. I remember talking to some first year university students, where they talked to me about their typical week. As one student described theirs:
“Besides classes, I’m part of a few clubs that my parents suggested would look good on my resume. I don’t mind them, but it does mean I spend a lot of time at university doing activities that I know my parents want me to do. It’s like everything needs to be for a purpose, and it leads to less time just to hang out with my friends, or explore some interests that I find enjoyable.”
“Sometimes, my parents will say that I can pick my own interests. But if I tell them I want to join performing arts or photography, they’ll tell me that those won’t help me as much and I’ll feel like I should follow my parents advice. But then, because of the time I spend at university, my mum might ask why I’m not at home as often, or my friends might ask why I don’t want to join them on a road trip. It can get overwhelming at times trying to please everyone.”
This report by the Khazanah Research Institute on The School-to-Work Transition of Young Malaysians explored the ‘mismatch’ between what our education institutions expect of students, and what the job market requires. Employers were found to “rate soft skills and work experience above the academic and professional qualifications that are emphasised by Malaysian education and training institutions.”
This is why, through our Leaderonomics Youth initiatives, we try to develop skills in young people through learning by exploration, interacting with challenges, and being able to spend time in a way that helps them to support each other, rather than being constantly directed. As research studies have strongly shown, learning by doing is much more effective than being told what to learn.
We can all agree that academic learning is important, but even in Ivy League schools the degree certificate is no guarantee of a successful future. After all, when you have scores of Grade-A students applying to the same industries, employers will be compelled to ask the question: “So, what makes you different from the rest?”
To develop our young people, we have to loosen the reins a little and allow them to develop themselves by meeting challenges and, yes, failing on occasion and learning how to deal with that. When we are overprotective, when we expect nothing less than A+ efforts from our kids, then at the first sight of a problem, setback or failure, their confidence takes a damaging hit when they realise they have no idea how to deal with adversity.
We need to look beyond technology as a scapegoat when we see disengagement, depression, anxiety and self-doubt in children. Instead, we should ask what environment is being created for them that’s holding them back from their own development.
Are we being too protective? How much expectation are we placing on kids to be high-achievers? How do we respond when they come home with a ‘B’ grade, or fail? Are we giving time for young people to do their own thing, to have fun, to develop their social and emotional intelligence?
While it might not be listed on their resumes, these considerations can help young people to go on to lead successful, rich and meaningful lives.
Ultimately, how we treat our kids today will determine how they’ll turn out tomorrow. We have the option – and a duty -–to help children develop their physical and emotional well-being, and that’s best done when we guide and support their growth, rather than try to control their development in ways that only serve to increase their fragility.