Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Every Generation Weeps

File:The Lorax.jpg

Last month, Chicago Now blogger Christine Whitley published a first grade readiness list based on the work of the Gesell Institute of Human Development from 1979:

1. Will you child be six years, six months older when he begins first grade and starts receiving reading instruction?

2. Does you child have two to five permanent or second teeth?

3. Can your child tell, in such a way that his speech is understood by a school crossing guard or policeman where he lives?

4. Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?

5. Can he stand on one foot with eyes closed for five to ten seconds?

6. Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels?

7. Can he tell left hand from right?

8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?

9. Can he be away from you all day without being upset?

10. Can he repeat an eight- to ten-word sentence, if you say it once, as "The boy ran all the way home from the store?"

11. Can he count eight to ten pennies correctly?

12. Does you child try to write or copy letters or numbers?

A couple of the items jump out at me. 

It appears that it wasn't really all that long ago that we understood that formal literacy instruction should wait until first grade. The research indicates that the earliest we should start is seven-years-old, and that the natural window for learning to read is somewhere between seven and ten. Today, preschoolers as young as three are being subjected to enforced reading instruction, a practice destined to make many of them worse readers (in terms of comprehension and reading for pleasure) in the long run.

Perhaps the biggest change since I was a teenager, however, is number eight: "Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?"

Many will argue, of course, that the world was a safer, saner place back then, but they are objectively wrong. Crime rates today in the US are significantly lower than they were in in 70's and 80's. But we all know that if you today permitted your six-year-old to travel alone in your neighborhood, sometimes even just into your backyard, child protective services will be knocking on your door. Not that many of us, even the most "free range" of parents, would even consider sending a preschooler on neighborhood errands in 2015.

I walked to Meadowfield Elementary School in 1969. I remember it as about six blocks in a suburban neighborhood without sidewalks, most of it along Macon Road where the cars drove quite fast, although the distance may have become muddled in my mind over time. What I do recall clearly, however, was that it was no big deal to me to walk, alone, along the side of street. I'd been doing it for as long as I remembered, usually without even informing mom first, going to friend's houses, playing in vacant lots, and generally navigating my world without a parent hovering over me every moment.

Today, I know parents of 12-year-olds who have never left their child alone in the house, even to just run to the neighborhood grocery store. I thought I was the renegade when I was letting my daughter ride mass transit on her own at that age.

Some of the parents of the children I teach were born in the 80's and most grew up then, never knowing what it was like to have the sort of freedom we had during what many call the "Golden Age of Childhood." They've never known that sort of childhood freedom. Even Lenore Skenazy, author and founder of the Free Range Kids movement, the leading voice for a return of childhood freedom, would have sounded like a bit of a fuddy-duddy in the 70's. 

The saddest part for me is that even as I rarely come across anyone who thinks childhood is better today, few, including me see much chance of making it better. There are just too many laws, too many lawsuits, too much ingrained fear to ever go back, at least in our lifetime.

I would argue that it falls to our schools to become those places of freedom, places where kids can explore and "roam" and play and learn, but as things stand now we are having to fight just to prevent them from becoming lock down, drill-and-kill asylums. 

Every generation weeps for the children that comes behind it. In fact, I hope that's what I'm doing, just being an old-timer telling stories from "my day." But when I look beyond the walls of our play-based preschool, a place where we attempt every day to evoke the ethos and practices of the "Golden Age," and still falling far short, I see that the only way to make the world better for children would be a full on rebellion, one designed to change a quarter of a century of well-intended, but very bad laws. And I just don't see it happening.

In some ways, I feel like the Lorax living in a world that has forgotten that the Truffula trees ever existed. I know we're not down to the last seed, but there are fewer and fewer of us with a handful left in our pockets. I've planted mine at Woodland Park, I'm tending them, and I'm hoping that some day, when archeologist dig us up, they will say, "What a fuddy-duddy this guy was." 

If you've got seeds from the "Golden Age" plant them today. You'll likely never eat their fruit, but maybe your children's children will.

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Monday, October 05, 2015

Growing Up

I suppose all of us can point to some piece of art or other that has had a direct, significant, and positive influence on our lives. For me, one of those was the Talking Heads song "Once In A Lifetime."

I was a 19-year-old college freshman when this song was released along with this video that blew our minds when we saw it on MTV. It still shocks me that this seminal song about a mid-life crisis was written and performed by such young artists, but I also know it's true that youth often sees things more clearly than we old people. To this day, lines from this song dance through my brain with such regularity that they have become part of who I am.

And you may ask yourself
Well, how did I get here?

And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife. 

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was . . . 

And the line that lives in my head almost every day:

And you may say to yourself
"My God, what have I done?

I vowed back in 1981, that I would never be that man. I would never be in a position to ask myself "How did I get here?" I would never look around and say, "This is not my beautiful wife." I would never live a life that was the "same as it ever was." And while I've often found myself thinking, "My God! What have I done?" it was not going to be because life had snuck up on me. It's because of this song that I can honestly say that I lived a relatively conscious life; striving to be aware each day; to be certain that I am doing what I should be doing, or at least headed where I should be headed; of not merely going from one thing to the next because it's on some "to do" list or map; and never letting others do my thinking for me.

It's not always easy living this way because it usually has meant that I'm always at least somewhat dissatisfied. Sometimes it seems like it would be cool to just coast for awhile, let my mind go numb, let the days go by, but I think that's how you wind up in places you don't recognize as your own. I like knowing exactly how I got here. This is my beautiful wife who I choose every day. No one has ever lived a life like mine. And while I've done things I wish I hadn't, my regrets are at least about things I did rather than didn't do. I stand today without a single reservation about where I am or where I'm going. If I was given a chance to start over, I'd do it exactly the same way, eyes wide open, never plodding, never a drone, never getting lost in the herd. I just can't imagine having a mid-life crisis . . . Either that, or I've lived my entire life as a kind of crisis and the mid-life one just sort of blended in. I honestly can't say which, not that it matters in any material way.

That doesn't mean I'm a goal driven zealot. On the contrary, I've quite consciously drifted through careers and countries, having no plan other than to hang out with smart, comfortably eccentric people. I guess if I've ever had a goal in life, it has been to become a smart, comfortably eccentric person, and my strategy has been to hang out with smart, comfortably eccentric people, not to become like them, but rather to become one of them. The best part of consciously drifting, of course, are the unanticipated rewards. I was just drifting about after college three decades ago when I met the smartest, most comfortably eccentric person of them all. Jennifer and I have had an action-packed, ton-of-fun, one-critical-moment-to-the-next kind of journey, one that simply doesn't permit us to go unconscious.

The price we've paid, of course, has been in terms of anxiety and stress, but I find that infinitely preferable to numbness or the horror of one day waking up to realize you've waited your life away. No amount of sports cars or hair plugs can fix that. The anxiety and stress, like the joy and love, are evidence of being alive, right now, in this moment. The satisfaction is always mixed with dissatisfaction: you enjoy one and do what you can about the other, knowing always that there is more dissatisfaction awaiting. Without the dissatisfaction you might as well be dead.

When people talk about those jobs of tomorrow or planning for the future or permanent records or college and career readiness or whatever, they are talking about "growing up," about sacrificing yourself on the alter of same as it ever was. The two-year-olds I teach don't give a hoot about your growing up, because, unlike most of us, they're focused on the only thing that's real: today and the things and people they find there. We habitually coax and quiz them about what they are going to be when they grow up, and they sometimes play the game with us, pretending they care, but they don't, they can't, not really. Honestly, we should stop doing that to them and instead learn to enter into their world alongside them, because that's a real place, unlike the fantasy lands of tomorrow and yesterday where we usually spend our time, worrying in anticipation or stewing in guilt.

I am incredibly grateful to the Talking Heads for this work of art that has had such a direct impact on my life and even more grateful to the two-year-olds in my life who continue to teach me what it really means. I have this mental experiment I like to perform, a dream really, in which I imagine that this current generation of two-year-olds all decide to live their lives as dancers. That's it, dancers, all of them. I mean, isn't that kind of what all of us would do if we really lived for today? Dance. Imagine even if ten percent of them decided to live their life as dancers. Our world would never be the same. We would have no choice but to build a world based upon dance. It would be a place where no one bothers to grow up.

Because what "growing up" usually means is to live dumb and numb until one day you ask yourself, "My God, what have I done?"

In the early nineties, Jennifer and I found ourselves living in Germany. It wasn't something we'd planned, but when the chance to wing away to a foreign land came up, we leaped. She had been a lifelong entrepreneur, so the Volkswagen corporate bureaucracy was exciting and exotic, but it wasn't long before we realized where that particular road lead, however: twenty years of keeping our noses clean, promotions, then a comfortable retirement. Same as it ever was.

While Jennifer was trying to wrestle her job into something that didn't leave her pissed off every day, I wound up coaching the Wolfsburg Yahoos baseball team, at the time a second division club comprised of young men in their 20's. Most of them were either VW factory workers or students. Their lives, however, revolved around baseball as did mine. I'd played and coached ball in the states, but I'd never had more fun than with these young German men who once listed for me their life priorities as, "Family first, hobbies second, and jobs last." It seemed like they had it figured out and my "today" was these guys, and the rocky field on which we played, surrounded by elderly Turkish immigrant women who emerged each day from the nearby apartments to watch something they could hardly have understood.

Jennifer managed to turn her job into one that involved tons of travel, often in the company of rock and roll legends (Rolling Stones, Genesis, Pink Floyd) or to places hosting exiting events like the Olympics (Barcelona, Lillehammer), but we both knew it wouldn't last. The dissatisfactions were coming to outweigh the satisfactions. And besides, we had always been on borrowed time there. She and I were nails that were sticking up in a world that pounds them down, so instead of waiting to be told to grow up, we one day did the most courageous thing we had done up to that point. Few ever voluntarily leave the golden handcuffs, but we did, inspired in no small measure by "Once In A Lifetime."

It was right around this time that another piece of art came into my life, a song by Tom Waits called, "I Don't Want To Grow Up."

The idea of working with young children was still more than a decade away as I listened to this song over and over again, feeling so much like the man-child hiding out in a cardboard box playing my tiny guitar, spending my days playacting the role of baseball coach and husband of a very serious German business executive, who was herself playing a role. Waits is singing about the dissatisfactions, the meaningless things we're taught to care about, the things that take us away from our true purpose in life, which is to be dancers.

I don't want to have to shout it out.
I don't want my hair to fall out.
I don't want to be filled with doubt.
I don't want to be a good Boy Scout.
I don't want to have to learn to count.
I don't want to have the biggest amount.
I don't want to grow up.

When I see the 5 o'clock news,
I don't want to grow up.
Comb their hair and shine their shoes,
I don't want to grow up
Stay around in my old hometown.
I don't want to put no money down.
I don't want to get me a big old loan.
Work them fingers to the bone.
I don't want to float a broom.
Fall in love and get married then boom,
How the hell did I get here so soon?
I don't want to grow up.

And there it is again, that question, "How did I get here?" It's a question I've never asked and I will continue to strive with ever fiber of my being to never find myself asking it.

Seems like folks turn into things
That they'd never want
The only thing to live for is today.

And that's it in a nutshell. Growing up is most often just a nicer way of saying "selling out." Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional. You'll only find out what you're going to be and where you're going when you get there, but you can, today, consciously choose your life, embracing the satisfactions and doing something about the dissatisfactions. In the meantime, I've learned, the only thing that matters is today and the things and people I find there.

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Friday, October 02, 2015

Just The Right Amount

During my first year teaching preschool, I was appalled at the amount of glue kids were squirting from our little Nancy bottles. It just seemed so wasteful. Committed to not bossing kids around, I tried using informative statements like, "That's a lot of glue," "It only takes a dot of glue to hold a googly eye," and even the usually more powerful, "I think that's too much," but to no avail. I attempted role modeling and narrating my own "proper" glue usage with similar results. I even purchased new bottles, snipping the tips to create extra tiny holes in the hopes of limiting the flow. The kids just handed the bottles back to me saying it was "too hard," causing me to make the holes a little larger and little larger until the good white stuff was flowing freely again.

It was only after many months that I finally gave up my obsession with waste, introduced the glue table, and started just buying gallons of the least expensive glue I could find. I no longer think of glue as an adhesive, but rather as a stand-alone art medium.

This was the beginning of my journey into the deep philosophy that "waste" is in the eye of the beholder. It's not just glue. All kids some of the time, and some kids all of the time, will use the materials at hand to what adults perceive as excess, sometimes with spectacular results (bubble printing is a classic example), but more often with spectacular messes, both of which are valid results of a trail-and-error scientific process.

One of my favorite lines from all of literature is this one from Goethe:

In limitations he first shows himself the master.

More often than not, we interpret this to mean the limitations imposed from above or without, forgetting that most of our limitations in life are of the self-imposed variety. Playing with extremes is how we learn about self-limitation, which is at the heart of self-regulation or self-control. When we're not permitted the opportunity to explore limits, it means we are under the control of others, leaving us with two choices: rebellion (the natural human response to external control) or obedience (the unnatural one), neither of which tend to contribute much positive to our self-identity or our ability to think for ourselves.

I've often boasted that our school runs upon garbage, using for one last time those things heading off to the landfills and recycling centers, not using stuff as much as finishing using stuff. The fact that this is good for the environment is truly an unintended consequence: it really came about because we value managing our budget and value exploring the extremes. You just can't waste stuff that is already waste. Garbage and cheap materials are one of the ways we accommodate these seemingly opposing values.

This is why when a child dumps an entire bowl of googly eyes into a lake of glue then empties a shaker of glitter onto it, I no longer see waste. In fact, I know she is using just the right amount.

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Thursday, October 01, 2015

"If You Eat This Food You Can Have Some Ice Cream"

The two-year-old said to me, "If you eat this food you can have some ice cream." She placed a plate in front of me on which she had positioned a glob of purple play dough. 

I said, "What is it?"

"It's healthy food."

"What kind of healthy food."

"You just have to eat it."

"I'll need a fork."

"I'll get one for you, Teacher Tom." She dug around on the shelf until she found a plastic one. "Here's your fork, now eat your food."

I pretended to take a bite. Sometimes when kids want me to taste their imaginary food, I make a comical face and say, "It's yucky" or "It's too hot!" but this time I said, "That is so good! I'm going to eat it all!" I stabbed the play dough with my fork pretending to shove the whole thing in my mouth, then hid it on my lap while mimicking chewing and swallowing. "Now I'm ready for my ice cream."

The "ice cream" was more play dough she held in a container. For a moment I thought she was going to serve it to me, but then she said, "First you have to take your bath, then you can have some ice cream."

"I don't want to take a bath."

"You have to take a bath if want to have some ice cream."

"I'll need a wash cloth."

"I'll get one for you, Teacher Tom." She found a small blanket in our cradle of baby dolls. "Here's your wash cloth."

I mimed bathing, then said, "All clean and fresh, now I'm ready for that ice cream."

"No, first you have to put on your jammies."

"I don't want to put on my jammies."

"You have to put on your jammies, then you can have some ice cream."

It went a couple more rounds like this. It was clear that I wasn't going to get any ice cream.

It was all pretend. The food wasn't real, the bath wasn't real, the pajamas weren't real. Even the ice cream wasn't real. Nothing about this was real, it was all a child's game, yet as she dangled that reward always just out of reach, I found a thread of growing annoyance and helplessness underneath my play. I felt manipulated and controlled. I'd jumped through her hoops, yet there was always another placed before me. The game was pretend, but the emotions it evoked were real.

Just think how much stronger those emotions would be were I the child, she the adult, and it was not a game, but rather a part of my day-to-day reality. 

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Second 15 Minutes

One of the things Seattle's teachers won in their recent strike was a commitment from the school district that elementary school students would receive a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day. In fairness, some schools were already providing more than that, but there were several, apparently, that were limiting their youngest students to a meager 15 minutes, but even so, it's actually disheartening to this play-based educator to learn that a half hour is considered a victory.

The ostensible reason for such pathetically restricted recess is that longer recesses cut into that all-important "classroom time," but I also heard from some quarters that some administrators favor limited or non-existant recesses because the longer children freely play, the more likely it is that they will wind up in conflicts.

Let me be the first to say, "Duh."

As a teacher in a school that engages in no direct instruction, but rather bases its curriculum on the evidence of how children learn best, which is through their own self-selected free play, I'm here to tell you that conflict stands at the center of how learning happens. Our entire school day, is, for all intents and purposes, recess, and yes, much of what the children are doing while playing both indoors and out is bicker.

For adults interested in eliminating bickering, I would say that 15 minutes is about right: it usually takes the children at least that long just to figure out what they're going to do, which, in a robust classroom like ours, with lots of kids with lots of agendas engaging with shared and limited resources, is typically followed by a period of often intense negotiation, which often shows up as conflict.

Yesterday, for instance, a group of four and five-year-olds, mostly boys, found themselves playing together with a collection of cardboard tubes and tennis balls. For the first 15 minutes or so, they engaged like independent agents, each arranging tubes, and collecting balls for their own personal use. That time passed relatively quietly, with each of them exploring and experimenting. 

The next 15 minutes was characterized by physical and emotional chaos, as they began to bump up against limitations of space and resources, but the real impetus for the conflicts were their divergent ideas for how they were going to play. Most of the kids were setting their tubes up at angles down which they were rolling balls, but at least one guy was more interested in using the tubes as a way to practice balance, rolling them the way a lumberjack might. The resulting spills and his lurching body, of course, tended to upend his classmates' carefully constructed efforts and there were a lot of things said about it, like, "Hey! You're knocking over my tube!" which was followed by a round or two of argument, sometimes even accompanied by shoving and other physical attempts to solve their impasse. 

Others began to collect balls, "all the balls," which lead to complaints like, "Hey! You have all the balls!"

Some objected when friends would block up the end of the tube so their balls couldn't pass through, robbing them of the satisfaction of witnessing the end result of their experiment.

By the end of this 15 minutes, there was one boy crying, several flush with frustration, and a couple who found themselves wound up into a slightly hysterical state by the hubbub. This is where I did my work for the day. I stepped in several times to help cool tempers and encourage conversation, which I did by reminding the children of the rules they had made together the previous week, the agreements we had made about how we wanted to treat one another. Among those rules were such classics as "No taking things from other people," "No hitting," "No pushing," and "No knocking down other people's buildings," along with an agreement that if someone tells you to "Stop!" you must stop and listen to what the other person has to say.

Most of the conflicts I let run their course as the kids were talking, sometimes loudly, sometimes heatedly. As long as they were heading toward resolution I stayed on the sidelines, but when things became physical or the emotions turned intense, I dropped to my knees in the midst of it and said things like, "I saw you take that tube from him. We all agreed, 'No taking things from other people,'" and "He's crying because he worked really hard building that and you knocked it down." But mostly what I did, was encourage the children to listen to one another by simply saying things like, "I want you to listen to what he has to say."

This is the period of recess play that those administrators want to avoid. I know that many schools consider recess to be a time for the classroom teachers to catch a little break, leaving the school yard in the hands of a few "monitors." One kindergarten teacher told me that they often have 40 or more children per adult on their playground. I know I wouldn't want to face that second 15 minutes without all hands on deck.

So why do we put up with that second 15 minutes? To get to the third 15 minutes. That's when all that bickering begins to pay off. That's when all the conflict and talking and listening start to bring all those ideas and agendas together. 

For the next half hour, I more or less sat on a bench and watched the children play, together, saying sentences to one another that began with the invitation word, "Let's . . ." 

"Let's connect all the big tubes!"

"Let's put all the balls in this bucket!"

"Let's move it over here!"

There was still a bit of bickering, but it was of the productive variety, with children actually listening to their friends' thoughts and ideas, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly finding ways to incorporate it within their own agenda. This is the gold standard of a play-based curriculum: creative, cooperative play, and the only way to get there is through that second 15 minutes.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

All I Can Do Is To Choose, Today, To Be Unafraid

Last week in a post about zero tolerance policies, I mentioned that Seattle's city council was set to vote in favor of a resolution that would call for an end to the practice of incarcerating children and replace the practice with policies that focus on prevention and "restorative justice," with a goal of zero youth incarceration. Yesterday, the resolution passed unanimously, as it should have.

"Shackling humiliates young people, recalls past trauma and limits their access to justice," Maryland Public Defender Paul B. DeWolfe said. "All of this is antithetical to the rehabilitative mission of the juvenile court. This reform will make it easier for the court to do what it's designed to do: Help kids get on the right track."

I don't know whether to be happy or depressed by the news. Of course, it's a good thing that we appear, at least in some corners of the country, to be taking these sane and reasonable steps toward rehabilitating rather than merely punishing our children, and especially those of color who are disproportionately represented here, but they are such pathetic, baby steps that it's hard to feel good about it. 

How did we get to a place where we fear children so much that we must jail and shackle them? This is not a problem of children, but a problem with all of us. Maybe it's just an offshoot of the general culture of fear in which we live, this place where fear-mongering racists like Donald Trump can become one of  the leading candidates for President; where our government was guided for years by the "Cheney Doctrine," the delusional concept that if there is even a one percent chance of something bad being true, we have to respond as if it's a certainty; where we have more prisons than colleges and universities; where elementary school aged children are routinely restrained and confined to isolation rooms in schools; where our courts shackle and jail our children.

The US incarcerates a greater percentage of our population than any major nation on earth, by far, including such places as China. Our cops kill more citizens per day than most nations do per year. Are we really such an evil, violent, irredeemable people?

I don't think so, but we have certainly fallen under the sway of fear, and while we're all victims, our brothers and sisters of color are bearing the brunt of our fearful hysteria. It's a fear fed by racism and profits.

I'm not writing this today because I think I have a solution, because I don't. I often have to take a break from the current events because the news is essentially a list of symptoms that prove our nation's mass delusional paranoia. I often have to take a break from television programs and movies and popular books because they all seem to show me false machismo masking deep fear or simple yuck-yucks designed to distract me from it. I often have to bury myself in my work, in my preschool, in my family, where trust and hope and love are the norm, because otherwise I become filled with an impotent outrage.

In Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first inaugural address he said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." It has never been more true than it is today.

All I can do is to choose, today, to be unafraid.

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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Only Way To Get There Is To Follow

When our daughter Josephine was a four and five-year-old, she and her friends played chase; usually boys chasing girls, but sometimes switched up. The girls she ran with were often in conflict with one another, experimenting with one another's feelings, sometimes even intentionally hurting one another, but they were always allied when they played chase, a collective power with which to be reckoned.

Sometimes the girls would decide they didn't want to be chased and turned on the boys, shoulder-to-shoulder, telling them to "Stop!" And the boys would stop, although sometimes they would show their regret for the end of the game by not stopping right away, so the girls learned they must insist that no means no. It's not hard to see how games like this prepare the children for our world; not some kind of ideal world, but the real world in which we live where males still tend to pursue the females. The children were preparing themselves for the world as they perceived it, not some utopic future of radical, genderless individualism.

Peter Gray, in his book Free to Learn, explains that children, when left to their own devices, invariably prepare themselves for the real world. He writes of Jewish children in concentration camps playing games of despair and survival, because, indeed, this is the real future for which they knew they must prepare themselves:

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called "tickling the corpse." At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played "gas chamber," a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying. One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp's daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with the blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who hat hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing . . . Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Thankfully, our children don't have such grim prospects, but politicians and corporate data miners will tell you that we must take control of childhood in order to prepare our children for their mythological "jobs of tomorrow," as if they can somehow know the future better than the children themselves who, when given the opportunity, are always brutally honest about what that means. When my daughter and her classmates playacted heterosexual gender relations as a crude metaphor, they were so much more clear sighted about their world, and what awaited them, than any of us adult social engineering do-gooders, including myself, who tried to force Josephine into overalls and ball caps before she, as a two-year-old, yelled at me, "Papa, you don't know about girls!"

When we watch children freely play, we see the future. Those girls playing "princess" beauty games are preparing for the future they know is before them. They perceive, like all women in our culture, that they must somehow come to terms with the notion of "beauty." You may accept it, reject it, or make it your own, but our preschool girls know without a doubt that they must deal with it and it's so important they must start practicing right now. When boys play at "hero," they are playing with our culture's messages about masculinity. Just think how it must feel to know that you must grow up be an unsmiling tough guy, expected to rescue others -- you sure as hell better get to work on that. When children play games of cooperation and conflict, debate and agreement, exclusion and inclusion, they are preparing themselves for their real future, the real jobs of tomorrow.

From time to time, well-meaning folks will initiate some program or other designed to "break down" gender or race or cultural stereotypes by somehow changing the children. Among those nobel experiments were forced busing in the name of desegregation or the Swedish effort to replace gender specific pronouns with a gender neutral one. I'll leave you to decide if busing lead to a more racially egalitarian society and I seriously doubt the language experiment will impact gender inequality one way or another. Among those ignoble experiments are the Mercer Island school district's recent decision to ban the playground game of "tag" in the name of ensuring the "physical and emotional safety of all students." (Thankfully, the backlash to this initiative was such that the district quickly reversed itself.) And while I favor the goals of these initiatives, they've got it backwards: if we want to change the games children play, we must first change the society in which they live.

When we over-regulate and micro-manage childhood, robbing our kids of their free play, we prevent them from preparing themselves for the real world in favor of our fantasy world. When we get out of the way, they prepare for the future that they, themselves, will create. We have very little chance of improving civilization if we keep stubbornly seeking to train our children for those mythical "jobs of tomorrow." The only hope we have is to turn the kids free to practice for the real future that they see much more clearly than we do. And the only way for us to get there is to follow them.

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