Letting Children be Children

I am just a touch over 50 now but I will never forget my standard 1 (Year 3 for modern types) teacher, in our open-plan classroom (MLE for modern types) informing us, with fear writ large on her face, that: “The communists are coming. They may not take over in my lifetime but they most certainly will in yours.” Even now I am at a loss as to what we were supposed to do about it being 7 or 8 years old at the time.

It was that and television images of wars in the Middle East and Vietnam on our black and white TV high on the shelf out the back of my parents dairy that extracted the sense of innocence that should go with childhood. It must have happened to many others too as I remember a school-mate who dived under a desk as a jet passed overhead one day only to sheepishly crawl out moments later and state that he thought it was the “Russians”.

Adults laying their worries and problems on children, along with those of the wider society, or indeed the globe, remains a huge problem in schools. Whether it is war, environmental issues, crime, politics, future work (I was told back in the 1980s that “all the jobs are going to robots or the Japanese”), diet, etc. Children do not have the means to mentally cope nor the ability to help at that point in their lives.

Children need adults to hold and act out the first part of Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer for them.

“God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;”

In 1982 Neil Postman argued that television was eroding the socially constructed aspects of childhood that the printing press (and literature since that moment), habits of parenting and schooling had brought about.

“The world of the known and the not yet known is bridged by wonderment.

But wonderment happens largely in a situation where the child’s world is separate from the adult world, where children must seek entry, through their questions, into the adult world.
As media merge the two worlds, as the tension created by secrets to be unraveled is diminished, the calculus of wonderment changes.

Curiosity is replaced by cynicism or, even worse, arrogance.

We are left with children who rely not on authoritative adults but on news from nowhere.

We are left with children who are given answers to questions they never asked.

We are left, in short, without children.”

Clearly the argument carries much more weight 35 years later when the accessibility of the internet, particularly in a private room or on a smart phone, shatters the barriers completely. The things that were regarded as adult information (very much including pornography and graphic violence) are now instantly and constantly accessible to children. As with the above examples of adults dumping problems on children, through this accessibility the adult world explodes on the young. Without adult protection this happens well before they are mentally and emotionally equipped to cope.

For an indicator of where these two aspects are leading us Simon Collins of the NZ Herald compiled data out of the PISA survey on personal well-being for 15 year olds. Some aspects for kiwi teens:

  • Kiwi 15-year-olds classed as “extreme” internet users because they are online outside school hours on weekdays for at least six hours a day have almost trebled from 6.1 per cent in the last survey in 2012 to 17.3 per cent.
  • average minutes outside of school every weekday was 163mins.
  • Majorities of both boys (57 per cent) and girls (61 per cent) admitted to being hooked, agreeing: “I really feel bad if no internet connection is possible.”
  • Kiwis are no longer more likely than others to do “vigorous” physical activity that makes them sweat and breathe hard: 26 per cent of the Kiwis had done this outside school for at least 20 minutes on at least five days in the past week, 17th-equal out of 35 nations and almost identical to the OECD average of 26.2 per cent.


The solutions are hard fought but there are two clear places to start.

  1. For our under 12s, schools should be places of innocence, wonder and fabulous learning without adults dropping their, or the world’s problems, on them. Healthy and intelligent minds need to be developed while the adults carry the burdens.
  2. Parents should be massively involved in the technology of under 12s. No one under 12 needs a smart phone and screens should always be in common areas in a home. Bedrooms are for books. There should also be a strict limit on screen-time and massive encouragement for things like conversation, dinner at the table, parents reading to children every night, physical activity, learning music and/or other arts.

Children need adults to be the guardians of their childhood.

Alwyn Poole
Villa Education Trust