Life seems to have come back to life lately, and I again now get a flurry of posts in my news feed. Parenting blogs are *back*. And, with no real warning, I was hit, right away with an onslaught of posts imploring us to have open-ended free play with children and to stop turning everything into competitions. Science fairs, spelling bees, and more were explicitly listed. Apparently these things are the sources of shame in the hearts of our children and major fun haters.
Actually, I think these things more than have a role in child development. I document the age-related stages children go through. It’s those times children “act up” but on the other side is new growth. I have a wealth of data at this point about how children change over time. And around 9-1/2, give or take a year, I find children need challenges. Before this, and certainly when they are younger, kids will pick up just about anything and turn it into something. Simple Mega Bloks turn into alligators. Train tracks turn into elaborate cities. They draw just to draw. Older children don’t do this as much. Mega Bloks get a big boring. Even Legoes get old after a while. Around 9, the pre-preteen years, children start to respond really well to challenges. This indeed develops probably younger than this, as this kind of thing develops in sub-stages. At 7-1/2, children rebuke you if they find out you were going easy on them in a game. I made a milestone in the late sevens called “Strength and Stunning Talent.” They step up and beat their older brother at games, as well as come up with ingenious solutions to things. But I found a certain independence developed around age 9, making them very fit for all sorts of challenges. You put nine or ten year olds in an intense situation, say in a new sport, and they rise to the challenge. In fact, they seem to need the challenges. Sports, games, science fairs, and even spelling bees can provide that exact opportunity.
I actually participated in a spelling bee in sixth grade. In fact, I won. We were given the list of spelling words to practice, which promptly found it’s way to the bottom of my bookbag. At an open house, the teacher told my dad about the contest. My dad had nearly won his spelling bee in school and felt he would have won had he studied. He dug that list out for me, and we practiced nightly. I remember the whole thing fondly. I don’t doubt it helped me learn to spell words and helped me later, as a writer.
In many ways these things are just a reason to…. do something. Our family homeschools. We have LOTS of free time. My kids can read all they want. They can play as much hide and seek as they want. We do all that. I do lessons every single day–weekends and holidays, too. (There are no real days off in this mom gig and definitely not in the homeschool mom gig.) All of this is great, and I do think my children have an enormous amount of knowledge from all this pleasuring reading and open end learning. But you get bored after a while. You want to do something. I learn things when my children are put to a challenge. When I watched my children play soccer, for instance, I learned about what their strengths were and where they might need extra support and instruction. Actually, challenges and games are a great way to learn just about anything. We learned math primarily through math games. Instead of having a blank space to fill in dozens of time, my children thought strategically about what number might multiply up to 24, so they could claim that spot in a game similar to tic-tac-toe. (Please see the work of Denise Gaskins.) This is how children throughout history have learned anything: through games and challenges. This k-12 rigmarole with lecture / test / repeat is an anomaly.
Maybe the problem is something other than spelling bees. When I see people go after academics as inherently emotionally abusive to children, I wonder what in the world kind of organization people are in. The problem is not education or a focus on achievement. The problem is abuse as inflicted from adults to children. For instance, it’s been popular for some time to praise “effort” and not “achievement,” because this encourages growth mindset. I’m all for praising effort, but I take serious issue with not praising children for achievement as well. It leaves parents tongue tied, now uneasy about giving their kids a simple pat on the back for a job well done. When I investigated it further, I found the root of the argument about praising children for achievement had little to do with praising them for achievement and instead had to do with using kids’ achievement to wield abuse on other children. Here is an article in which Carol Dweck, who started the “growth mindset” movement, discusses why praising children for being smart backfires,
“When I was in sixth grade my teacher seated us around the room in IQ order,” she says. “I had the highest IQ and was seeded in the first row. After this I stopped wanting any challenging tasks, I wouldn’t do anything where I might make a mistake and I lived in fear of taking another IQ test and jeopardising what I thought made me special.”
This isn’t praising children for being smart. This is triangulation. It’s a form of emotional abuse. Triangulation is when you use one person to hurt or humiliate another. An example is a man (person 1) who comments on how hot a woman is (person 2) to hurt his girlfriend or spouse (person 3). In this case, putting the kids with the highest IQ in a special spot in the room is meant to humiliate, er I mean “inspire,” the other children. Teachers might think this “inspires” children (I can’t really believe they believe that), but it’s practical effect is humiliation. It indeed hurts both those up on the pedestal, who, as described, don’t want to take risks, and also obviously hurts those back in the nosebleed seats. There would be nothing wrong with showering adoration on a child who just did something impressive. There is, however, everything wrong with putting children around a room as according to IQ like this. If we were more educated on abuse, of which our society is not, we’d see this subtlety better. I learned a lot about abuse by reading the work of Lundy Bancroft.
Spelling bees and science fairs are easy targets to go after. It seems almost esoteric to accuse them of encouraging unhealthy competition. Perhaps because most people don’t have the luxury to have lots of downtime like we do, a slower life seems elusively idyllic. Well, we do have the luxury of a slow life, and we see much value in competitions, sports, games, and more. Going after more difficult problems, such as emotionally abusive parents, teachers, and others, is a lot harder. The problem isn’t academics. The problem is socially accepted abusive practices towards children.
I am the author of Misbehavior is Growth. My goal is to preserve children’s wild core, while also giving shape to their growing talents. I see having many positive experiences as integral to children’s growth. My books give many educational ideas to do with children at each of the developmental milestones I document. I see games, sports, competitions, science fairs, all of it, as having positive benefit. What we need are responsible adults who can push forward both with teaching technical skills or organizing competitions while also being mindful of emotions, especially children’s. This is a tall order, but it’s possible. I look forward to more people joining in on this all-in commitment to positive coaching and parenting.