“Stop throwing rocks,” my husband and I yelled to our son. We were on vacation, at a mountain lake. His brother was fishing. He got bored holding a fishing pole and decided to avail himself of more adventurous pursuits. Hence: tossing rocks into the water to watch the ripples.
“Stop throwing rocks,” we told him again warningly. “Don’t make me come over there.” But he continued, plunking rocks, gathering handfuls from the road we told him not to go in, tossing them one by one. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk.
He was eventually sent inside, where he watched TV. We all knew it. We also knew that throwing rocks into the damn lake is the most normal thing in the world, the most natural of childhood impulses: the drawback and fling, the satisfied plop, the circles rippling outward in a kind of everyday magic. But people were fishing nearby. And you can’t just take rocks off someone’s road. There are certain ways you have to act, certain things you have to sublimate. This is one of them.
And on the grand scheme of childhood, it’s a small one, Dara Horn, author of The Immense Pressure of Children to Behave as Tiny Adults, would argue. She talks about how we make children behave not like children — like rock-throwing, coffee-pot-tinkering, voraciously-reading, ever-questioning children — but instead like some adult notion of childhood conformity. We try to “even them out,” she says, taking a phrase from the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, make them behave and, hence, make them the same.
Take school, for example. We stuff children, 30 at a time, into small cinderblock rooms for at least six hours at a time, five days a week, often with little break for physical activity. Then we act shocked and surprised when a number of them — a large number of them — show their inability to conform with any number of deviant behaviors, including fighting, throwing chairs, talking back, or simply refusing to do any work whatsoever. Yet a 2008 study showed that exposure to the outdoors — a 20-minute walk in the park — decreases ADHD symptoms in children by 20%.
Children are also forced to take stacks of standardized tests designed to measure, re-measure, quantify, sort, and evaluate schools for funding. According to The Washington Post, the average student in America’s public schools take a staggering 112 standardized tests between kindergarten and 12th grade. That’s an average of 8 per year, expending a total of 20-25 classroom hours. While even older generations remember taking a standardized test every year, or every other year, once No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002, and Obama’s Race to the Top reforms took hold in 2012, children found themselves filling in bubble sheet after bubble sheet after bubble sheet. This is the type of work for adults, not little children who can barely spell their own names and should be spending their time stomping in the dirt instead of sitting silently in their seats, filling in bubbles or clicking answers on a computer screen.
And even if they aren’t taking standardized tests, the results for success are … well, standardized. Don’t ask too many questions (I remember getting punished for this one way back in the dark days of the 1980s), or the teacher will simply stop calling on you. Make your a’s and f’s and g’s a certain way, and get marked down if your handwriting becomes too “creative.” Yes, spelling almost always counts. Then there are the piles of homework on top of a day full of schoolwork; your kid will be lucky to see the sunlight before he’s finished with it. Adults don’t work like this — for actual pay.
Yes, we need school. We need to evaluate children somehow. We need to civilize them: make them pick up their toys, stop dressing up the dog, stop throwing rocks in the lake. But can we agree that, as a society, we’re going about it all wrong?
We’re quashing all their individuality. The kid who fails the reading standardized test because she’s too busy reading a novel under the desk. The kid who asks too many questions and disrupts the expected flow of the classroom lesson. The kids with ADHD, with anger issues, the ones who just can’t sit still — we try to change them under the great God of Socialization. We send them to the vast network of child regulators, the counselors and principals and special education. We dose them with drugs.
How is this right? How is this fair? How is this, in the end, civilized?
As for my rock-throwing son, we could have moved him. We could have sent him thirty, forty, fifty, seventy feet away — he is eight, after all, not a fragile four. We could have given him another task, something suitably ooky and interesting, like worm sorting. We could have challenged him to throw rocks at a target somewhere he wasn’t bothering anyone. All of these things would have channeled his impulse, rather than quashed it.
We could have preserved the joy of a small child in the woods, rather than changing it to the passivity of staring at an indoor screen. That’s what I want for my children. For all children. For, in the end, my world.