“Plants are improved by cultivation, and men (sic) by education….This education comes to us from nature itself, or from other men, or from circumstances. The internal development of our faculties and of our organs is the education nature gives us; the use we are taught to make of this development is the education we get from other men; and what we learn, your own experience, about things that interest us, is the education of circumstances.” (Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762)
What is a kindergarten? A child’s garden, a garden for children, or a place where adults cultivate their gardens? If we are the gardeners, what should be in the soil? How do we provide places for shade-loving or sun-loving children? How do we make sure roots grow deeply and hidden capacities are not blocked? The metaphor slowly transitions towards a view of all the other environments – or circumstances, as Rousseau would have it – where our children grow: schools, towns, shops, communities, neighbors, society. These are places where we have little to no control. Many of us are concerned about the kinds of values our children will bring home with them once they are outside the home, playing and learning with others. We live in a society with mixed values. How do we ensure that our children will reflect the values of our own families as they learn and grow?
While our children are young we should take time to think about what kinds of experiences and values we want our young children to absorb. If our homes and our schools are filled with meaningful relationships, work, play, artistic activities, cooperation, the lives of animals and plants, and respect for the needs of others, then healthy foundations for learning will be laid. If families make deliberate efforts to connect with each other on a daily basis around the dinner table or at bath time, bedtime or on the weekend hike, communication will become an important aspect for how a family’s values will be instilled.
Children are built to learn. This is why they are so dependent. It is up to us, the parents, to choose and create some environments for our little ones to flourish and not to shut-down. The multitude of over-stimulating, numbing, adultifying experiences available to our children is evidence that we do not live in a society that values childhood in and for itself. In her latest book, Erika Christakis describes the loss:
“We’ve appropriated their music and books and clothes… but what have we given them in return? Adult gadgets and expectations? Unfortunately, the solution requires more than merely reducing screen time and ponying up more Legos. The small window of early childhood is closing its blinds a little prematurely, it seems. For example, 10 percent of eight-year-old girls are now in the early stages of puberty. Children themselves are leaving the early years behind with a new urgency.” (The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need From Grownups , xix, Erika Christakis, 2016).
In order to value the experience of childhood, parents and teachers need to have their own developed capacities for thought and feeling. And, we need to value adulthood – the ability to apply life’s lessons in order to guide our children. If we fall prey to the abundant beliefs that “getting older” is something to run away from, we will find ourselves wanting to be like children. This, in turn will make us vulnerable to the superficial trends of competitive culture and consumerism because we have not taken time to develop our capacities as adults.
Childhood cannot be saved by children. Children up to the early-nineteenth century were “quickly grown” in order to take up their life’s responsibilities depending on class. Historians continue to examine the idea that “childhood” did not emerge until the seventeenth century in Europe, that it did not exist at all during the middle ages. So, what is it about these young ages, say two years to eight, that is so valuable?
Developmental psychology continues to confirm what histories of childhood show us – that these years are malleable. It is a time when capacities are developing, when we can shut down creative thought or nourish it, feed imaginative capacities or not, encourage grit or crumble it, enable entitlement or cultivate gratitude. We can set healthy boundaries for our children to work with or believe they can set them alone; we can share appropriate responsibilities with them or under-evaluate what they are capable of; we can be their guides or be their followers. All of these choices have consequences. We can raise children who have poor boundaries, don’t know right from wrong, do not believe they can learn from adults, and have no sense of what they can offer the world or we can raise children who use their boundaries to know themselves, make mistakes in order to learn the right way to do something, seek adults who have something to teach, and believe they can offer the world something good. Our children all have capacities for renewed visions of a humane future rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.
As we begin another year at this “kinder-garten” it is we, the parents and teachers, who are gardening our children, building suitable environments for them to play and work, help and be helped, express themselves and consider the needs of others, learn that they can do something they could not do before, and become our (dependent) helpers. This is no easy task given the demands of our work-lives and the many places we send our children where we have no control. But this conversation may be a good place to begin.