More than twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with a professor from Tufts University. He had written a book, and was at our AEYC meeting. Little did I know then that my work with young children would be shaped by this chance discussion with David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child.
What he said, and wrote, resonated with me:
- “We have been inadvertently stepping up the assault on childhood – in the media, in schools, and at home.”
- “We sometimes blur the boundaries of what is age-appropriate.”
- “We expect or impose too much too soon.”
- “We force our kids to grow up far too fast, and they experience overwhelming, unhealthy pressures.”
As a teacher, and later as a director of many early childhood programs, I found myself agreeing with his body of work. In my heart it was what I believed.
I felt that young children needed a day that suited their temperament and their pace. A day that was leisurely, and without constant interruption; a day in which one part seamlessly flowed into the next – and it all made sense. Children were already motivated to explore and discover all that was waiting to be discovered. I saw my job as creating an environment in which it could happen naturally. If a child wanted to continue building his construction after rest time, he could – we protected it so he could finish it. If another child wanted to wear the ballerina costume while listening to a story, she could. A day that flowed easily, and in which limits were only set when they were relevant and made sense, or when they addressed safety and health issues. Our daily pace was child-centered and child-focused.
But, it was very easy to get caught up in the cycle of hurry! Most parents were on this “hurry” track and, at times, took us with them. Our child-centered day sometimes gave way and, sadly, the child’s day turned into the parent’s day. As a result, much of my work became crisis management as emotions exploded. Both the tall and the short people in my world fell apart from time to time from the sheer stress of keeping it all going – at this frantic pace. Life was too fast, too much, and too stressful – especially for these little children.
As early childhood educators, even we sometimes added to this hurriedness by “pushing” children as well. Many in our field were not solidly grounded in child growth and development and, as a result, made poor choices for activities and experiences for the children in their care. Sadly, children who weren’t ready physically, emotionally, socially, or cognitively, were frustrated that they couldn’t do what was presented to them. Too many of these frustrations led to defeat, and the beginning of a downward spiral, and, invariably, more crisis management!
This was not my way to live, and definitely not what I wanted for the young children in my care.
So, I began to slow down and put the needs, desires, interests, and developmental skills of the children first – with my own children, and then with thousands of others. I hoped that if I modeled this, others would take note and do the same. And, it often worked – just this way. I held my ground with those who wanted to “hurry” our pace. With many I discussed the pros and cons of celebrating every holiday on the calendar, and stayed away from those celebrations irrelevant to the very young children in my care. I held my ground when teachers presented ideas for field trips that were clearly not age appropriate. I held my ground when parents lobbied for performances, French lessons, dance instruction, or trick-or-treating. I ignored comments that “everyone else does it,” and felt unsure at times because we didn’t simply “follow” every other program. But my heart told me that what we were doing was better for the children – we were following their lead!
Thirty years later, I have slowed my pace; I am more deliberate in what I do; I have time to sit back and observe; I am more present in every moment; and, yes, still totally focused on the children in front of me. We endeavor to create an oasis of calm in this otherwise hurried world – one that works for all of us.
People are still hurrying through life. I’m not sure I know where they are all going at such a pace, but I do know that this way of life will eventually take its toll – especially on the children.
My desire for all of us who live and work with children is to read, absorb, and reflect upon The Hurried Child. And if what David Elkind says speaks to you as well, make changes in your life – and in your work with these little ones.
Along the way, I began asking four questions before “doing” anything with our young children. But, in fact, I use these same questions when I work with teachers and other directors.
Is it relevant? Does it matter? Can it wait? Is it good for them?
Asking these questions always helps me to keep the children as my focus, and to provide the most appropriate experience for their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive developmental age. My goal for children is that they feel confident and competent, and succeed! And, I am passionate about creating an upward, positive spiral for those (short and tall people) with whom I work.