Summer is rapidly coming to an end, and it will not be long before the children of America will be returning to their classrooms. The start of a new school year is always an exciting moment for parents, teachers, and most of all children-especially those who are entering kindergarten. Sadly, what awaits many of them can be more daunting than exciting.
Every year, federal, state and local mandates leave fewer loopholes-and less time-for children to simply be children. We now have an educational system whose primary goal seems to be competing with the superpowers of China and India by means of standardized testing. What is it all for? Do we really care about the souls of our nation's children, or is it just so more money can be made on Wall Street?
The technological "advances" of our time are destroying our children. Yesterday's kindergarten pupils played with blocks and crayons and dolls; today's are given headsets, placed in front of computers, and taught keyboarding skills. Our society has perverted the entire concept of kindergarten.
My mother, a teacher educated in the 1930s, was a descendant of Friedrich Froebel, the progressive German educator now known as the father of the modern kindergarten. Froebel lived in an age when children were treated as miniature adults, and he spent his career fighting for their right to enjoy childhood. His vision of early childhood education was built around free play, arts and crafts, music, and the discovery of the natural world through outdoor activities.
For my mother-as for most educators of her generation-the very idea of burdening a young child with academics would be absurd. As she saw it, a five-year-old should be playing, not working. To quote Froebel: "A child who plays thoroughly, with self-active determination, perseveringly, until physical fatigue forbids, will surely become a thorough, determined person, capable of self-sacrifice for the promotion of his own welfare and that of others." What would Froebel say about today's kindergartens?
As a grandfather and father who has spent most of my life working in schools and counseling families, I have always pled for the reverence and compassion that allows children to be children. After all, they are the most vulnerable segment of society, and most easily influenced by such destructive forces as academic competitiveness and materialism.
I mention materialism because when parents feel guilty, they often try to make their children happy by purchasing things for them instead of taking time with them-which is what their children really want and need. Thank God, many parents and teachers still give their children their best. But there are just as many who don't. And often, what is masked as overwork and busyness is really a matter of skewed priorities, or even indifference.
When one looks at the picture of our society as a whole, one can get very frantic and discouraged. It seems like everything one tries has absolutely no effect. But the older I get, the less determined I am to solve the world's problems, and the more determined I am to rather to focus on one child at a time.
No child deserves to be ignored. Each one needs to feel that they are special and loved. Children need to be acknowledged, hugged, and congratulated on their birthdays. And for our part, we need to look into their eyes and marvel at the wisdom that comes from them.
Such a plan might seem futile-an effort with no measurable success. But we don't have to be successful. We do have to love. And when we have made one child happy, we can be encouraged by the Hasidic saying that if you save one child, you save the whole world.
As a new school year approaches, I plead with all parents and teachers: let us not miss a single child, but give each one the love and security he or she needs to navigate this hostile world. Children have enough fears as it is. Let's not make them fear going to school.
by Johann Christoph Arnold
August 7, 2006
(Johann Christoph Arnold is the author of ten books and an advisor to some of the world's best private schools.)