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The Value of an Unhurried Childhood

February 19, 2024
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

A recent New York Times article highlighted the importance of giving children an unhurried childhood, without an overpacked schedule of extracurricular activities and excessive homework. The pressure on Gen Z to excel at a young age has led to decreased mental health and increasing struggles at school. Waldorf Education takes a balanced approach, with plenty of time for children to play and explore, while also providing a joyful and well-rounded education that instills essential life skills, sparks a lifelong love of learning, and prepares them for a successful future. 

This article was written by Shalini Shankar and originally published on July 9, 2021 in the New York Times

A Packed Schedule Doesn’t Really ‘Enrich’ Your Child

When the extracurricular-industrial complex came to a grinding halt last spring, parents were left scrambling to fill vast hours of unscheduled time. Some activities moved to remote instruction but most were canceled, and keeping children engaged became the bane of parents’ existence. Understandably, screens became default child care for younger kids and social lifelines for older ones.

As American society reopens, going back to our children’s prepandemic activities looks like an enticing way to reintroduce upper-elementary through high-school-age kids to the outside world. For parents with economic means, it’s tempting to return to a full slate of language classes, sports, music lessons and other extracurriculars — a guilt-free plan to keep kids busy with “enriching” activities while we get our jobs done.

But I suggest pausing before filling up their calendars again. We should not simply return children to their hectic prepandemic schedules.

Certainly, some amount of extracurricular activity can offer a welcome break from screens and help children nurture interests. But for Generation Z, the over-scheduling of extracurricular activities has been bad for stress and mental health and even worse for widening racial gaps. Moreover, as I learned when I conducted anthropological research for my book “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success,” it no longer consistently improves the prospects of the white middle-class kids for whom it was designed.

But what can parents do with our kids instead? The answer is simple, though not easy to carry out: We can teach them (and perhaps relearn ourselves) the value of unstructured time and greater civic participation.

This does not mean we should quit our day jobs and devote ourselves instead to endless hours of building forts and playing games. Exposing children to sports, music, art, programming or dance certainly has benefits — including physical exercise, intellectual stimulation and fun — but there are also good reasons to give children time to be bored. Not least of these is it forces them to figure out a way to entertain themselves.

For many kids today, scheduled time and down time on their screens are the only states of being. Paradoxically, scheduled unstructured time could address this. Cooking, reading a book, art projects and neighborhood walks are unlikely to completely replace screens, but routinizing blocks of time for these self-sustaining activities each day or several times a week could introduce children and teenagers to new pleasures, and at the very least invite calmness.

Gen Z acutely feels the pressure to be accomplished at a younger age. As kids take on a wider range of challenging activities younger, a trend that began with millennials but has grown to steroidal levels, the criteria for standing out in the college admissions process have shot up accordingly. It’s no wonder kids are stressed out.

The Slacker Generation, an initially disparaging label that Gen Xers have reclaimed, did not have to build a childhood résumé brimming with skills, expertise and accolades to get into college. Now many of these former slackers are parents worried about whether their kids are doing enough to stay competitive in college admissions and the job market. Those who can afford it feel pressure to pad their kids’ résumés as much as they can. A 2019 survey found that more than a quarter of “sports parents” spent upward of $500 per month, with some spending over $1,000 and jeopardizing their retirement savings.

But it’s clear by now that all this expensive enrichment won’t ensure kids’ success. Despite middle- and upper-class millennials mortgaging their childhood to get into college and then toiling through early adulthood in unpaid internships, they are unable to acquire the levels of economic and social security still held by their baby boomer parents.

Perhaps that’s why Gen Z has shown astute awareness of the dangers of overwork, with some high-profile Zoomers demonstrating acts of radical self-preservation. The Gen Z tennis star Naomi Osaka, for example, recently chose to prioritize her well-being over her career’s demands when she dropped out of the French Open after officials fined her for declining to participate in its post-match news conferences. Gen Z seems to have accepted that no matter how much you love your job, your job won’t love you back. Their parents — Gen Xers and even older millennials — were late to this lesson, and if they learned it at all, it was often only when they hit a wall with burnout.

Of course, preparing children for college and the job market is not the only goal of parents shelling out for guitar lessons or robot-making labs. Parents are also eager to expose their children to different ways of using their minds and bodies in the hope that they’ll discover passions that could become vocations, or simply lifelong joys. One passion that’s worth trying to instill is civic participation.

As parents, we can reinforce the importance of caring beyond one’s own success. Taking your kids to volunteer or to protest injustices they see in the world are good ways to show them what it looks like to give back and replenish. The human and nonhuman connections they will make at food pantries and animal shelters can help kids cultivate empathy — itself a valuable skill for navigating life — while offsetting the anxiety footprint caused by today’s inflated standards for success.

It might feel counterintuitive to deny your children the leg up in life that many extracurriculars promise, but it’s worth examining that impulse too. The pandemic has exacerbated existing socioeconomic disparities, especially along racial lines. With widening wealth gaps, there will be even fewer opportunities to prioritize extracurricular activities for low-income kids. Rethinking the value of a packed calendar offers a concrete opportunity to narrow the racial and economic gaps between privileged and underprivileged kids.

Replacing video games with nature walks might not make you the most popular parent. Your kids may complain a little (or a lot) about losing some of their organized fun, since boredom is a feeling they’ve rarely experienced. But they’ll figure it out.

A Balanced Education Promotes Resilience

November 07, 2023
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

Waldorf education is an intentionally balanced approach to teaching with the goal of graduating happy, healthy, and resilient young people. We interweave academics, artistic activities, movement and outdoor time in a way that reduces stress and enhances learning. We provide rhythm for each day, season and year, which builds confidence and ensures that students feel secure. Social-emotional learning and problem solving are integrated throughout our curriculum so children develop the skills they need to thrive. We are a community where students feel seen, recognized, and challenged to do their best work and be their best selves.

This post is based on the findings of Ann S. Masten and Andrew J. Barnes in their National Library of Medicine paper, Resilience in Children: Developmental Perspectives.  Please refer to the full paper for all citations.

Evidence continues to accumulate on the short- and long-term risks to health and well-being posed by adverse life experiences in children, particularly when adversities are prolonged, cumulative, or occurring during sensitive periods in early neurobiological development.  Recent national and global examples include the growing concern about the impact of disasters, war, poverty, pandemics, climate change, and associated displacement on the global well-being of children. This confluence of threats to the present and future health of children motivates us to look at resilience and the factors that can support its development. 

Resilience in humans can be broadly defined as the capacity to adapt successfully to challenges that threaten the function, survival, or future development of the individual. Resilience is also a feature of complex adaptive systems, including human individuals, but also families, economies, ecosystems, and organizations. This definition can also be applied to systems within an individual, such as the human immune system.

One of the most important implications of this definition is the idea that the resilience of a developing child is not circumscribed within the body and mind of that child. The capacity of an individual to adapt to challenges depends on their connections to other people and systems external to them through relationships and other processes. This includes their school environment and the relationships and experiences that are part of it.

For an individual person, resilience reflects all the adaptive capacity available at a given time in a given context that can be drawn upon to respond to current or future challenges facing the individual, through many different processes and connections. Resilience is not a trait, although individual differences in personality or cognitive skills clearly contribute to adaptive capacity. Supportive relationships play an enormous role in resilience across the lifespan. Close attachment bonds with a teacher or other caregiver and effective parenting can protect a young child in multiple ways that are not located “in the child”. 

Human individuals have so much capacity for adaptation to adversity in part because their resilience depends on many interacting systems that co-evolved in biological and cultural evolution, conferring adaptive advantages. Moreover, children are often protected by multiple “back-up” systems, particularly embedded in their relationships with other people in their homes and communities.

Dose matters. Many studies of resilience have shown that the severity of exposure either to one extremely traumatic event or in the sense of cumulative risk, makes a difference. At the same time, these studies also show variation among individuals at similar levels of risk, some of whom are manifesting positive adaptation and development consistent with the presence of considerable resilience. In effect, these adaptive individuals are doing better than might be expected. These individuals motivated questions about how to account for their success and provided important clues for resilience science pertaining to the ongoing search for answers to the question of what makes a difference.

The shortlist of common resilience factors for child development shows that school environment can play an important role in helping children develop resilience, in particular the relationship development, teacher looping, intentional community, developmentally appropriate approach, and rhythms and rituals of a Waldorf education.

  • Caring family, sensitive caregiving (nurturing family members)
  • Close relationships, emotional security, belonging (family cohesion, belonging)
  • Skilled parenting (skilled family management)
  • Agency, motivation to adapt (active coping, mastery)Problem-solving skills, planning, executive function skills (collaborative problem-solving, family flexibility)
  • Self-regulation skills, emotion regulation (co-regulation, balancing family needs)
  • Self-efficacy, positive view of the self or identity (positive views of family and family identity)
  • Hope, faith, optimism (hope, faith, optimism, positive family outlook)
  • Meaning-making, belief life has meaning (coherence, family purpose, collective meaning-making)
  • Routines and rituals (family routines and rituals, family role organization)
  • Engagement in a well-functioning school
  • Connections with well-functioning communities

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