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The Importance of Giving Children Independence

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The Importance of Giving Children Independence Empty The Importance of Giving Children Independence

Post by Guest on Thu Apr 07, 2016 1:39 am

Erika Christakis, an early-education expert who most recently taught at Yale University, thinks that adults and children have reversed roles. Adults, she says, now act like children, reading children’s books and dressing like college students, while children have become overscheduled and hyper-pressured, their childhoods cut short. “Adults are paying attention to their own self-care with mindfulness and spa care and yoga, yet children are really suffering,” she says.

In her new book, “The Importance of Being Little,” Ms. Christakis, 52, argues that giving children less downtime has made them more fragile. She fears that overburdening them with facts, figures and extracurricular activities has led to a decrease in their autonomy and resilience. Giving children free time to play with others, she says, allows them to learn how to solve problems and deal with conflicts.

Ms. Christakis herself was at the center of a conflict last year over Halloween costumes on campus. It started when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee advised students that they should not be culturally insensitive by wearing feathered headdresses, turbans or “war paint” or by “modifying skin tone” and linked to a website listing appropriate and inappropriate costumes. In response, Ms. Christakis sent out her own email wondering if such oversight was necessary. “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?” she asked, and noted, “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

Students said her email was racially insensitive and staged protests, with some calling for her and her husband to be removed from their positions as heads of an undergraduate residence at Yale. (Her husband, Nicholas Christakis, is a physician and sociology professor.) In December, Ms. Christakis resigned from her teaching job at Yale, and her husband is on sabbatical this semester. They still have their residential positions.

The gist of the email was in keeping with the educational philosophy she outlines in her book. “My intention in writing that email was to validate our students’ ability to practice social norming with each other,” she says. She agrees with her critics about the need to be sensitive but felt that her words were received the wrong way. “It just was very surreal to me…but I still feel very committed to the idea that kids are powerful.”

She stepped down from teaching, she says, not only because of the email, but also because she felt more broadly that the campus climate doesn’t allow open dialogue.

Born outside of Boston, Ms. Christakis says that her parents—a doctor and an art director—gave her a lot of autonomy growing up. She majored in anthropology at Harvard University and later earned degrees in public health at Johns Hopkins University, communications at the University of Pennsylvania and early childhood education at Lesley University. She taught preschool while raising her three children, who are now grown, and in 2013 joined the faculty at the Yale Child Study Center.

Since she started working on early education nearly 20 years ago, she’s seen a shift in parenting, from free-range oversight to a closer, more controlling style. “A lot of surveys show that parents are actually closer with their kids than they were in my generation,” she says, adding that technology has enabled constant contact and monitoring. “But [children] don’t have the space—emotional and physical—to learn through the give-and-take of play.”

Her approach shares some ideas with the educational philosophies of Montessori and Reggio Emilia, older schools of thought that emphasize fostering children’s sense of independence and responsibility. She believes in encouraging relationships between teachers and students and among the students themselves. “What runs through a lot of these disparate pedagogues is this respect for children’s thinking,” she says. She criticizes familiar preschool practices such as making crafts to take home and memorizing colors, shapes and words, as well as plastering kindergarten walls with signs and letters.

One way to improve early childhood education, she says, is to raise teacher pay. Because salaries are so low, potentially good teachers often go into other fields that compensate them better, she says. “I think we need to create a marketplace solution,” she says.

Now that she won’t be teaching at Yale, Ms. Christakis plans to spend more time working with children. This fall, she hopes to become a court-appointed special advocate—a volunteer appointed by judges to work on behalf of neglected and abused children in the social-service system. She would like to work with female prisoners, many of whom are also mothers. She will also spend time on outside pursuits such as playing classical guitar, knitting and traveling.

Ms. Christakis says that she will be glad to focus on working with actual preschoolers and writing about them. She hesitates to elaborate on her opinions about whether free speech is threatened on college campuses, but she believes that students should be able to deal with discomfort.

“Students have power,” she says. “If you don’t like someone, don’t play with them. You can make your own choice.”

Interesting and would to understand what others think on this.


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