Monday, November 14, 2011

Let children be children

There is a memorable scene the classic Ron Howard film Parenthood (1989), which features Nathan (Rick Moranis), who plays a nerdy overachieving dad, his wife Susan (Harley Kozak), a middle school science teacher, and their sweet, precocious daughter Patty (Ivyann Schwan).

It begins with Susan on the phone with her sister Helen (Dianne Wiest) complaining about her daughter's academic performance.

Susan: "We're a little disappointed with the effort she's been giving lately towards her work. Math, French, everything's gone down. Nathan's talking to her right now. He's trying to figure out what's wrong."

(At this point the scene shifts to their home office, where Nathan is lecturing his daughter.)

Nathan: "Look, Patty, all I'm saying is, if you wanna have just an ordinary academic career and attend an ordinary university, that's your prerogative, but I must tell you I think you're selling yourself way short."

Susan: "How's it going?" (Entering the room and taking a seat next to her husband.)

Nathan: "I don't know. Sometimes I feel as though we want it more than she does."

Susan: "Patty, you know we love you. Could you just give your father that little extra effort he's looking for?"

(Camera turns to Patty pictured above.)

Patty: "Okay, Mama."

Nathan: "That's all I ask."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

What makes this scene absurd is the fact that Patty is just a six year-old girl. We laugh at it, but at the same time it drills home the unseemly fact that many parents have a tendency to program their children from an early age to follow what they consider a path to success, and sometimes like Nathan, wanting it more than their children, grossly over do it. In fact I see this a lot first hand in the over-stimulated greater Washington, DC social environment in which we live, where kids are literally sick and tired doing so much extra stuff all the time.    

To which I emphatically say: the most important thing a parent/guardian can give a child is their childhood.

Of course, I want my children to be well educated, have good social skills, and be able to pursue sports and other activities that complement/enhance their physical and intellectual growth, but not at the expense of having sufficient time to experience the nectar of youth, which as adults they will never get back. That is, they should ... conquer boredom, imagine things by accident, play freely outside and to no end, fall off a bicycle and get scratched, occasionally watch a favorite TV show to excess, pick a random book and read it on their own time, climb a tall tree and stay up there until it's time for dinner, lie in a grassy field and look up at the sky on a summer's day and think about nothing, run around being absolutely loony, .... All these things and more, because that's what childhood is all about, and -- like preparing them to score decently on the SATs -- we have an obligation to see to it that they can wander and explore and experiment and be amazed to their heart's content.

In other words, I want my children to be carefree and happy-go-lucky for as long as possible, and I refuse to hijack that experience to satisfy any hyper-practical expectations of the day, including my own. And if they don't end up being Rhodes scholars or CEOs, so be it. Because when they get to adulthood, with all of its inevitable trials and tribulations, I'm certain that they'll be very well served by the foundation laid during those blissful first decades of their lives.

That's all I ask.