ALBANY — After 35 years of working as a teacher and co-director of the Albany Free School, Chris Mercogliano sensed that something was missing in the children he was teaching.
“I compared childhood today with childhood of my generation, and a kind of common thread emerged, which is that so many aspects of today’s childhood are controlled by forces outside of the child,” said Mercogliano.
Mercogliano, 54, who retired from teaching a year ago to write full time, outlines his thoughts in his latest book “In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids’ Inner Wildness.” (Beacon Press, $16.00).
“Today, virtually every arena of a child’s life is subject to some form of adult mediation, supervision or control,” writes Mercogliano, the author of four books about children. “Kids go from before-school programs to school, from school to after-school programs, and from there to a host of extracurricular lessons and organized sports. Suddenly, it occurred to me that we are witnessing not only the taming of Mark Twain’s wild boys but the systematic domestication of childhood itself.”
Mercogliano said he thinks today’s parents are more anxious because we live in a very anxious time.
‘Bombarded by fear’
“We are being bombarded by fear messages all the time,” he said. “And I think young parents are particularly susceptible to those messages. So a parent’s natural reaction is to become more controlling. They want to control as many variables as possible in the child’s world.”
One of the most obvious signs is that parents are reluctant to let their children play outdoors. Or parents try to turn children’s play into constructive learning experiences at early ages.
Many of today’s parents try to structure their children’s playtime. So even play is becoming controlled.
“The purpose of play — real play — which is something children very much need, is for that play to be structured by children,” said Mercogliano. “Play needs to be original, the kind of play that fosters children’s creativity and their intelligence. It’s play that is deeply imaginative and improvisational. It’s play that doesn’t require a lot of props.”
While Mercogliano sees nothing wrong with toys, he said there is a tendency for toys to erode the original creative aspect of play.
“The toy itself sort of takes over and structures the play, instead of the child’s own inclinations and imagination doing that,” he said.
Authors of experience
In his book, Mercogliano argues that only those young people who are allowed to lead unscripted, authentic childhoods will find themselves ready to become the authors of their own experience and lead lives filled with satisfaction, excitement and distinction.
“You learn self control by having opportunities to make your own choices and make your own mistakes,” said Mercogliano. “That’s how a child learns responsibility. If children are constantly supervised, constantly told what to do, they’re not going to develop the ability to become independent.”
He added: “In the book, I argue that children in today’s world, which is changing so fast and is so unpredictable, need to be able to think creatively. They need the ability to improvise and learn to become good problem solvers. They need to learn how to direct themselves, and the only way to develop that ability is to practice.”
Mercogliano says many young men and women struggle in college today because they never learned how to think for themselves.
“We read about the binge drinking and the careless sexuality,” he said. “They can’t handle the freedom when there is suddenly no one telling them what to do and what not to do.”
Mercogliano said he wrote the book because he is concerned that this is becoming a trend.
“I don’t think it’s too late by any means,” he said. “But I am concerned that if something doesn’t change, if we don’t set childhood free again, the next generation will grow up and not be able to think for themselves.”
Play helps you think
Mercogliano maintains that parents can help their children develop by allowing them to play either outside or inside if that is safer.
“Studies show that solitary play is actually developmentally very important,” he said. “The more kids practice thinking as little kids, the better thinkers they will be when they are adults.”
He also suggests making reading to your children before bedtime a nightime ritual.
“Turn off the television, turn off the videos, and read books your kids want to hear,” he said. “And don’t turn it into a reading lesson.”
Another simple thing to do is take kids out into nature.
“Go hiking, or take them to a park,” said Mercogliano. “Kids learn from nature on many levels. They need simple, undomesticated experiences that don’t require a lot of props or technology.”
Mary Pipher, author of “Writing to Change the World,” said Mercogliano offers fresh ideas and creative solutions. “He will help us care for our most valuable resource: Children,” she said.
William Crain, author of “Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society,” said: “Mercogliano brings a positive message showing how we can help young people break through conventional restraints and pursue their passions.”
Mercogliano, who is married and has two adult daughters, is currently writing another book called “School Must Have a Heart: Embracing Education’s Emotional and Social Core.”
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