She Likes To Be Little

Since September, my 6-year-old daughter has been singing in a choir that bills itself as “serious fun,” in that they’re serious both about music and about having fun.

Sounds like a good balance, right?

We thought so, applauding the way the group values both the inherent enjoyment involved in singing while at the same time challenging the kids to sing the very best they can.

Which is why we were surprised recently when our daughter told us she didn’t want to continue with choir in the new year. When asked why, she said, “Because when we sing something our teacher always tells us what’s wrong with it and makes us try again, even when it seems pretty good already.”

In addition to giving us a chuckle, this statement left my husband and I at a crossroad. On the one hand, it was a detailed, well-considered description of what our daughter experiences in class, and therefore felt like a valid reason for her lack of enthusiasm. But on the other hand, I could feel myself wanting to remind our daughter of the importance of hard work. How it “pays off in the end,” or results in something better than she could imagine.

But whose imagination was I really talking about? At this stage in her young life, my daughter has no idea where singing in a chorus could lead her. Can’t picture the elite a cappella singing group she’ll be “invited” to join. And understands next to nothing about the vastly competitive world that lies ahead of her or the seeming importance of getting any kind of head start.

I can hear some of you thinking that kid’s just a little lazy. Maybe. Or maybe she’s aware of the way her free time grows more scarce as she grows up. Either way, right now she just wants to play. And to be honest, I just want to honor that. But I confess it can be hard to maintain that stance in a world where achievement seems to matter so much (at ever younger ages) and when everyone around you seems hell-bent on enriching their child at all costs.

Enter the book How To Raise An Adult, by Julie Lythcott-Haims. This books traces the history of modern parenting, noting the extreme pendulum shift from the “just go out and play until dinner” attitude of the 1960s and 1970s to the hyper-managed, over-nurtured “let me do that for you so you can practice your violin” ethos of today.

She talks about her tenure as the undergraduate dean at Stanford University, where she saw increasing numbers of parents actively involved in their child’s college experience, running interference on everything from class assignments and grades to arranging assistance for a helpless freshmen who couldn’t figure out how to get his moving boxes from the curb outside his dorm up the stairs to his room. (Despite being possessed of the intellectual capacity to get into Stanford, the boy apparently had zero common sense.)

She also talks about the psychological toll our high expectations take on kids — and the increasing number of stressed-out adolescents who turn either to antidepressants or less controlled substances like alcohol and drugs.

The antidote, according to Lythcott-Haims, isn’t a return to the “benign neglect” many of us experienced as children but rather a more measured approach that takes the emphasis away from achievement and allows kids to just be kids. She advocates for things like free play. Open-ended toys and materials rather than goal-oriented activities. Spontaneity. And chores! Because apparently you can increase a kid’s sense of independence by having them do for themselves what you’ve previously been doing for them! That’s right, people: If your kid’s in elementary school, Lythcott-Haims is confident she should be packing her own lunch, among many, many other things.

In my humble opinion, that’s the best parenting news I’ve heard since my doctor told me it was perfectly OK to have a glass of wine while I was breastfeeding.

At this juncture, my daughter reminds me of the girl in Charlotte Zolotow’s children’s book I Like To Be Little, who talks with her mom about all the things she can do that her mom can’t (or won’t), like jumping in a pile of leaves, sitting under the dining room table, skipping instead of walking. She’s right — adults don’t do these things, and kids should be able to enjoy them for as long as they can. How often have you heard the lament about “how fast they grow up,” yet how few of us are really allowing them to remain young?

I know many kids thrive on activity and that many working families need to schedule a full day for their kids. And it’s true that free time and play are a kind of luxury, a concept articulated most poignantly by a 9-year-old from South Sudan named Chuol who was profiled in the NYTimes Magazine’s interactive special featuring displaced children. When speaking about the “child safe zone” established by Unicef, he says, “It’s not like a big school where all you have are classes. There are all sorts of games.”

The boy who fled his home, was forced to live in a swamp, and wonders if he’ll ever “be able to leave this place” finds games the most wonderful part of the child-safe zone. Given how many displaced children must be suffering similarly to Chuol, “fun” seems a privilege for which our first-world families should be so very grateful.

For my daughter right now, it seems the best way to help her “become an adult” would be to support her in protecting her own childhood. I imagine that will include some staring at the ceiling while sprawled on the bed, lots of puttering and tinkering and paper and tape, and yes, a fair amount of singing, in all its joyfully imperfect glory.