Children are prisoners. We are holding them in cells through half of their days, 180 out of 365 each year. During these days they are permitted to be outdoors for 40 or 50 minutes total (“recess”, though we might just as well call it “yard”) to see the sky, feel the breeze, watch leaves shimmering on a maple tree.
Then, to further enslave them, we give them additional work that they have to do at home at night. Some parents require children to complete their homework before they can play, so whatever might have been left of the light of day is further lost. We pride ourselves on being past the days of child labor, but we’ve only shortened the work week a little bit.
Children who become resistant to this imprisonment, who cannot sit still, or cannot stop looking longingly out the window, are labeled “troublemaker”, ”learning impaired,” or “bad apple.” I know a boy who, half way through elementary school, took up leaving his classroom and hiding in the bathroom for an hour at a time. When questioned on it, he would say he had an upset stomach. After two or three months of daily escapes by him, his parents were called in to talk with school personnel. At the meeting, the boy’s parents asked, “Is it possible that school just isn’t the right place for him?” The teacher and the school psychologist peered at the parents with baffled, uncomprehending expressions. Every child belongs in school, no? The psychologist went so far as to say, “It’s okay if he’s unhappy at school.”
Her statement speaks volumes about our view of children. How could it possibly be okay for a child to be unhappy five days out of the week? I’ll tell you the answer: It’s okay because we have decided that children – that childhood itself , in fact – can be sacrificed so that we may live our “modern lifestyle,” a technologized life which requires children to be indoctrinated and drilled into the information and habits that accompany an indoor life, divorced from nature and drowning in plastic possessions.
Children in the wild spent much of their days playing with friends, and the rest working with other community members on the tasks that kept everyone fed and warm. They carried water, they ran races, they prepared for festivals. And they were almost always outside, except in the most bitterly cold weather. They were around the people they loved all the time, and always had access to other children.
We don’t notice children’s incarceration because we have become inured to our own. During our work week, most of us barely see the daytime sky. (As a headline in The Onion reports, “Autumn Colors Appreciated On Walk To Car.”) Underlying our superficial acceptance of this reality we carry a submerged, heartbreaking sadness at the loss of the world that we have been plucked out of, the Mother we have been kidnapped away from. Adults and children share similar fates.
School teachers are in no way to blame for this situation. The best of them are giving children love and helping them feel excited about what they are learning. Thank heaven for them. But the essential problem remains.
At this point in history, we wouldn’t know how to free the children. Where would they go all day long? Who would look after them? Their parents, after all, have to be working all day for bosses, mostly indoors, far from the children’s home and friends.
However, it is our job – the job of the adult world, that is – to find the solution; there’s no excuse for keeping children locked away from our beloved world for most of their childhoods; what “lifestyle” could possibly be worth it, what conveniences could possible justify it?