One day after school when I was seven, I snuck the largest umbrella I could find out of our house and walked down to the beach. It was very windy. The tide was out, exposing the long stretch of wet, unruffled sand so characteristic of Crescent Beach. Beyond the tidal flat though, whitecaps chopped up the ocean farther out. I leant into the wind. It was strong enough to stop me from toppling over. Excellent! It seemed perfect for my plans.

I climbed up onto one of the wooden pillars that stuck up out of the sand (at the time I didn’t question why they were there…they were just a normal part of the landscape. In hindsight, I suspect they were part of a groyne to prevent erosion). Strong gusts of wind threatened to topple me over while I wrestled with the umbrella. Finally, I got it open and immediately felt the wind tug at it. Another promising sign. Heart pounding, wind rushing in my ears, I closed my eyes, counted to three and jumped.

And landed in a heap on the sand, of course.

I’d really thought I might fly. I’d never seen Mary Poppins (no DVDs in those days) but I was familiar with her iconic flying umbrella. It’s not that I thought I’d conjure magic exactly (although I might have hoped). Rather that I thought a skinny kid, a wide umbrella and a big wind might add up to success.

This story came to mind as I was reading Madeline Levine’s fascinating new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success. I’d picked it up on the strength of a New York Times book review. Judith Warner’s insightful review described it thus:

Levine’s latest book is a cri de coeur from a clinician on the front lines of the battle between our better natures — parents’ deep and true love     and concern for their kids — and our culture’s worst competitive and materialistic influences, all of which she sees played out, day after day, in her private psychology practice in affluent Marin County, Calif. Levine works with teenagers who are depleted, angry and sad as they compete for admission to a handful of big-name colleges, and with parents who can’t steady or guide them, so lost are they in the pursuit of goals that have drained their lives of pleasure, contentment and connection. “Our current version of success is a failure,” she writes. It’s a damning, and altogether accurate, clinical diagnosis.”

Levine makes the case that we need to reframe success so that it’s less about impressive scores on standardized tests and more about developing character, integrity, problem-solving skills, empathy and kindness. Children equipped with these qualities, Levine argues, will have the real tools they need for engaged adult lives.

Levine’s perspective, developed (as Judith Warner points out) through her clinical and maternal experience, is an expression of our collective need to reinvent the good life. We’ll probably always strive for an ideal, but the character of that striving will be very different if we’re focusing on “connection and contentment” rather than material success.

But what’s so provocative about Levine’s book is the urgency of the task. Lest we think this is a purely philosophical quest, Levine provides case stories and statistics demonstrating the ways in which children’s lives have changed appreciably in the last couple of decades, and the impact this is having on them. For example, Levine reports that “…over the last twenty years, kids have lost close to two hours of play every day, most of that unstructured play.” That playtime has been replaced by extracurricular activities, tutoring, additional homework and screen time. Or it’s getting interfered with by anxious parents who fret about the harm children might come to if they’re not kept under constant supervision. And the impact, in Levine’s experience, is stressed out, exhausted, and perhaps worst of all, disenchanted kids.

Happily, Levine provides some practical strategies for creating alternatives. One of these (one dear to my own heart) is to ensure that children have more time to play and reflect. She suggests five simple things to foster play:

1)      Unplug their gazillions of devices

2)      Encourage them to play outside

3)      Avoid so-called “educational” toys

4)      Don’t over-program them

5)      Role-model the importance of play by playing ourselves (which has the added bonus of being good for us too)

Levine closes the book with the reminder that the “very things that promote your child’s well-being and happiness are the same things that will promote his or her success in the world.” It will take “courage” to change the status quo, she acknowledges, but not do so is “inexcusable”.

If I were eight-years-old now, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t make it out to the beach with that umbrella. I’d be at judo or playing Angry Birds or studying. Or perhaps an anxious caregiver would stop me from heading out the door, even if I’d been so inclined. What would the cost of that missed experience be? Perhaps nothing, or at least, only a girl’s memory of a beach, a windy day and a bit of folly. But maybe that day, and all the crazy adventures like it, taught me subtle things I’ll never be able to put my finger on. And maybe by not studying or earnestly developing myself or “killing” time, I also learned something about the value of time, enquiry and experience. Something about the good life. And something about, simply, being.

 

 

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