By Alexandra Wolfe
Erika Christakis, an early-education expert who most recently taught at Yale University, thinks that adults and children have reversed roles. Adults, she says, now act like children, reading children’s books and dressing like college students, while children have become overscheduled and hyper-pressured, their childhoods cut short. “Adults are paying attention to their own self-care with mindfulness and spa care and yoga, yet children are really suffering,” she says.
In her new book, “The Importance of Being Little,” Ms. Christakis, 52, argues that giving children less downtime has made them more fragile. She fears that overburdening them with facts, figures and extracurricular activities has led to a decrease in their autonomy and resilience. Giving children free time to play with others, she says, allows them to learn how to solve problems and deal with conflicts.
Ms. Christakis herself was at the center of a conflict last year over Halloween costumes on campus. It started when Yale’s Intercultural Affairs Committee advised students that they should not be culturally insensitive by wearing feathered headdresses, turbans or “war paint” or by “modifying skin tone” and linked to a website listing appropriate and inappropriate costumes. In response, Ms. Christakis sent out her own email wondering if such oversight was necessary. “Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people?” she asked, and noted, “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”
Students said her email was racially insensitive and staged protests, with some calling for her and her husband to be removed from their positions as heads of an undergraduate residence at Yale. (Her husband, Nicholas Christakis, is a physician and sociology professor.) In December, Ms. Christakis resigned from her teaching job at Yale, and her husband is on sabbatical this semester. They still have their residential positions.
The gist of the email was in keeping with the educational philosophy she outlines in her book. “My intention in writing that email was to validate our students’ ability to practice social norming with each other,” she says. She agrees with her critics about the need to be sensitive but felt that her words were received the wrong way. “It just was very surreal to me…but I still feel very committed to the idea that kids are powerful.”
She stepped down from teaching, she says, not only because of the email, but also because she felt more broadly that the campus climate doesn’t allow open dialogue.
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