The Importance of Giving Children Independence

Apr 5, 2016

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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37 comments on “The Importance of Giving Children Independence

  • I like this piece immensely and not just because of this-

    “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society.”

    My theory about childhood is that it, childhood, was effectively invented by the English in the eighteenth century. Spending on kids went through the roof. Toys, games, books for children were created and mass produced for the first time. Educations became general rather than fitting for position for the rich alone. The visiting French became appalled at how we indulged our kids and let them run around. Childhood grew from 6 years duration to twelve.

    My theory, Chris, is that extending playing and an ability to try things out without consequence or much risk helped kick start the Industrial Revolution by breeding a more adventurous entrepreneur. A few decades later and much of northern Europe followed suit.

    This struck me most forcibly noting how noisy, and child friendly, and modern were the households of folk like those of the Lunar Society, scientists, technologists and Industrialists, all. Erasmus Darwins’s particularly.



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  • My childhood was full of forest exploring, tree climbing, fort building, biking, sex play, football, building waterworks, looking after rabbits … none of this required adult supervision or organisation.

    Every once in a while my mom would pile as many neighbourhood kids as could fit it her car and took us to a beach for a picnic. We entertained ourselves.

    Today’s parents hover, terrified the kids will be killed or worse if they are left alone for a few seconds.



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  • I lived my childhood between the ’80s and the first ’90s, the best period of my life, full of games with my friends among the streets of the town where I lived. We played everyday during summer, we had no pc, no internet, no Play Station, no mobile phone. We interacted a lot during spring-summer, had lots and lots of quarrels: I can say we grew together, year after year.
    I am a little bit concerned about my future children, though. The world has changed a lot since the ’90s, I now see my young cousins and they have no will to go bike riding through the countryside fields as we were used to, they just want to stay inside, isolated from the rest of the world, “discussing” on forums, watching tv series, scrolling Facebook, making tons of selfie. No soccer (we live in Italy, soccer is a sort of religion for us, especially when we are very young), no social games (we spent hours playing ‘hide and seek’, it was so hilarious). The only social interaction they have is school and they are living it very badly.
    I do not want my children to live as my cousins do. This means that I will fight the society, since the young generation of parents dedicate no time to child rearing and education. It will be a hard fight, I fear. Children usually want to have what the other children have, so I suppose that I must rely on the best parental power I am capable of.



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  • 5
    bonnie2 says:

    @ #4 – “age”

    Life experience context and points of reference. Especially appropriate considering the subject is children.

    At stadium recently, boy almost got smacked with baseball, because he was looking at phone. Taking a selfie when the batter was up? Dad intervened with his arm. Almost ‘Darwin Award’.



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  • Isn’t it wrong to project “what we had” to the understanding and skills and the perception of the world our children have today?



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  • Phil

    Not wishing to open old wounds but you might be pleased to hear that I am half way to understanding what you meant after this line:

    “Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of
    a free and open society.”

    Maybe I am being naive with this question but in order to complete the model I need clarification on ‘offence’? How do we separate not being offended by someone wearing a hijab from being offended by what it represents?



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  • @OP -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.

    It frequently strikes me at the contrasts with my own childhood, and city dwelling children who exist in an environment where every square inch is somebody’s property and toys and activities are commercially produced products.

    I used to roam with my brother and friends in acres of woodland.
    If we wanted a branch to make a toy bow or arrows, we cut them – with knives we carried as tools not weapons.
    We would use branches (beaver-style) to dam small streams to make pools to sail toy boats – some of which we had made.

    Sometimes floods washed away our dams or changed the access by undermining banks.

    We also had fairly harmless mock fights with pea-shooters made from hollow stems, – using haw-berries as ammunition.

    Camps made from branches were also a focussed activity.

    Of course moving quietly so as not to disturb wildlife, gives a more interesting view of nature than simply looking at books.

    Recognising seasons is easy when seeking wild fruits, or noticing the presence or absence of tree leaves blocking out the sunlight, and watching the sequential changes in the ground-cover vegetation from spring flowers onward.

    I always found it enlightening as to how much wildlife we had not seen, when looking at animal tracks in the snow.



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  • 11
    justasec says:

    Don’t use “independence” as a synonym for “autonomy.” There’s a whole science-based literature (Self-Determination Theory) that explains the difference! In healthy relationships children would retain some level of emotional dependence (antonym of “independence”) on their parents while not being overly controlled (antonym of “autonomy”).
    Autonomy support is what’s needed if kids are to grow up learning self-responsibility.



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  • Olgun #9

    Nearly missed this…

    I have too much to say at the moment and need to distill it down…and bloody work has prevailed over the last two days.

    Back soon.

    No old wounds to be opened…that may be the point…



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  • Olgun

    How do we separate not being offended by someone wearing a hijab from being offended by what it represents?

    I also like this question but we will be off topic if we go on about it. You might consider dragging us over to an old thread that is closely related to the question.



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  • I don’t know Laurie. The question was promted by the trouble caused with the students maybe wearing offensive fancy dress costumes. If we have a Muslim turn up wearing a hijab and a non Muslim, who is causing more offence?

    Mods?



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  • Oh, yes thank you Mods and it’s my bad for the confusion. The title of the piece threw me off and I confused the threads.

    So anyway, Olgun,

    How do we separate not being offended by someone wearing a hijab from being offended by what it represents?

    I DO find hijabs to be offensive. When other women internalize sexism and proudly display their own subservience – I’m offended !!! After all of the sacrifice that it took us to improve women’s rights and there they go moving us back to the previous century. It’s so discouraging. But in the next breath, I acknowledge that they are free to internalize sexism and free to choose a life of domestic slavery. (How much choice there is here is highly suspect!) We have plenty of freedom to wear what we like here with some rules of coverage of course. I have no right to harass those wearing a hijab and I won’t do that but the times that this has come up in discussion with these women I don’t hold back my opinion. Since I am an infidel it doesn’t count for much on this topic anyways.

    I support equal rights for Muslim women and I’ll always speak out for that even when they are sabotaging themselves right in public. I am not obligated to respect that garment but I am obligated to respect the laws about clothing and I judge them by their character and behavior in the end, even if we disagree on everything. That rarely happens.



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  • @ Alan #10

    Speaking on the city-raised side, both my parents were at work during the day so our house was THE place to be. We climbed on top of garages, cut through backyards, and had some pretty epic neighborhood water fights (we eventually learned to close the house windows first). I remember one autumn when we gathered all the leaves in the neighborhood into our front yard, then jumped off the porch roof into them. My mother was not pleased when she pulled into the driveway. Good times!



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  • 19
    maria melo says:

    Maybe I am being naive with this question but in order to complete the model I need clarification on ‘offence’? How do we separate not being offended by someone wearing a hijab from being offended by what it represents?

    Well, maybe for the one who is waering it means virtous.
    As it may happen that a virtue can become an offense over night.
    To have clarification, women wearing it must be asked one by one for what it represents, carefully, takng into account what it means a “linguistic revolution”.
    i don´t get offended by women per si wearing a burqa of course, but for the totalitarian idea, in this case, why should all men wear a sutes and ties in summer, why do men have to wear the same haircut in North Korea? (perhaps it is not offensive for them, but virtous? just supposing).



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  • 20
    maria melo says:

    My previous comment has gone. It was marked as spam I guess.
    Why, does it looks like that I am selling any product?
    I am not enough patient to repeat it, and I am discouraged too.

    (it didn´t have any link)



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  • maria melo

    I read your comment and I like what you said. I don’t know what happened to the comment and I didn’t see anything wrong with it.

    You said something about hijab being a sign of virtue for some women who wear it. I agree that many women do see themselves as virtuous for wearing that. And you said something about asking individual women why they are wearing it and I agree that it is very important to do that.



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  • Maria Melo #20

    So sorry, Maria. Yes, it had been removed by the spam system for some reason that isn’t immediately clear. We have retrieved it now, so you should now be able to see it above.

    If it happens again (and it might), please do let us know, as we can always rescue it for you.

    The mods



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  • 24
    maria melo says:

    I appreciate that my comment is on again.Thank you Mod.

    Just a funny aspect of “meaning”, I quote an old professor of Anthropology (from the previous generation) that I was very proud to have as professor:
    “shaking hands” he used to say and repeat “serves the purpose of surmounting prejudice towards the other person, yet, it rapidly becomes prejudiced too”.
    How can something that was supposed to have an end gain the opposite meaning?
    Well, I find it curious that RDF clarified what it means to be a “christian nation” for the british by asking questions that can make it more clear.
    when people say “christian”, they mean “a good person”, usually people don´t look for guidance in the bible when they have a moral dilema, etc…

    What happened in Turkey was quite interesting (that´s why I am referring to a change of “meaning” overnight).

    Sute is suit (of corse)



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  • Hi Laurie and Maria

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with you both on all your points and they would be my standard answers as well. The sentence I quoted has not got any real specifics and my mind goes from the religious aspect to cab drivers in New York (TV versions as I have not been there) swearing at just about everyone. I am just trying to draw a (not so straight) line between al, of the offence in the world. As I mentioned above, is an ordinary person, non muslim, allowed to wear an hijab and go to a party just to mock the real wearers?



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  • Olgun,

    How do we separate not being offended by someone wearing a hijab from being offended by what it represents?

    Sometimes they look great especially when some hair slips out. The sexual fetish clothing that it represents is offensive as a cultural obligation on women, though it falls short of the out and out bondage gear that is the burqua.

    I expect to be offended by things in life, the question is, if I judge it currently legally acceptable for adults to behave like thus and so in public, I will not enact laws to act on my distaste for others’ behaviours.

    I was against anti-burqua legislation in France. It is a farce to dictate what women wear because you fear some (even many) have what they wear dictated to them. I do however utterly commend French policy on uniform in schools. School is exactly the place where the petty groupings of society are studied rather than experienced.

    The new UK adverts alerting girls and women to controlling male behaviours of all sorts and licensing the their complete rejection are magnificent. The types of behaviour shown need to be broadened to encompass examples of ethnic (?) behaviours also. Signalling an attitude that the state is concerned for individuals over communities is essential.

    The foregoing is going to be offensive to many communities. All such soft state power to help make all communities more porous is to be encouraged and will be fought by communities. But this is the quid pro quo for toleration.

    Tolerate the distasteful on the streets. Try your very hardest to understand any virtues it may have for individuals. Don’t enact spurious and meddlesome laws. Don’t be just another change-phobic like those on the right. Do use existing laws. Sell the values your state stands for. Try not to offend but don’t not act for fear of offense. Understand that the unmade young if given access to choices are your opportunity to unblock a log jam of bad ideas. Demand a right of access to all individuals in educating about the state values (eg unequivocal sexual equality, tolerance of the views of others, communities are not legal entities and their members are not in any lesser sense autonomous individuals.)

    License as much propaganda as you can. The broadest knowledge and free choice always favours the morally mutual. Strictly police ANY incitement to violence and prosecute. (This latter will do more to manage hate speech than farcical hate speech legislation.)



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  • Olgun

    As I mentioned above, is an ordinary person, non muslim, allowed to wear an hijab and go to a party just to mock the real wearers?

    You mean like this?

    http://edge.liveleak.com/80281E/s/s/17/media17/2010/Aug/9/LiveLeak-dot-com-d76221c4d5f8-cid_f65faa621cee4600a3a4077e59e02a08evanswork.jpg?d5e8cc8eccfb6039332f41f6249e92b06c91b4db65f5e99818bdd1964f45d9d62760&ec_rate=230

    Mods, if this is against the rules of the site then take it off. I’m not sure if it is or not. I don’t mean to break any rules with this.

    Olgun, when I think about someone going around in a burka or hijab (non-muslim) just to mock them I get a bad feeling about it but the photo that I linked to above actually makes me want to cheer the mockery as an antidote to prudery and sexual slavery. I do feel much better about your question after seeing this pic. I am also remembering that I’ve seen people dressed in nun and priest costumes at parties and almost always there is an element of sexual display included in those costumes as an attempt at mockery of those professions. The “nuns” inevitably have a blatant display of cleavage and/or sexy undergarments showing. None of this ever bothered me at the time. My reaction was to take in the mockery and laugh with an eye roll.

    Why would there be a difference between a nun costume and a hijab costume at any party? Aren’t we mocking what these articles of clothing represent? I will also say that if I found an actual nun or priest in distress I’d go speeding into action to remedy the situation (if they were sick or lost or hungry for example.) Even though their ridiculous religious statement uniform is offensive, humans have rights and needs.

    I don’t mind mocking priests with my wearing of their ridiculous uniform. In fact, as a statement of protest I think we should have a rally against the RCC with all women, of all faiths or none at all, all wearing a stupid priest uniform and carrying picket signs that insult and mock those control freak men who want to reduce us to sexual and reproductive slavery.



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  • Thanks for the replies Laurie and Phil. Will have to put it all together as I hit a few hurdles along the way.

    Laurie,

    I only chose the hijab as the most current (in a way) and my question applies to all religions.

    rally against the RCC with all women

    Thought you might like this?

    Yes, the link timed out!!



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  • Olgun

    hmm. That’s weird, my link is working for me but your link is a blank page. oh well. As we cannot understand the tides (B. OReilly) so also we cannot understand the internet. (so says LaurieB). If you can’t see my link then google muslim of the year and I’m sure you will see the picture I was referring to above. A famous line that would apply here is “I know it when I see it”. 🙂



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  • 32
    maria melo says:

    If we have a Muslim turn up wearing a hijab and a non Muslim, who is causing more offence?

    Why should a non-muslim wear a hijab in first place?

    What is multiculturalism if I were obliged to wear a hijab?

    I am posing a question that I think has to do with the authenticity of ethnicity of someone.
    As a student of the professor I´ve mentioned in my previous comment, me and other students had the privilege of visiting african pieces in the Society of Geography of Lisbon where he is Director. The pieces were chaotically collected and no one knew exactelly it´s value as ethnographic recoiled pieces and we were guided by the anthropologist that organized the collected pieces.
    What makes the genuine value of each piece is its authenticity he explained us, not when it is made or forged for other purposes as selling etc. So it seems that ivory and some precious woods are not genuine african art, nor bust figures clothed, these were souvenirs made for tourists actually.

    Again my question, Why should I be obliged to wear a hijab?

    Multiculturalism, a bombshell word. well I am prepared for being smashed for having mentioned it.



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  • Maria

    Why should a non-muslim wear a hijab in first place?

    Not sure if you missed the beginning of the OP?

    Ms. Christakis herself was at the center of a conflict last year over Halloween costumes on campus

    (Not limited to muslims) The trouble caused by comments by Erika ended with her leaving her position. In a free society, which one offends more? I adjust trying to narrow down what ‘offence’ is. I know how I should act but my offence is at any religion that cannot tolerate me.



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  • 34
    maria melo says:

    Actually I don´t know if I quite understand the OP, I guess I didn´t, although I´ve read it several times in hope of understanding better.
    I guess I didn´t.
    I understand Ms Christakis point, children I am afraid are kind of too busy I agree (as if it were a socio-economic classes race, I sometimes find myself concerned too about how some people seem to think of the children they identify clearly from lower socio-economic class as far as they are trying to “adopt” or care for the children-developing skills at any price looks like a race to a upper socio-economic class to me, I am afraid this is real, my experience comes from listening to real people.
    I myself visited a different school for my daughter, and a religious one, but chosen one that I think does not think children as mini-adults, a public school rather than a pri.viledge one.



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  • The eternal dilemma whether to take children to extracurricular activities or not. The world has changed, kids cannot play on the street. I do not remember going out and play in the city, though I did in the village where I lived a few years. We need to adapt to what we have. Extracurricular activities are fun, they meet people, interact, learn skills (like playing an instrument or a sport). It is children and young people who learn and enjoy life, why not offer them more opportunities? They will discover what their skills are, their element. They will have more time to make mistakes and correct, rather than having to do it in adolescence or at the time they have to go to university at an age full of questions and doubts.
    Besides all they learn will serve in the future, it will be all job done.



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