Having worked in education for 10 years I’ve witnessed some alarming trends developing among our children, thankfully there is a solution, and it may be found through the Montessori method.
No generation has ever had it as good as today’s kids. There is an abundance of resources available to them for play and relaxation, we are (allegedly) wealthier than we’ve ever been and young people are spending longer than ever before in education. Yet they are also unhappier than ever before, I know this because I’ve seen it! I see more children dealing with anxiety, more children struggling to meet the basic demands of school, more children unable to build and sustain relationships, more allergies, more dissatisfaction, more boredom. In a world that offers them everything they need to flourish our children are struggling.
You don’t need to take my world for it though. The scientific evidence is frankly frightening (mental health difficulties are rising every year here, continual increase in ADHD diagnosis here, loneliness is now considered chronic among young people here). As study after study continues to sound alarms regarding the state of emergency existing in a generation of children it is an opportune moment to examine the causes.
What’s causing all this turmoil, what’s changed for children? Today’s kids deal with;
- Hectic schedules of structured activities
- Dozens of toys and unlimited access to technology
- Parents distracted by the digital world
- Indoor, sedentary lifestyle
- Few responsibilities but an immense burden of choice
- Poorly balanced diets and interrupted sleep
Children need time when no one is directing them. They also need boredom – for them it is a motivator. We must give them an opportunity to find creative ways to pass their time, to set their own goals, to determine roles and hierarchies among their peers; it is how they discover who they are and what drives them. Shielding children from, boredom and other unpleasant feelings like anger and frustration does them no favours. Instead allow children to experience and seek a resolution to all of their emotions, even the ones they don’t enjoy. Unless they learn to confront them when they are still manageable they will soon become overwhelmed by them. They need to practise now so that they will have the tools required to overcome real challenges later in life.
- Encourage your children to only pursue the hobbies they are interested in
- Teach them to find ways to amuse themselves by modelling hour hobbies
- Have them help you put together a Boredom Box.
- Follow their interests so they have the freedom to pursue self-identified talents
- Don’t come to their rescue when they’re bored
Toys and Technology
Like their time, children’s toys are very structured. The majority of toys on the market have a designated function or a specific character. A Peppa Pig plushy will always be just that and every game will have to accommodate it, whereas an unbranded doll can perform just about any role. Children know what to do with their branded toys so will frequently do only that and worse, do so without seeking any input from other people. Offering children open ended toys frees them to become creative and encourages them to interact with their peers as they seek ideas and the skills of others.
Technology and children are a toxic mix and increasingly studies are identifying links between technology use in childhood with bipolar disorder and addictive tendencies in adulthood. Largely due to the constant reward offered by the “tap, get and repeat” gratification provided by technology. Children don’t become addicted to the technology or game, they become addicted to the hormonal high they experience when a reward is gained. Technology is the most dangerous and damaging feature of modern childhood. Try to keep children screen free until they are one and avoid hand held devices until at least after 3.
- Reduce the amount of toys available at any one time
- Offer children open-ended toys and access to books
- Implement time limits on anything with a screen (and ban them for the under threes)
Living in a digital world
Every time we look away from a child (or an adult) to check our phones during a conversation/meal/quiet snuggle we are communicating that we value what’s on the screen more than we value the person in front of us, that they are not enough for us, that we are bored by them. It’s upsetting to watch a child deflate when a parent ignores them in favour of a beeping box and yet I see it time and again.
- When you’re with your kids try to use your phone like a telephone
- Mute group chats on messenging apps
- Keep phones off the dinner table
- Teach them that they are important by listening and asking questions
Read more about why you should avoid your phone here
Indoor Sedentary Lifestyle
This really ought to be a no brainer! Breathing stale air and sitting still for long periods is bad for any living creature! Go outside, so many of these issues can be solved with 1 hour of outside play a day!
- Spend at least an hour outside every day
- Watch for birds/crabs/stars or plant a garden – make them an active part of their world
Read more about the mental and physical repercussions of a poor lifestyle here.
Working in different schools means I work with a vast amount of children, and one thing I notice in every school is that children are unable to organise themselves or their belonging. Schools provide pencils and books, weekly homework folders with printed assignments, teachers prepare snacks, open packets, uncap glue sticks, tie shoes, keep track of uniforms – the list is never ending! Children are expected to do little else but attend their own life. Many youngsters are horrified by the suggestion that they do more to tidy up after themselves than tuck in their chair. As a result, we have taught them to be helpless and to rely on adults, they are routinely fed the message that others can do the job better than they can and that they are above caring for their environment. This in turn creates confidence issues later as they realise that the tasks they were too good for are too hard for them, just google search the hashtag ‘adulting’.
- Share out the chores; children can fold laundry, lay the table, feed the pets etc.
- Give them responsibility for their own life, don’t pack their school bag or spoon feed them if they’re capable of it themselves
- Teach them how to organise their own responsibilities in a way that works for your family, eg making lists or using visual stories.
Read more about the benefits of increasing responsibilities held by kids here.
Eat and sleep well
I routinely meet children who eat little else other than ham, chicken nuggets and pasta (frequently without any sauce). These monotonous diets high in processed foods are low in essential minerals, fibre and fatty acids on top of which they discourage the growth of good gut health. Both of these elements are essential for healthy brain development, especially in boys. Unrelated to their nutritional needs, a varied diet teaches children to be adventurous and embrace change.
Sleep is a hugely challenging topic for parents, they regularly tell me how poorly their children sleep and seem to wear it like a badge of honour. Ask a ‘badly behaved’ child their bed time and I can almost guarantee it will be too late. The symptoms of sleep deprivation and ADHD almost mirror each other, both include poor impulse control, difficulty concentrating and hyperactivity. Monday is generally a challenging day for teachers and parents tend to relax bedtimes for the weekends leaving children on edge by the time their routine starts up again.
- I know nothing about sleep training so won’t offer advice but what works in our home is full tummies and routine.
- Provide varied, fresh meals and avoid the temptation to snack.
- Involve children in food preparation, they’ll be far more likely to eat something if they’ve cooked it.
- Plant a vegetable patch and allow children to understand where their food comes from and value the work involved in creating it.
The issues I’ve outlined in this article are far from rare or extreme examples, in my experience (and perhaps more compellingly) the experience of researchers they depict childhood in an average household. The simplest of Montessori solutions can have the most profound effect on childhood and you won’t even need to spend a penny! Just by increasing the amount of Practical Life activities available in your home and giving children access to the outdoors you will have activated a powerful change in their lives.
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