Play for its Own Sake

My wife and I greatly admire the parenting of some friends of ours who live in Palo Alto, land of compulsive overachievment. After school, the other parents in their neighborhood chaffeur their kids to Hebrew lessons, dance classes, debate societies, baseball coaching (not Little League mind you, but private instructors in hitting, fielding etc.) and a million other activities that will allegedly “get them into Harvard someday.” Our friends in contrast do something radical with their children once the school day has ended: They let them play. Sometimes their kids run around aimlessly, sometimes they invent games, sometimes they read books, sometimes they make big constructions from rocks and blocks and then knock them over, sometimes they stare at the sky.

Our friends don’t feel defensive about their decision: Like my wife and me, they love to see their children playing and have no worries about dire consequences. Other such parents are apparently not so secure, and have formed a “play movement” to defend children’s playtime, by emphasizing that in fact play is great preparation for adult life. It stimulates the mind, encourages creativity and hones social skills. In short, “Ha ha who laughs last? The play-promoting parent-cum-activists whose kids will get the slots at Harvard that your little gradgrinds think are going to them!”

In the Atlantic this month, Christina Schwarz nails how both the achievement-obsessed and the “play movement” are buying into the same b.s. Both assume that play is not a good in itself, but is only of value if it promotes adult achievement. Indeed, childhood itself seems to have no inherent worth either, except to the extent it gets you into Harvard someday, which some people consider the ultimate sign that a child has been launched as a successful adult.

When I lived in Champaign, Illinois, there was a little area of town called Mahomet, where a lot of strivers lived. I knew a retired music teacher there who still took on private pupils (She didn’t need the money, she just loved kids and music). She said that some of her young students simply cried at the piano, because they felt such constant pressure to be doing something to please their parents or get into Harvard or both all the time. When the anxious looking parents would pick their kids up, she would lie to them: “He’s another Mozart, a genius”, “She plays better than my college pupils” etc. And her students adored her, because she was the only person in their lives who accepted that no one can perform for others or “be productive” all the time, and sometimes kids just want to have fun and trust that adults will accept them the way they are.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

14 thoughts on “Play for its Own Sake”

  1. If we had a decent social welfare safety net, then “getting into Harvard” might not be the safeguard that it’s perceived to be, and we could all have normal jobs and make decent (instead of obscene) livings (instead of killings).

    Everyone would be a lot happier, and Harvard would still be there — for those who aspire to intellectual greatness, instead of just worldly success.

  2. I’m with Betsy. The pressure on kids and their parents stems directly from a social-Darwinist society that says there will be a few wildly successful winners and a lot of losers struggling to survive. Incidentally, I’m from Champaign, and remember Mahomet (it’s actually a little town outside of the main towns of Champaign and Urbana) well. Your anecdote made me smile, though I don’t know that lying to parents is a great strategy; it could certainly backfire.

  3. Betsy and beckya57: I often think the same thing about economic fear as the driver..but the oddity is that the people with the most to fear from macroeconomic change are acting less stressed about their kid’s achievement than these upper income highly educated types whose kids are very likely to thrive economically, Harvard or no.

  4. Keith, that’s an interesting point. Kids with a ton of social capital tend to be much more stressed about academic success than kids with little of it. My daughter’s classmates at her high performing public school have very successful parents. They’ll do fine. Yet the kids whose parents are maids and gardeners won’t.

    I recently began thinking that Marxism needs an update to include the ways in which social and human capital drive historical materialism. http://supervidoqo.blogspot.com/2011/03/to-deny-rights-of-man.html

    In modern America, with more (albeit shrinking) economic opportunities, these other forms of capital seem more important to freedom than ever.

    If anyone can recommend people who are working on this concept of Marxism, I’d really be interested.

  5. What Betsy said.

    I will say, however, that I volunteer as a Naturalist and part of the reason I do it is to be surprised that there are kids that aren’t little tyrants like their overachieving parents.

  6. “Kids with a ton of social capital tend to be much more stressed about academic success than kids with little of it.”

    And kids with the highest self-esteem are worst at math. Sometimes stress and self-flagellation work.

  7. Parents who want to praise their children and accept them uncritically are just as often admonished by the media and other professionals not to teach kids that everything they do is praiseworthy and they won’t always deserve a medal. That it does all children a disservice to think that everyone can be a winner. But if an affluent society (at least historically speaking) can’t let its kids be kids and enjoy all that life has given them w/o endlessly worrying about being a successful adult and making the affluence last, then what has the society and its adults actually achieved?

  8. Thinking of the high-strung name-brand WASP couple imposing their anxieties on their dog in the mockumentary, “Best In Show.”

  9. My boys seem to want nothing more than to play violent video games in our living room. This bothers me, not so much because I want to go all Tiger Mom on them, but because I want them to become confident citizens who understand the cultural basis of the world around them and who have the social and academic skills to find positive jobs when they are grown. I think myself the representative of their 30-year-old selves, and what their 30-year-old selves will want to know and understand. That’s a traditional parental role, right? Every successful adult is the product of thousands of hours of parental nagging. Yes, I am trying to push towards adult achievement. So what do I do? They buy time on their violent video games from me by reading me poems and doing household chores and reading things I approve of and talking about it. I am critical of their time choices, and I tell them about it, and why. Algebra II, I’m for it. Black Ops Call of Duty – I tell them I think it’s tiresome crap, and I limit it. They tell me I’m a jerk, but they seem to accept it moderately well much of the time.

  10. Harvard is (in addition to being a great educational institution) a positional good. There will always be some people for whom it’s all about making sure they attain some (more) of those positional goods. Those highly-rated colleges are seen as an insurance policy for parents who are afraid their children might not get to use their talents fully if they don’t push hard. Others get to live a more relaxed life — not a slacker life, just a more moderate one — because for them (us) it’s more about an absolute amount of well-being, not so much a relative one. You will find plenty of academically oriented, life-of-the-mind types who will not join that particular race. If their kids get into highly competitive colleges, fine. If not, they will find a way to use their talents somewhere else. I’m not saying that nothing is lost if a very bright child ends up at Colorado State; just that that loss might be small compared to the loss of a full, real childhood (including not just play but chores, family, and the skill of coping with boredom).

  11. Parents would do well to remember, for the sake of their children, the memories of their childhood are what will bring comfort or pain to their children in adulthood just as such memories have done the same for them! Adult life, many times, is a struggle. Childhood need not be. In the adult struggle, it is better to have fun vicariously with your children than it is to vicariously force a child to live up to adult expectations!

    Working the land as a child in the various gardening projects my parents loved, I have reverence for the joys remembered!

  12. @Dave: The boys didn’t buy the X-box, did they? We drew the line at video games in the house. Which had the double benefit of preventing the kids from wasting their childhood inside killing virtual bad guys and keeping their friends at home in their own virtual reality. Not that I would have minded having a house and yard full of neighborhood kids, much as it was in the 1960s in my hometown. That would have been fine, and it is how children become domesticated. At one point my now 19-year-old said he would save “his” money to buy a PlayStation. We told him that wasn’t the point and he did not argue. Much. I suppose he got his fix at his friends’ houses. Besides, it is unseemly to allow adolescents to play violent video games. Period. Both of our children will be in position to remember the things they did well and had fun at when they were children…being a very good dancer for the girl and a better than average golfer and soccer player for the boy. Both were good students, and while we didn’t have the money to spring for private colleges, they seem to be on their way. As others have pointed out, that will be much better than remembering getting to Level Whatever as a Blackwater Mercenary while sitting in the basement nursing an incipient case of carpel tunnel syndrome.

  13. I agree with KLG: it starts early. Our 8-y.o. does not play video games, she has a time limit on the TV and when that’s up she can read, draw, write, play with something in her room, or play outside. Those are the choices. Since I made a two-level platform treehouse in her room, she is much more inclined to sit at her desk and draw or on the seating platform and read. She doesn’t whine or cry about wanting more TV or to play a video game.

  14. Bruce,
    “Sometimes stress and self-flagellation work”
    No, I wasn’t saying this tress was necessarily a bad thing. Just pointing to the two behavioral differences. Maybe “stress” wasn’t even the right word. Just the idea that they are more motivated – both intrinsically and extrinsically – to achieve. I was just told the other day by one of my students that she wasn’t worried about graduating – neither of her parents did and they turned out alright, and Mom says she can live at home for as long as she wants! (Now, what was odd to me about this story was that she had an intact family. Not a very common story among low-achievers. However that her parents are intact would be evidence toward skills that allowed them life success).

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