This week as the children in Michigan returned to school I was thinking about how the more things change, the more they stay the same. There were numerous Facebook postings of children on the first day back at school. Photos were posted of my grandsons. I don’t remember my mother taking the “first day” photographs every year, but I did take them of my children and that seems to be a popular modern activity. In reflecting on back-to-school preparation and school routines there are generational similarities that may or may not be an improvement.
I was of elementary school age in the 1960’s. Back-to-school preparation involved getting 2-3 new outfits, new shoes, tennis shoes for gym class, new pencils, an eraser, a box of crayola crayons and a notebook and loose leaf notebook paper, and of course your metal lunch box, carefully selected with your favorite TV show on the outside and a matching thermos to carry your beverage. There were no book bags or backpacks.
If you lived in town you walked to school, if you lived in the country you rode a bus. There is a home movie of me and other students walking to school my kindergarten year on the shoulder of a road. There were no sidewalks and we walked with cars driving past us on the roadway. My first grade year we moved to the small town where I grew up. Subdivision streets did not have sidewalks, so again we all walked on the side of the road. Somehow we all managed to survive the hike each way without anyone getting killed or kidnapped. Today’s parents would most likely cringe at the thought of sending their young children out to endure such a walk on a daily basis.
In the classroom each student had a desk with a lift up top so you could store all your supplies inside. School started at 9:00 am with the Pledge of Allegiance, and then class instruction began. There was a 15 minute recess in the morning, and another recess in the afternoon. A hot lunch could be purchased or students could pack there own, and there were no restrictions on what could or could not be brought to school to eat. Lunch was a one-hour period in which students sat wherever they wished in the cafeteria and once done eating would get up and go outside to play for the remainder of the lunch period. If it was cold weather this involved walking back to your classroom area, unsupervised, to put on your hat, boots, etc. and then exit onto the playground. School was dismissed around 3:20 pm. Latch-key did not exist, everyone went home after school. While some kids had extracurricular activities, for the most part the time after school was open for to play with friends, watch TV or do chores. Elementary level students rarely had homework.
When my children were in elementary school in the early 1990’s shopping for school included several outfits, shoes, gym shoes, backpack, folders, spiral notebooks, pens, pencils, crayons, colored pencils, Kleenex, glue sticks, highlighters, red pencils, lunch boxes, thermos, and other items I have since forgotten. If you lived within a mile of the school your child was a “walker”, but the majority of the parents drove their children to school. There was always a long line of vehicles going in and out of the school parking lot. School began with announcements over the intercom system and each classroom then had the option of saying the Pledge of Allegiance. When my oldest child was in third grade the district we lived in eliminated recess and it was never restored. The only physical outlet the children had was gym class once a week, and art class. Children who could not sit still or pay attention for extended periods of time were diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and medicated. At lunch time students had assigned tables, sat with their classmates, and had to remain there until lunch was over. Lunch was a quick affair, only 20-30 minutes to get your food and eat. If a child forgot their lunch money or lunch they were offered a free peanut butter and jelly sandwich. With most children coming from two income families, many children went to latch-key after school or had other organized activities in which they participated either immediately after school or in the evening. My kids were no exception, participating in cub scouts, girl scouts, Awana, Karate, dance, and probably a few other things I have forgotten.
Now zoom forward to the 2010’s. I have grandchildren who are in elementary school. Clothing and shoe requirements are about the same as they were when my children were young. Backpacks are a must and children ride the bus to school even if they live in town. My daughter deals with a lengthy list of required school supplies. Many schools have supply lists available in advance at major stores so people can stock up. You are not purchasing supplies for just your child, some items are shared with the entire classroom. Required supply lists include notebooks, paper, folders, pencils, pens, highlighters, markers, glue pens, erasers, scissors, Kleenex, hand sanitizer, and snacks to share with the class. Young children often have a lunch box as well. Schools are managed tightly for security, teachers meet the youngest grades outside as they exit the bus, and escort them back to their buses at the end of the day. Entrance to the school is only possible through the main entrance, all other doors are locked to prevent entry from the outside. Most schools have eliminated the Pledge of Allegiance because of its reference to “One Nation Under God” and the fact that this reference might offend some people. Classrooms have a mid-morning snack time using food provided by students. Classrooms and/or schools may have restrictions on certain food items due to other children having allergies, with peanuts and/or peanut butter being a frequent restriction. I believe there is limited recess time for the children to go outside and play and do not know what the arrangements are for lunchtime seating but assume it is a controlled and organized system. Many children are scheduled with after school activities.
What I question is whether things have improved over the generations. Things were far more relaxed in the 60’s and 70’s than they are now. There was less structure giving children more opportunities to make their own decisions and they had more unscheduled free time. More time was allotted for play/recess during the school day which allowed students to expel excess energy and learn social skills such as how to resolve conflicts on their own. You rarely heard of children being medicated for disorders, allergies were practically non-existent, and violence such as stabbings and shootings in schools were extremely rare, basically non-existent. If children got into a conflict or fight they may have been sent to the principal’s office, but suspensions from school for such conflicts were not common. If our parents worked we went to a friends house after school or by around age 11 were allowed to let ourselves into the house and stay there alone until our parents came home. Actually many of us were babysitting other children by the age of 11 or 12. Parents of today may read this and wonder how we survived without having our lives properly organized. The answer, we learned how to cope with boredom, how to socialize and resolve conflicts without violence and how to take care of ourselves so that we were well prepared to go out into the world and be productive members of society.
Children that grew up in the 80’s, 90’s and the 2000’s have led a much more structured lifestyle. Their time has been mapped out for them with activities, video games and TV to prevent boredom. School days are organized with where to sit, who to socialize with at lunch, and any physical or verbal conflict results in suspension due to “zero tolerance” policies. Children do not learn how to conquer boredom, resolve conflicts or care for themselves because their time and care is mapped out for them on an hour-by-hour basis. In my opinion this has resulted in increased violence amongst young people who are frustrated, angry, over-scheduled, and have never learned coping mechanisms for boredom and conflicts. While not all children demonstrate these symptoms and many are successful, there are also a high number who are unable to adjust to the realities of adult responsibilities.
While it is doubtful that things will ever change back to what they were in prior generations, I think it is important to look at the overall affect our lifestyle is having on our children and try to make whatever adjustments we can to make sure that they learn all the skills they need to be successful academically and socially in school and later in their adult years.
I welcome thoughts on what you think on this topic. Whether you agree or disagree, an active discussion is a great way to open minds and consider different viewpoints.