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Did you read the thought-provoking opinion piece by evolutionary anthropologist, Dorsa Amir, in the Washington Post?  You should read the whole thing and see what you think!  Clickbait title aside, it presents a powerful premise, even if the writer does not quite follow through on her conclusions.  In case you don’t feel like reading it (or if the WaPo paywall is knocking you around), here is a crude summary:  one of the unique features of human culture is children’s culture which, across time, and throughout all different nations, has provided a sort of society-within-a-society where playing at being adult teaches the critical aspects of social interaction and creative problem solving to the next generation.  By pushing children immediately into the great adult hierarchical game of constant adversarial competition (by means of overscheduling, too much busywork/schoolwork, constant supervision, curtailing free play, and so forth and so on) contemporary society is denying children a chance to get good at the truly important things: curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

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As ever, I find humans less different from other animals than the anthropocentric author seems to be willing to recognize (has she never watched kittens play…to say nothing of juvenile spider monkeys or baby elephants?), but let us leave that aside and address to her social thesis. I am not sure that 21st century adults’ overprotective urges to give their kids any advantage in our workaholic, winner-take-all culture is the real problem.  I think the workaholic, winner-take-all society itself is the problem.  It is not that kids play too little in our over-teched world.  It is that adults play too little. Plus we do it wrong.

Let me explain with an anecdote before expanding my critique. I have some friends who are super-successful Park Slope parents.  They are raising their children with every advantage (and every overscheduled, over-tutored, overworked, over-fretted-upon stereotype of Amir’s piece).  The children however, are not mindless little perfectionist zombies.  They are brilliant wonderful kids. My buddy heard his 5-year-old daughter talking with great animation to someone behind closed-doors, and, upon bursting in, he discovered she had snatched a tablet and launched an internet chat show of her own.  “These kids are already broadcasting!” he told me with a confounded look.

Just as the Thule kids of Amir’s essay built miniature hunter-gatherer storehouses, the Park Slope children were assembling miniature media empires.  The ancient analogous relationship was still perfectly intact.  It’s just that the adults are no longer stalking javelinas or building granaries, we are staring at damned screens (argh, I am doing it right now, after doing it all day at work! So are you!) [as an aside, I was shocked to find “Thule” showing up again in an essay about hunter-gatherer childhood culture…what is up with that confounding name?]

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American society features a well-known need to be continuously productive (this is the famous “Protestant-work-ethic”…though New York has taught me that our newest citizens from West Africa or East Asia have a very homologous sort of code).  Technology and the shifting nature of work have somehow brought that tendency even further into our lives.  When my mother was baking a pie or feeding the geese, I could grasp those activities and join her or make my own games about animal husbandry or baking mastery.  Yet when modern parents are on their smartphones responding to late night emails from the boss about PR or legal questions, the script is harder to follow for children.  The kids do get onto the devices and there are plenty of games and social and other diversions to be had there.  I am no technophobe: I think the next generation’s technological savvy will serve us well, yet things online are crafted like fishing lines or beartraps to capture our attention for the purposes of others.  Free unstructured play in the real world transcends such things. To see people engaged together in such play is to see their faces alive with thought and delight.

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When I ran a toy company, my business partner and I did not know very many children.  In order to test our creative animal-themed toys out, we showed them to adults.  The poor people looked deeply flustered at being asked to “play” again and they stared at the toys like dogs who had been whipped.  Only gradually would they pick up the colorful pieces and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  However, then a lovely thing would happen.  They would be captivated by the delight of making things for the sheer joy of it. They would get all wound up in toys and in explaining their creations. Unexpected people came up with all sorts of great ideas. Children know that play is the magic elixir for bonding and brainstorming. Adults have forgotten this or only rediscover it in attenuated form with team-building exercises or obsessive-compulsive video games.

Watching people go bowling or play with Legos or play with children makes you immediately recognize that watching Netflix or “liking” things on social media is not playing.

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How do we create a world of meaningful creative play for adults?  That sounds like a crazy/frivolous question compared to queries such as how we confront 21st century business monopolies or solve political paralysis or make people interested in the beautiful yet complicated inquiries of science.  But I feel like the answers might actually be related.

We modern adults need to work harder at playing.  Only then will we capture the true benefits of all of our frenetic toil.  Let’s learn from the kids instead of breaking their spirits early on with too much of our gray work world.

I just downloaded this from the net, since I didn't want to take photos of people's kids (and also since the painting is better than what I did)

I just downloaded this from the net, since I didn’t want to take photos of people’s kids (and also since the painting is better than what I did)

So, I worked a five year old’s birthday party this past Saturday as a face painter. As I speculated beforehand, my young patrons asked for rainbows and unicorns (and one flower), which is good because the face paint was not the world’s most versatile medium! I don’t know if I could have painted a truly intricate subject with that goop…and it was more intimidating than you might expect to paint on the beautifully coiffed and perfectly attired little princesses of Park Slope (though in truth I think it would be intimidating to paint any person’s face for the same reason—you have to look directly at them and touch their face). I felt like one of the supporting characters in a Disney movie “’Here now, your highness…Don’t squirm so or it won’t look right!” Thank goodness I didn’t paint any mutant ponies, monster fairies, or melted peonies!

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Anyway I really love painting & children & parties (and I needed the money) so the afternoon was delightful. Despite my time in the toy industry, I haven’t been to a five year old’s party since I was five. The guests seemed to enjoy the beauty and thrill of life and the event with rare zest! It reminded me of something else too. The children’s party outfits were the most beautiful possible colors—brilliant aqua, radiant pink, magenta, crimson, and glowing lavender. Then I looked at the parents sipping their cocktails and talking about jobs and international trade and real estate. All the adults were wearing sad dull colors like we had been impressed into some glum army of despair. What happened? Why do we shy away from color as we grow older? Color is one of life’s greatest delights. Are we afraid that we’ll rob it of its power if we overuse it (the children had no such qualms)? Or do we think the scintillant beauty of colorful garb will highlight the weaknesses of our own appearances and draw unwanted attention and unflattering comments?

Baby Corn Snake

Baby Corn Snake

I was forcefully reminded of the pretty corn snakes which lived in the fields and forests of the hill farm when I grew up. When they are newly hatched they glisten with bands of scarlet, orange, and luxurious cream, but when they grow into adult snakes their colors become muted and they blend in with the clay and the fallen leaves (the better to evade the attention of predators and to seize on unwary mice, I guess). Is it that way for adults? Unless we are pop stars on stage or master gunnery sergeants on parade, it is better not to draw too much attention or risk looking foolish with a garish combination. That strikes me as a sad way to live (although I guess it has a certain Puritan modesty and no small measure of self-interested cunning).

Adult Corn Snake

Adult Corn Snake

Of course a children’s birthday party is not the right place for grown-ups to get gussied up anyway (unless they are the clown, which I might have been). However as I transition back into office life, I notice everyone wears a lot of gray, taupe, khaki, and navy. I am sure that some of that is protective camouflage—it really is best to blend into the walls on Wall Street. But still, there is something unsatisfactory about our culture that it encourages drabness.

All drab and sad...

All drab and sad…

Sigh, maybe I need to move to India or Thailand. They are certainly calling me louder than my new life in title insurance!

This is more like it!

This is more like it!

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