How the Reversal of Adult and Child Roles Is Hurting Kids

As the nation’s leaders out-bid each other to win “most childish,” its littlest children are held to increasingly grownup standards.

Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Americans were left reeling in recent days at the sight of grown men who aspire to George Washington’s job mired in what can only be described as potty talk. “Mr. Rubio suggested Mr. Trump had urinated in his trousers,” The New York Times archly noted. The insults went downhill from there, as Trump defended the size of his genitals during a subsequent live presidential debate.

The obvious conclusion is that grownups are acting like preschoolers. But this characterization of young children is actually quite misleading. When given the opportunity, preschoolers are capable of far greater generosity and respect for their peers and sophistication of thought than people have seen on display this election season.

Moreover, in today’s “no excuses” educational climate, they are held to higher performance standards, too. In fact, there’s a troubling kind of role reversal going on in American society today: As adults race to the bottom with childish antics that would have imperiled careers and marriages in previous eras, young children are the ones being forced to act like the adults.

The evidence is sobering. Behind the head-scratching headlines of 5-year-olds toiling at treadmill desks and a judge’s recent claim that a 3-year-old can serve as her own immigration lawyer lies a growing portrait of “adultification” of early childhood—that is, the imposition of adult beliefs and norms about how young children should behave. While unstructured playtime has declined dramatically in recent years, preschool expulsion and attention-deficit drugs are gaining traction as the go-to solutions to adult expectations of little learners.

When the Common Core state standards were first released without substantive input from early-childhood specialists, 500 experts published an impassioned dissent that questioned the basic foundation on which the standards were built: a gross misunderstanding of what it is like to be a young child. Since then, the evidence keeps stacking up that much of today’s preschool and kindergarten routine—including far too much scripted teaching known as “direct instruction”—may be yielding rote recall skills at the expense of the more sophisticated problem-solving skills. Coupled with a dramatic increase in assessment protocols of dubious merit, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that adults have lost sight of the young child buried under all those performance metrics. (The testing systems seem to have squeezed attention from essential learning domains not deemed “testable” while simultaneously thwarting children’s meaningful relationships and active learning in the classroom.)

What might adults see if they considered a child’s eye perspective? In The Importance of Being Little, I describe children’s profound meditations on death, spirituality, and the beauty of a snowfall (“like Mother Nature squeezes the clouds,” according to one 4-year-old). One time, when asked by a teacher to produce “S-words that have to do with gardening,” a preschooler I observed volunteered the word “soul.” When the teacher suggested he must have been thinking of “soil” or “sowing seeds,” the little boy stood firm. “Nope, I mean “soul,” he replied enigmatically, “like a person.” Was he perhaps imagining “soul food,” or an ancient connection between the garden and human desire? It’s impossible to know because the teacher quickly whisked the class back to the earthier world of spinach and snails. But at least one of his pint-sized neighbors seemed to catch his drift: “That’s a different kind of s-word you’re looking for,” she whispered conspiratorially.

I’ve seen preschoolers thoughtfully discussing everything from sexism in children’s stories to the nature of an afterlife, as this excerpt of conversation from kids in rural Massachusetts attests:

“There’s a few God people and they see shooting stars. They make storms, big holes, and ships and things.”

“Jesus was a magic person.”

“Because he was dead and he came back alive.”

“Well, he was dead and then it was like, ‘No, he’s not!”

“He’s alive right now.”

“Maybe Jesus is a magician. But we don’t really know. We’re just guessing, right?”

“Will you live with your parents when you die?”

“Yeah, but I will be under the ground there, with bugs eating me.”

“No, you’ll be in heaven.”

“You think so?”

In my years as a teacher, I’ve seen thousands of such examples of young children behaving with wisdom and judgment: helping a peer cope with the suicide of a parent, for example, or working out complex engineering problems together when building a city of blocks. It’s no joke to say that a well-structured kindergarten class could probably break down the gridlock in Congress.

With so much evidence of young children’s power and profundity, why do adults continue to subject them to exacting standards the teachers and policymakers wouldn’t tolerate for themselves? The paradox of preschool is that young children only punch above their presumed emotional and cognitive weight when we treat them rightly as children, not mini-Me adults. This requires a more concerted effort to protect their playful, child-scaled environment and a commitment from adults to stop hounding them. It doesn’t help 5-year-olds mature more quickly to stick them in a hallway filling in ovals on an iPad answer sheet. Yet some kindergarten teachers estimate that high-stakes testing currently consumes more than 10 percent of the year’s total instructional hours.

Meanwhile, back in the adult world, the tantrums at the Republican debate last week were just an extension—albeit an especially alarming one—of a growing trend of adults trying to ape children. The popularity of adult coloring books and Young Adult fiction is soaring, and offices have been reconfigured as innovation playgrounds. Next time the nation’s leaders outbid themselves to win “most childlike,” it’s worth pausing to consider what young children are really capable of when they are allowed to claim that prize.