Shout out to parents: our kids are not all right.

Recently I was talking with approximately 80 children. We discussed making and playing with parents. They weren’t very happy about the level of engagement they found in their parents. When I asked if they recognised the image below, all hands went up.


And when I asked if they were ok with this behaviour it went silent. Only to start yelling when asked if they’d like this to change. They minded all right! It is very not relaxed to be with someone who is constantly fiddling with his phone. They were seriously displeased.

This should make us sad and filled with regret, because 70% of Dutch children will put aside phone, device, console or remote when the parents agree to play. And parents value this too:

  • 82% of parents feel play is essential for happiness
  • 55% of parents feel we need more play and less work
  • 65% of parents feel adults should also have play-time, just like children

Unfortunately parents are not that good at play. They tend to play only half, with one eye glued to their phone. But ok, some slack to the parents: playing wit a child can be a boring and tedious affair. Children are not fully capable and knowledgeable, so the parent has to adjust. You’ll turn into an assistant: waiting at the slide, baking sand cakes, handing over Lego’s when they are needed, endlessly waiting your turn in a board game. Boring.

Nice and difficult

Something that’s complicated is much more interesting. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi saw this and called it flow: the perfect balance between challenge and skill. Problem being that this balance is different for parents and children. Playing really together can only work with both members in flow. Is that even possible?

Tech. And the future.

Our government wants creative children that are officially future proof. Like no other they master all 21st century skills! Cooperation, creative thinking, problem solving (ok, this is not so new right?), and also: computer and media literacy and (TADAAA) computational thinking. To think like a computer.

Foundation for this is an early and regularly encounter with technology. Preferably by making, because in our too perfect world children hardly see and experience handy work and technical making. Who tinkers their own blowgun? And who really builds his own website? Of course we feel school has to step in: coding classes from age 4! Learning is a school thing. (Pff, got that covered.)

Learning is also a home thing

But … Dutch children spend only about 18% of their waking hours in school. The 82% that’s left is up to the parents. And that is massively important time. Everything a child experiences before 12, will forever be something he knows and can pull out of his toolbox in later life. Even if he didn’t fully understand it. Or like it!

Weak knees

In the upbringing of our children lures a problem: parents become more careful and scared. Weak even. Our children cannot freely explore and experiment, and therefore become less able: We’ve all become rubber-tile parents offering a chronic screen overload to our children. Nice high quality content, sure. But every child deserves a pocketknife for his 4th birthday. And should be able to roam the neighbourhood on a bike from 8. And solder from 9. And set up a little Raspberry server from 11! Hell yeah.

Children learn these things from or with their parents. And that’s were things go wrong. A lot of adults gave up on technical toys or technical making before they even started. They feel incapable, are ashamed of this and never try. But when you can’t fix your own tire, you cannot teach your child.

Break the trend!

I often work with kids and tools. Making real things with real tools. Knives, soldering irons, saws, electronics, the works. Key to all this is trust. To only help when asked to, and not step in when I feel it is too dangerous. Let the kids decide on that! Taking the work saying ‘Let me fix that for you’ is the worst you can do.

And what if you can’t even fix it! What if it is new to you too? That is a bit of a challenge. But remember: learning something together is really cool! Being vulnerable is a condition for a strong relationship: learning together strengthens your bond. And that is exactly what these 80 children I met asked for: to really connect to their parents. To really do something real and really together.

Make memories

My parents were over conscious countryside people: they moved away from the city to give us an adventurous childhood. We had a shed with a workbench. I learnt to dye wool, to make jam, to sew, to code and to do some electronics. And I learned because we just did it together. And no, I didn’t like everything, and no, I didn’t master everything. But I have great memories! And a lot of basic knowledge for the rest of my life. But most of all a mind-set.

toolgirl_AstridPoot_Ja-NuEchtGoed(Illustration I made for the one year anniversary of the Dutch Platform Maker education)

So choose:

  • Rubber-tile parents raise rubber-tile children
  • Screen parents raise screen children
  • Inventor parents raise inventor children

Your call.

(This essay was previously published in Dutch on June 24, 2016 by Bright. It was written inspired by the Dutch situation.)