Could the recession be good for kids?

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A seasoned elementary school teacher recently made a comment that startled me. She described some of her third grade students as hollow. "I didn't have this kind of kid when I started teaching thirty years ago," she added.

I've known this teacher, who I'll call Mary, for a long time. She's the kind of teacher who comes in early and stays late, and who returns student papers the next day. She has a collection of what I call "teacher sweaters," festive and colorful, keyed to the seasons and holidays. More important, Mary is attentive to children -- her own and those she teaches.

She teaches in a prosperous, basically suburban town where many of the students would be considered "privileged." They live in large houses and have their own rooms, their clothes are stylish, they take lessons. These are not the students we label "at risk." They don't act out, they do well enough in school.

It's just that when you spend any real time talking with the children she has in mind, you don't feel a solid sense of self. You don't quite connect with an emerging person who has clear feelings, opinions and thoughts. Part of what Mary sees lacking is compassion.

"What do you think this is about?" I asked and this is what she told me.

Four of the girls had been arguing. She made time -- probably during her lunch or preparation period -- to take them for a talk. Mostly they talked and she listened. When the conversation ended, each of the girls hugged her. "It was as if I had given them some big gift," Mary said, "but all I had done was talk with them."

When you think about it, parenting -- and teaching as well -- is mostly just a long dialog. American society has been in overdrive for a long time. Children are shuttled from lesson to sport to camp. What's been lost -- along with family dinners -- is real conversation and connection.

No, it won't be good for children if their parents are in financial peril and all the stress that comes with job loss. It just might be really good for them though to be spending more time at home, cutting back on mega vacations and over-scheduled lives, to have less and be more.

Hollow is a terrible thing to be. Unfortunately, there are too many ways in which America has fostered lives that are just that. My husband once described someone we knew by saying, "she lives primarily in relationship to inanimate objects." How many of our conversations with our children are about "things"? We have only to look at what goes on at Christmas - the frenzied shopping driven by lists the children make of what they "want" - to know that we need a whole new direction. We have only to look at the clutter in our homes and especially the overabundance of toys to know that we're overdue for an adjustment. Maybe this summer, America can slow down. It just might be good for the kids.
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