“What did you love doing as a child that you’re still sort of doing today?”
That’s the question I’ve posed to lots of people, including a businessman I briefly spoke with at the TED Talks in Vancouver a few years ago. I didn’t take notes, but the conversation made a strong impression on me.
“Nothing,” I recall him replying.
“I played,” he conceded.
“You don’t have something better than that?” I wheedled.
“Well…” I remember him saying after a pause. “I grew up in Miami. There were a lot of fruit trees.”
As a kid, he would go around picking up the fruit that fell onto public property. Then he’d put it in a little wagon and sell it. That is, he took stuff that other people produced and sold it to someone else. And in a way, he still does.
His name is Jeff Bezos.
Bezos is uncommon. Going from underage fruit salesman to the founder of Amazon is a singular career path. But his trajectory from childhood diversion to adult career is not. So many people who have found an occupation or serious pastime they love were drawn to it at a young age. This wasn’t something they were doing for a grade or a trophy. It was just something they did either because it fascinated them or because it allowed them to get something else they desperately wanted.
Kids with a passion are as lucky as can be. They’re finding direction. They’re developing confidence. Best of all, they aren’t listless lumps. They are learning how to make things happen.
That’s why it’s tragic that so many kids have seen their noodle-around time colonized by adult-structured, adult-supervised activities. A 2004 University of Michigan study calculated that between school and homework, kids were spending 7.5 hours more a week on academics than kids were 20 years earlier—and that’s not counting the explosion of extracurriculars in the last couple of decades. COVID-19 has given them back a lot of free time and we’ve seen some encouraging leaps in independence, though the pandemic has also limited their freedom of movement and chances to interact with other kids in unstructured ways. But the general direction of childhood for the past two generations has been toward more and more time spent in organized activities.
Without free time, children don’t have a chance to explore and expand. This isn’t just bad for the kids. It’s bad for the country, which loses out on the development of entrepreneurship and talent that makes all our lives better.
“The child is father to the man,” poet William Wordsworth wrote in 1802.
It’s a weird observation, but it’s also true. We’re kids before we’re adults, which means our childhood selves have had a lot longer to influence us than our more recent incarnations. Our childhoods are the oldest, deepest parts of us. That’s why it’s so important to keep that time from becoming indistinguishable from adulthood.
It’s obviously fine for kids to have some social obligations. But they also need the freedom to goof around and get something started, whether it’s a project, a ballgame, or business. That’s how they come into their own.
Take Dan Senor. Four days before his bar mitzvah, his father died. From then on, Senor recalls, times were tight. But on his way home from school, he would stop at the magic shop in his Toronto neighborhood. He taught himself some tricks and started entertaining at children’s parties. By high school, he was working Saturday night galas entertaining adults.
He made enough money to put himself through college. He also learned how to keep people’s attention. If a trick went wrong, “I had to learn to think on my feet,” he says. “It was like bootcamp.” At the same time, “I was negotiating with the adults who were hosting these parties. These hosts were my clients. I was a kid making calls pitching new business every week.”
Senor hustled some more on weeknights, selling programs at Toronto Blue Jays games, jockeying for position at the gates where the buses dropped off the Americans. Why? “I made a premium on the currency trade.” American dollars were worth more than Canadian. All the time, he said, “You’re busy plotting, planning, figuring the system out when you’re a kid. No one’s training you.”
And therein lies the difference. Senor wasn’t doing any of this for a test or a teacher. It was his internal drive.
He absorbed those lessons and has used them all as an adult. During the Iraq war in the early 2000s he was chief spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition in Iraq, giving daily press conferences from war zones for 15 months. He came back and started a private equity fund. He invested in Israeli startups and eventually co-authored Start-Up Nation, a book about a topic near to his heart since boyhood: entrepreneurship. It was a bestseller.
Now Senor is making deals as senior advisor at Elliott Management, a major investment firm. He learned negotiating and public speaking as a kid. “But those are the tangible skills,” he says. “I would say the less tangible is this sort of problem-solving, figure-it-out, make-things-happen mindset.” As for today, “It’s a huge problem that kids aren’t learning how to make things happen.”
“Making things happen” does not have to entail becoming a business dynamo. But it does have to do with discovering something interesting enough that you are driven to pursue it.
Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist and Boston College professor emeritus (and one of my co-founders at the nonprofit Let Grow), has spent a good part of his career studying kids and self-direction. In particular, he has studied children who are unschooled—homeschooled without a set curriculum—or who attended the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, where there are no grade levels and no grades. Kids there, aged 4 to 18, spend their days playing and delving into what interests them.
Among former Sudbury and unschooled kids, Gray says, “in about 50 percent of the cases, there was a very direct relation between what they played as a child and what their career was now.”
One girl who loved making ever-more-elaborate toy boats grew up to be a cruise ship captain. A boy who loved tinkering and made Sudbury staffers drive him to the dump for parts ended up becoming a machinist and inventor. A kid who loved hiking and photography and hang gliding became an aerial nature photographer.
Gray thinks his own childhood shaped his career as well. His parents moved around a lot. He was shy but good at sports, so he would make new friends playing whatever game the local kids fixated on: baseball in one place, marbles in another, jacks in a third. (Yes, the boys there played jacks!) Of course, lots of kids have had similar experiences. But Gray wasn’t just playing. He was paying close attention to how play creates kid culture. Today, that’s what he studies.
There’s a big difference between kids being intrinsically drawn to an activity and parents trying to foist an interest upon them. Of course it’s great for parents to introduce their kids to the wide world of wonders out there. But at some point, kids have to start finding their own way.
When lyricist Benj Pasek won an Oscar for his “City of Stars” song from the movie La La Land, he said, “I want to thank my mom who…let me quit the [Jewish Community Center] soccer league to be in a school musical.” It probably didn’t hurt that his mom is a professor of developmental psychology at Temple University and co-author of the 2003 book Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—And Why They Need To Play More and Memorize Less.
John McWhorter recalls coming out of kindergarten one day and hearing a girl speaking Hebrew. “What is that?” John demanded of his mother. He was so frustrated at not understanding these strange-sounding words that he started to cry. “I wanted to break that code!” Today he’s a professor of linguistics at Columbia.
“When children are allowed to pursue their passion, they spend more time doing it,” says psychologist and visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago Pamela Paresky. The time they put in makes them better and better at the activity: “It’s self-reinforcing,” she says. Along the way, they’re automatically learning patience and focus, which will serve them throughout their lives.
It’s true that sometimes what kids are drawn to is not obviously positive. “We were pretty much unsupervised as kids,” Scott McNealy recalls of himself and his brothers. “We went over to the quarry to fish, we went into the woods and snuck out dad’s guns and shot things, we went into the back field and made forts and fires and blew things up—all kinds of things kids under really good supervision probably would not have been allowed to do.”
Then, at night, he’d sit nearby as his dad, a corporate vice president, went through his briefcase and threw away the papers he didn’t need. McNealy would fish them out and ask about them.
Unbridled hijinks coupled with informal business tutorials don’t always lead to success. But McNealy went on to found the groundbreaking computer firm Sun Microsystems. Now he’s co-founder of Curriki, a nonprofit digital platform that helps students self-direct their education.
Kids need more free time to learn on their own. And parents need more respect for the learning that happens when a kid, who may be doing poorly at school, is eagerly rebuilding an engine or making TikTok videos.
As a child, Colin Summer spent endless hours drawing recreational vehicles with preposterous powers. “One was an Arctic explorer that could float for part of its journey,” he says.
He loved drafting—and dreaming. As a teen, he also started getting into tech. He followed his brother to a part-time job at a computer shop in Manhattan. One day Teller, of the magic duo Penn & Teller, came in. A document had disappeared on his computer (“which is pretty funny,” Summer quips). The clerks up front said, “Go in the back room and ask for Colin. He’s our troubleshooter.”
Summer retrieved the document. Teller was thrilled. Pretty soon, Teller’s partner Penn Jillette was asking if Summer could make his computer do cool things. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah!'” Summer recalls. He helped make Penn’s computer say, “Hold your horses, I’m coming!” as it booted up, and thus began a great friendship.
Years later, when Summer graduated with his architecture degree, he put it all together: The magical motor homes. The deep dive into tech. The drafting. The dreaming. The friendship. He designed Penn’s house in Las Vegas, complete with six secret rooms.
Naturally, not every kid who climbs a tree ends up a forest ranger, nor does every kid who scribbles poems end up Sylvia Plath (thank God). My sister constantly played teacher and ended up in hospital administration. My neighbor Linda, obsessed with elephants, ended up an autism advocate. Ross, who lived nearby, was a genius of a practical joker and became a talent agent. (Maybe that is a straight line.) Joel, always Batman, never busted a bad guy. He does something in real estate.
What they and so many others got out of their free time may not have been an obvious career path. But they did get something so many kids today aren’t getting—or at least weren’t getting till COVID-19 hit: A chance to just chill. Which is a nice way of saying they had plenty of time to be bored.
Boredom is a terrible thing. University of Virginia researchers discovered that it can be more painful than actual pain. First, test subjects were given an electric shock powerful enough that they said they would pay to avoid it. Then they were given 15 minutes alone with nothing to do—in the room with the shocking device. Whereupon 67 percent of the men and 25 percent of the women started administering themselves the shocks. The participants “would rather have something to do than nothing,” observed lead researcher Timothy Wilson. When that painful “nothing time” isn’t filled for kids by adults—4 p.m. gymnastics, 5:30 piano, 6:30 dinner, 7 p.m. homework—they have to fill it on their own.
Let Grow did a survey of 1,600 kids across the economic and geographic spectrum during the COVID school closures last spring and one of the questions we asked was, “What new thing are you doing just for fun, not school?” The range of new interests—origami, fuses, fishing, biking, bitcoin (!)—just showed where boredom can take a kid, online or off.
Or it can take them to knocking down people’s mailboxes (channeling Stand by Me here), or throwing snowballs at passing cars, or taking recreational drugs. It’s not that boredom leads straight to the Nobel Prize. But when he was a kid, do you know how Einstein spent at least some of his time? He made card houses. Did it teach him physics? Maybe. But I assume mostly it was just something fun to do. And if along the way it taught him how to tackle a problem over and over again, that’s a win.
There’s one other thing kids get less of when they’re mainly in organized activities, and that’s failure. They can’t get lost and scared—they’re signed in and signed out. They can’t learn to suck it up when they get hurt—a sympathetic adult is always nearby with a Band-Aid or hug. Sometimes they can’t even tell if they lost the game because everyone gets a trophy. Heaping helpings of failure are not recommended for anyone. But dealing with some minor bumps early on means that you’re a little more prepared for some bigger ones later. That’ll come in handy. What’s more, there are no lessons learned as deeply as the ones we learn when we fail.
When I asked one of Reason‘s former editors, Manny Klausner, if possibly any of his childhood experiences led him, a failure story stood out to me: As an extremely proficient high school chess player, Klausner got the chance to play world champion Bent Larsen. It was a simultaneous exhibition, so “the grandmaster is walking around the tables and he knows exactly what he’s going to do when he gets to you,” says Klausner. The players have however long it takes for Larsen to play the other 14 participants to figure out their next move. But as players lose or surrender, that interlude becomes shorter and pretty soon “you’ve got four or five [players] left and the guy is right there, constantly, so that is a lot of pressure for a kid in high school. I knew I had at least a draw. I found what seemed to be a clear winning move,” Klausner recalls. But the kibbitzers told him to make a different move. “I said, ‘If I do it, I’ll lose!'”
He caved to the crowd. He lost. And you might say that he has been a skeptic of conventional wisdom ever since.
Why is it that just hours after birth, baby gazelles are literally up and running? They come into the world knowing almost everything their parents know: how to move, eat, avoid hyenas.
That’s because they really don’t need to know much, says psychologist Barbara Sarnecka. Evolution can pre-install a nearly complete set of gazelle operating instructions because there’s so little code. But humans?
We come out “uncooked,” Sarnecka says. We have an extremely long time when we can’t make it on our own. “It makes us vulnerable, but the flip side is that we can learn massive amounts of information about incredibly complex environments.”
This ability to absorb and process information allows us to adapt to wherever we’re born—the language, the terrain, the dangers and opportunities. Evolution couldn’t prepare us for every possible environment, so it prepares us to be curious and ready to learn. That is our evolutionary superpower.
It can be stunted by cruelty, or famine, or illness. But it can also be stunted by lovely adults with the best of intentions, who have surveyed the world and determined the very best thing for their child to work on, day in and day out. In the adults’ view, that thing is so valuable that the child shouldn’t be allowed to waste his time doing something silly like drawing R.V.s, or setting things on fire, or learning magic tricks.
In psychological terms, “adults are saying, ‘Here’s the environment. I’ve already mapped it. Stop exploring,'” says Sarnecka. “But that’s the opposite of what childhood is. Imagine yourself as a kid—all the time you were spending being a burgeoning writer.” (How did she know I spent a ton of time writing?) “Now let’s say that instead, you had to spend all that time in soccer and Kumon.” Sports and worksheets: two things I dislike and don’t do well at. “You’d be anxious,” she concludes. “You’d be depressed.”
When kids are stuck doing things that don’t turn them on, they turn off. They look like losers to others and maybe to themselves. This can happen at school, and it can happen during what would have been their free time.
Kids need a chance to discover and pursue their own paths. We’ve got to declutter America’s achievement-focused childhood. Because when our kids have enough time and freedom to find their way to creativity, perseverance, entrepreneurship, and joy, they win—and so does the country’s future. We get a lot of people making things happen, sometimes even strange, new things—perhaps a wagon for selling discarded fruit that eventually spawns a giant online marketplace that sells practically everything everyone in the world can make.
Sarnecka herself dreamed up a very odd pastime as a kid. “I wrote a list of questions and picked up the phone and started randomly calling strangers and interviewing them about whether they had ever played a musical instrument.” It probably looked like a kooky, even rude, hobby to outsiders.
Today she’s a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine, where she gets paid to ask random strangers questions about their lives.
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