Imagination just as important for children as books

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2015, 6:05am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 February, 2015, 10:15am

"Use your imagination," was my mother's exasperated reply to my whiny claims of boredom one day when I was little. "I don't have any," I exclaimed. But the truth is, my childhood was replete with unstructured time and full of imaginative play.

I fear, however, that for this generation of students who are intensely scheduled, pressured and expected to excel in all areas of life except free time, that answer might just be true.

We all want what's best for our children, but determining what that is and how to get there is not easy. In our best effort to shepherd them through this harsh, competitive world, we fight their every battle, smooth every bump, give them every advantage and then we wonder why they can't do anything for themselves.

A practising psychologist and bestselling author, Dr Madeline Levine has identified alarming rates of depression among teenagers who are adored by their parents and successful by any measure, but who are feeling empty and lost, with no sense of self or purpose in life.

Levine has dedicated her recent years of practice to identifying this alarming trend of performance-based, pressure-cooker culture among teens and offering alternative parenting strategies to help mitigate it.

In her bestselling book, The Price of Privilege, Levine explains how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. Her second book, Teach Your Children Well, tackles the contemporary narrow definition of success and provides practical suggestions for raising truly successful children in all aspects of life.

Many child development specialists, college admissions officers and companies are re-examining their true determinants of success.

Perusing Stanford University's Challenge Success website nets a trove of resources for parents and educators who think schools are too focused on grades and exams. Instead, they should focus on creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, collaboration and communication leading to greater resilience, success and more meaningful lives.

Dr Ron Ritchhart from Harvard University's Project Zero was in Hong Kong this month speaking about how to develop what he calls "cultures of thinking" in the classroom and at home. He encourages the creation of environments where "individual and collective thinking is valued, visible and actively promoted as part of the regular day-to-day experience".

Diane Frankenstein, a child literacy expert, guides parents and teachers in the art of conversational reading as an excellent way to stay engaged in the lives of older children. Talking about books helps kids convey feelings, develop empathy and continue to converse in a way that is not so personal, but gets to personal topics. Far from a passive, solitary activity, reading can be active, social and collaborative, particularly when a carefully constructed discussion ensues. She advises: "Read a story. Ask a question. Start a conversation."

More than another extracurricular activity, tutor or advanced placement class, children need time to be bored and the space to think about ideas, discovering who they are as much as what they can do. After all, there is no proven formula for future success and happiness, so why make adolescence so unpleasant? Why not enjoy our kids and listen to them, try to make the best decisions we can for them while we have the luxury of being the decision makers, but more importantly, try to plant the seeds for them to make good decisions for themselves?

Levine will be in Hong Kong on March 11 to speak at the Convention Centre at 7pm as a guest of Bring Me A Book. Tickets can be purchased through HK Ticketing.

Gweneth Rehnborg is a board member of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong the leading advocate for family literacy in Hong Kong