Kid’s Culture Trap


I’ve recently had the opportunity to do some observations of preschoolers at play. The program serves children predominantly from Latino families. In particular, I watched six girls as they sat around a table with various toys. As I have been reviewing my recollections and impressions, I suddenly came bolt upright and exclaimed, “They are becoming their mothers!” You may think that’s not a shocking insight, but let’s look at that observation in more detail.

Not long ago, I was on the site council for our junior high school for three years, and we struggled with the low performance of our Latino students who make up a large percentage of our school population. I learned that the problem was a combination of many things, such as language challenges and economic issues.

One area where we saw success was addressing the dropout rate for girls. It seems that as these children began to become young ladies, their attention was diverted away from learning to social interactions and acceptance. Many of these girls turned that pattern around when they became engaged with sports. The biggest successes came when each student was paired with another girl who was already successful in sports.

It seems evident that different cultures value education in different ways, and this bias can be seen in patterns of academic achievement. Cultural disparity is apparent not just in middle school but in elementary as well. My epiphany was that, if we want to allow every child to reach their full potential, we need to address the issue of cultural bias in preschool where a child’s fundamental personality is primarily developed.

So, back to my onsite observations. What I was watching was very sweet. The girls were all chatting away in Spanish. The group was inclusive, allowing other girls to join in. They spent the whole outdoor play period in this activity, which I saw repeated often over subsequent visits. It was easy to envision them doing the very same activity for many decades to come. They are becoming their mothers. What’s wrong with that?

What’s wrong is that any one of these children, who come from low economic circumstances, could become a doctor, artist, philosopher. However, the high likelihood is that they will marry young, raise children, and have a minimum wage job, if and when they find employment. What I find disturbing in these children is the passivity, the lack of curiosity and exploration. While such children are a comfort to their parents and a joy to have in the classroom, they do not display the take-no-prisoners attitude that I associate with a child who is truly thriving.

As I have been mulling over these impressions, I began to reflect on how different the Latino children I observed and those I see in other programs such as Takoma Park Cooperative Nursery School, or AnjiPlay where the children are full of energy and inventiveness. What makes for this dramatic difference? These programs and others like them, focus on promoting free play. They nurture this independent spirit as a freezing man nurtures their campfire.

This line of thought has made me aware that the core change has to be with the school staff and environment. Teachers must become alarmed when their children are docile and obedient, quietly going about their assignments. Red flags should be popping up when we see children coming what their culture expects instead of who they truly are.

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